"A Picture of Otto" begins with a direct allusion to another poem: "Daddy," which was written by Hughes's former wife, the famous American poet Sylvia Plath. In her poem, Plath addresses her dead father, Otto, and accuses him of being a cold-hearted, devilish tyrant who brutally oppressed her:
You stand at the blackboard, daddy,
In the picture I have of you,
A cleft in your chin instead of your foot
But no less a devil for that [...]
In the same poem, Plath declares that she sought out a copy of her father in her husband—Ted Hughes, the author of this poem. Plath compares both men to Nazis and torturers:
I made a model of you,
A man in black with a Meinkampf look
And a love of the rack and the screw.
And I said I do, I do.
With this one simple allusion, then, Hughes conjures a huge amount of backstory—backstory that he will challenge and complicate throughout the poem.
This is likely to be the picture of Otto to which both poems refer. Hughes sets up the poem with a description of the picture, portraying Otto in his element as a professor and providing some biographical information:
- Otto had initially trained to be a Lutheran minister (Lutheranism is a branch of Protestantism that follows the teachings of 16th-century German Martin Luther), but his interest in biology was far stronger ("manqué" means failed or unfulfilled). He studied and wrote extensively about bees, as the rest of the stanza makes clear.
- This scientific study altered Otto's religious framework—his "idea / Of Heaven and Earth and Hell."
- The enjambment between line 3 and line 4—"radically / Modified"—dramatizes this shift from religion to science.
All of this detail isn't pointless poetic fluff, but rather an attempt to humanize Otto from the start. Hughes is subtly trying to undo Plath's depiction of her father by giving the reader an idea of Otto's life story.
There's also some important symbolism at work here:
- Honey bees behave as a community, one big family in which individuals are in service of a greater goal.
- They also prioritize the protection and well-being of the queen bee, so their mention here might subtly refer to Hughes's implication that Plath's portrayal of the two men lacks context or is somehow unfair (as in, it prioritizes her perspective ahead of theirs).