Poetry – Carol Ann Duffy





https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=srVoCfvS_1Q – Analysis of ‘War Photographer’

About the poet

Carol Ann Duffy was born on December 23 1955, in Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city. Carol Ann was the eldest child, and had four brothers. She was brought up in Stafford, in the north midlands, where her father was a local councillor, a parliamentary candidate for the Labour Party in 1983 and manager of Stafford FC, an amateur football team. Carol Ann Duffy was educated at St. Austin Roman Catholic Primary School, St. Joseph’s Convent School and Stafford Girls’ High School. In 1974 she went to Liverpool University, where she read philosophy.

She has worked as a freelance writer in London, after which she moved to live in Manchester, where she currently (2002) teaches creative writing at the Metropolitan University. Her first collection of poetry was Standing Female Nude (1985), followed by Selling Manhattan (1987), The Other Country (1990), Mean Time (1993), The World’s Wife (1999) and The Feminine Gospels (2002). She has also written two English versions of Grimm’s folk tales, and a pamphlet, A Woman’s Guide to Gambling, which reflects her interest in betting.

Of her own writing she has said:

“I’m not interested, as a poet, in words like ‘plash’ – Seamus Heaney words, interesting words. I like to use simple words but in a complicated way.”

She has a daughter, Ella (born in 1995) and lives in Manchester with her partner, the novelist Jackie Kay. Carol Ann Duffy was awarded an OBE in 1995, and a CBE in 2002.


Carol Ann Duffy

 Carol Ann Duffy is a Scottish–English poet who is the current British Poet Laureate, having been appointed to the role in 2009; it is also important to note that she is the first female and LGBT person to have this position. Her style is contemporary and she is renowned for giving voice to those who have been alienated or edited in history. Duffy also writes from a personal perspective about complex situations, but her use of language makes these works highly accessible and intriguing.

Although she was born in the Gorbals, Glasgow in 1955, Duffy moved to Staffordshire with her family at the age of six. She became a prominent poetic figure at the University of Liverpool and published her first collection, Standing Female Nude, in 1985. This was the catalyst for Duffy’s prolific public career, which has also encompassed many volumes of poetry for children.

In her current role as Poet Laureate, Duffy has written original poems that showcase her dry wit on topics such as the Olympics, climate change, political scandals, and Prince William and Kate Middleton, to mention a few. She is also doing highly significant work in raising the profile of poetry in Britain, most recently in co-ordination with the Queen’s Jubilee.

Duffy’s poetry has previously featured on both the Scottish and English curriculums; the addition of her work to the National 5 and Higher qualifications set text list highlights her prominence as a leading British writer.

Selected poems

The following Carol Ann Duffy poems have been selected for their representations of personas. They all describe experiences and/or the subsequent impact as told from an individual’s perspective.

  • ‘Valentine’ – explores the different stages of a modern relationship through the extended metaphor of an onion.
  • ‘Havisham’ – re-examination of Dickens’ character Miss Havisham and her bitter heartbreak, as evoked through brutal imagery.
  • ‘WarPhotographer’ – the damaging observations of conflict, its victims and its distant observers, told through the eyes of the photographer who captures the brutal images.
  • ‘Anne Hathaway’ – a sonnet that gives voice to Shakespeare’s ‘neglected’ wife. Here she tells her romanticised version of their relationship.
  • ‘Mrs Midas’ – examines the consequences of selfish and vain decisions in modern relationships, written using the myth of Midas and from the perspective of his fictional wife.
  • ‘Originally’ – Duffy’s personal poem about her experiences with dual identity. Her physical transition from Scotland to England is explored, as is the transformation from child into adult.


This poem is written in the first person. The speaker appears to be the poet, addressing her lover as “you”. In fact, Carol Ann Duffy wrote Valentine after a radio producer asked her to write an original poem for St. Valentine’s Day.(Valentine was published in 1993, in the collection Mean Time.) But the poem is universal: it could be from any lover to any beloved (for example, there is no indication of the sex of either the “I” or the “you”). The poem, on the surface, is about the giving of an unusual present for St. Valentine’s Day, but really is an exploration of love between two people. This is a good text to write about, because it has a single central image, which is developed throughout the poem: the onion is an extended metaphor for love.

The form of the poem supports its argument (the ideas in it) as Duffy uses single isolated lines to show why she rejects the conventional Valentines: “Not a red rose or a satin heart…Not a cute card or a kissogram.” Why not? Because each has long ceased to be original and has been sent millions of times. The symbolism of roses and hearts is often overlooked, while cards and kissograms may be expensive but mean little. As an artist, Ms. Duffy should be able to think of something more distinctive, and she does.

Duffy in effect lists reasons why the onion is an appropriate symbol of love. First, the conventional romantic symbol of the moon is concealed in it. The moon is supposed to govern women’s passions. The brown skin is like a paper bag, and the shiny pale onion within is like the moon. The “light” which it promises may be both its literal brightness and metaphorical understanding (of love) or enlightenment. The removing of the papery outer layers suggests the “undressing” of those who prepare to make love. There may also be a pun (play on words here) as “dressing” (such as French dressing or salad dressing) is often found with onions in the kitchen.

The onion is like a lover because it makes one cry. The verb “blind” may also suggest the traditional idea of love’s (or Cupid’s) being blind. And the onion reflects a distorted image of anyone who looks at it, as if this reflection were a “wobbling photo” – an image which won’t keep still, as the onion takes time to settle on a surface. The flavour of the onion is persistent, so this taste is like a kiss which lasts, which introduces the idea of faithfulness which will match that of the lovers (“possessive and faithful…for as long as we are”).

One visitor to this site (Cathy Savage) suggests an alternative reading here:

I have a different idea about “It will make your reflection/a wobbling photo of grief”. which, when I consulted my class, seems to sum up the female view of the lines, although the boys couldn’t see it straight off. When women cry, for some reason, they often go to the mirror – so, as far as the female contingent in my class and I can see, the lover is blinded with tears and staring in the mirror (believe me, your reflection is a wobbling photo of grief in these cases!).

The onion is a series of concentric rings, each smaller than the other until one finds a ring the size of a wedding ring (“platinum”, because of the colour). But note the phrase “if you like”: the lover is given the choice. Thus the poem, like a traditional Valentine, contains a proposal of marriage. There is also a hint of a threat in the suggestion that the onion is lethal, as its scent clings “to your knife”. The poet shows how the knife which cuts the onion is marked with its scent, as if ready to punish any betrayal.

Note the form of this poem: Duffy writes colloquially (as if speaking) so single words or phrases work as sentences: “Here…Take it…Lethal”. The ends of lines mark pauses, and most of them have a punctuation mark to show this. The stanza breaks mark longer pauses, so that we see how the poem is to be read aloud. The poem appeals to the senses especially of sight (striking visual images of light, shape and colour), touch (the “fierce kiss”) and smell (the “scent” clinging “to your fingers” and “knife”). The poem uses conventional Valentines as a starting point, before showing how the onion is much more true to the nature of love. The poem seems at first to be rather comical (an onion as a Valentine is surely bizarre) but in fact is a very serious analysis of love.

Lines 1–5

The speaker does not appear to like traditional gifts of love and instead wants to give a seemingly unpleasant and unusual gift of an onion. It is compared to the moon and has positive connotations of the hope felt at the start of a new relationship.

Lines 6–11

The speaker insists that the lover take the onion even if it brings sadness and tears. Just as an onion’s juices can make a person cry, so can the arguments and heartbreak that go along with the reality of modern relationships.

Lines 12–17

Rejection of traditional tokens of love is reinforced and repetition of the more realistic idea of an onion is given. The speaker embraces the passion that goes along with a modern relationship but also accepts that it may not last forever.

Lines 18–23

Explore how relationships can lead to marriage but may also end in heartbreak. The speaker acknowledges that the (often painful) memories of a relationship can stay with a person, just as an onion’s scent will linger.

Duffy Table

Duffy Table2


Her poetry has been the subject of controversy. She follows in the poetic tradition of, for example, Robert Browning, in writing monologues from the point of view of disturbed characters. Her poem Education for Leisure caused a huge debate when an exam board decided to withdraw it from an exam syllabus because of a complaint about its contents. Duffy often tackles difficult subjects, encouraging the reader to explore alternative points of view.

Duffy’s poetry is often feminist in its themes and approach. Her collection The World’s Wife took characters from history, literature and mythology and gave them a female point of view, as a sister, a wife or a feminised version of a character.

Valentine describes a gift for a lover, such as you would give on Valentine’s Day. It is a rather unusual present – an onion. The poem explains why it is a powerful gift of love, much more than the clichéd roses or box of chocolates.

The onion becomes a metaphor for love, and so the poem is about love as well as Valentine gifts.

Form and Structure

The poem is written in free verse. Each stanza is very short, and several are only one line long. This form echoes the form of an onion itself, and the layers that go to make it up. There is a sense in which Valentine is within the tradition of list poems, as the speaker tells you what the onion is, and then what it is like.

The poem is a first person narrative, in the form of a direct address to you. We don’t know who the you is, but perhaps, as it’s the kind of person who would normally receive a cute card it’s a woman.

Language and Imagery

The language of the poem is quite simple and straight-forward, particularly in the clear sentence structures that are often repeated. This reflects the idea of it being an honest love.


Valentine begins with a mixture of grand romantic imagery – the metaphor of the moon – and the everyday – the brown paper the moon is wrapped in. The very first stanza of the poem dismisses the clichéd, normal gifts of love, indicating that this will be a different kind of valentine.

There is a strong sense of danger in the imagery of the poem. The onion will blind you with tears, which is a comparison – using a simile – to what a lover will do, and even in affection there is a sense of danger in its fierce kiss. This culminates in the single word sentence in the middle of the final stanza: Lethal. This is emphasised by the fact that the final word of the poem is knife. There is a sense that love can be dangerous, perhaps in its possessiveness.

This is reflected in the idea that light is promised by the careful undressing of love – you must be careful with love to get its benefit, just as you must be careful with the onion. Throughout the poem the onion is a metaphor for love, developed in different ways. There is also an ambiguity in the poem as to whether it refers to the onion or to love.


The only alliteration in the poem is in the cute card and the red rose – the clichéd Valentines. Is Duffy implying something about the over use of alliteration in love poems?

Although there is no rhyme in the poem, there are some places where repeated structures mean that words are repeated, echoing each other. This represents both their ongoing love and the layers of the onion.

Attitudes, themes and ideas

The narrator of the poem dismisses clichéd ideas of love with the two single line stanzas that begin with the word not. There is an attitude in the poem that normal Valentines are not as honest as this one. The two single line stanzas in the middle of the poem contrast the idea of truthfulness with clichéd cards or kissograms. It is also more cynical about love: rather than promising to last forever, this Valentine will merely last as long as the two of them are possessive and faithful, like the onion. This is an unusual attitude for a love poem.

This, combined with the theme of love as being dangerous, makes for an unsettling tone to the poem. However, there is a sense that this is a more genuine and useful present, which suggests a practical love. The offer of a wedding-ring, in an offhand manner, also reinforces the idea that truthful love is the better sort.





Valentine is from a collection of poems entitled Mean Time (1993), and expresses love and affection in the form of a conceit whereby the symbol of love being offered by the speaker is an unconventional onion.

The poem challenges the stereotypical view of a Valentine’s gift when the speaker presents their lover with the metaphorical onion as a moon wrapped in brown paper.

This is reminiscent of metaphysical poets such as John Donne, who approached ordinary objects in original and surprising ways. The multi-layered complexity of the onion represents a real relationship and is used as an extended metaphor throughout.

The strangeness of this unusual gift, which can make a lover cry, highlights the negative as well as the positive effects of a deep and loving relationship. The forceful presentation of this gift, and the final word choice, also suggests this is a relationship which is cruel, domineering and menacing.

Form and structure

The poem is written in free verse using irregular stanzas to support its content and purpose, which is to reject traditional restrictive conventions such as marriage and other notions of love and to warn lovers that being overly possessive can have undesirable consequences.

While ostensibly a poem on the theme of love, Duffy deliberately avoids the use of language or imagery that we associate with this type of poetry. Instead, the words are often stark and monosyllabic to allow her to present her ideas clearly and unambiguously.

Stanzas one and two

The title itself, Valentine, initially suggests that this poem will deal with the fairly conventional notions of love with its connotations of flowers, hearts and romance.

However, the traditional idea as suggested from the title is subverted from the very beginning in the opening line: ‘Not a red rose or a satin heart.’ and in line 12: ‘Not a cute card or a kissogram.’ By inserting a negative at the opening of both these lines, the speaker is effectively dismissing traditional symbols of love and instead presents an object that is much more truthfully representative of love.

In the repetition of ‘I give you an onion’ in lines 2 and 13, the speaker emphasises the importance of this gift being accepted by their lover.


The use of the imperative commands ‘Here’ in line 6 and ‘Take it’ in line 18, further establishes the forceful character of the speaker.

The gift, the metaphorical onion, is described as ‘a moon wrapped in brown paper.’ Thus although initially puzzling and unconventional, the allusion to the moon does remind us of more traditional notions of romance.

The ‘brown paper’ refers both to the texture and colour of the outer layer of the onion as well as reminding us that real romantic gifts do not need to be embellished or concealed within expensive wrapping. The speaker is asserting then that the onion symbolises a positive aspect of love since it represents refreshing honesty and optimism, often experienced at the beginning of a relationship.

The line ‘It promises light’ also indicates that this will be an enriching and fulfilling relationship for both parties. This too conveys the optimism and hopefulness of lovers embarking on a new relationship.

The simile ‘like the careful undressing of love’ can be interpreted both as a reference to the sexual aspect of their relationship, and also the growth of their emotional bond which the peeling away of clothes and layers of personality may bring.

The word ‘careful’ suggests tenderness, affection, warmth and sensitivity between the lovers as they gradually allow external barriers to come down and expose their true selves to each other.

Stanza three

This verse opens with one commanding single word line: ‘Here.’

The full stop and solitary stance emphasise the forceful presentation of the gift.

However, this gift also bears a warning that ‘It will blind you with tears’ conveying the idea that this relationship may occasionally cause pain and make you cry, just as getting too close to a chopped up onion can bring tears to your eyes.

In this way, the speaker reminds us that the onion, just like a lover, can elicit pain and distress as well as love and passion.

An additional warning in the form of an extended metaphor follows with the words ‘It will make your reflection a wobbling photo of grief.’

This emphasises once more the vulnerability and danger people expose themselves to when they submit wholly and completely to a romantic relationship and reminds us of its destructive potential.

Stanza four

This harsh disclosure is further supported by a single emphatic statement: ‘I am trying to be truthful.’

In doing so, the speaker is perhaps attempting to justify all that has been said so far, and continues to stress the desire for honesty within the relationship. Through this openness and frankness, the speaker is attempting to stress the significance of truthfulness and honesty in the relationship.

Before this line, the speaker had described their love in mainly gentle terms to show the sincerity of their feelings, yet what follows is a change in tone to one which appears to be more brutal and threatening.

Through the use of the first person, the poet conveys the strength of feeling in the speaker in their desire for a relationship which is based on honesty.

Stanzas five and six


Having echoed the opening with a single line rejecting more stereotypical Valentine’s gifts of ‘a cute card’ and a  ‘kissogram’, stanza six then goes on to stress the speaker’s insistence that the onion be accepted by their lover: ‘I give you an onion.’


The full stop signifies a pause as the speaker awaits their gift to be received. As the poem continues in the line ‘Its fierce kiss will stay on your lips,’ the lover is attempting to articulate not only the romantic, positive aspects of love but its more negative, darker associations.

There is also the continued allusion to the senses through the taste of the onion which, just like some romantic relationships, is strong, unpleasant and difficult to erase.

Similarly while the word choice of ‘faithful’ has positive connotations of a trusting shared relationship, the word choice of ‘possessive’ signals a change in the relationship as it suggests an element of jealousy, distrust, control and insecurity.

Stanza seven

In stanza seven, Duffy builds to a penultimate climax with the speaker becoming even more insistent by using the imperative command in the words ‘Take it.’

The speaker then reminds us that traditional romantic relationships usually culminate in marriage which here is considered to be similar to a constricting death.


She compares the creamy white rings of the onion with the precious metal platinum loops of a wedding ring which over time will, like the onion rings, ‘shrink’ in size.

Here the poet is inferring that marriage requires an adjustment which may in fact restrict a person both physically as well as emotionally, warning others of the consequences of following conventions which can be destructive, diminutive and even unnecessary when compared to free romantic love.

The final stanza begins with the single minor sentence and powerful adjective ‘Lethal’ which reinforces the notion of imminent death to individuality, where a long-term union is pursued.

The ‘scent’ from this relationship has positive connotations of the pleasant smell of perfume, echoing back to the ‘fierce kiss’, and reiterating the fact that the memory of a deep relationship may last, even long after it has ended

However there is no doubt that even where powerful love is very difficult to forget, it may lead you into dangerous situations where the final outcome could be brutal and violent as suggested by the final word ‘knife’.

A knife can slice through an onion just as honest language can incisively reveal the truth concerning a loving relationship.


Like most of the poems in Duffy’s Mean Time collection, Valentine deals with those involved in damaged or irreconcilable relationships.

In Valentine, Duffy ends on a warning note that love can be ‘Lethal’ and so life-threatening, forcing the reader to confront the notion that a real love based on honesty and truthfulness can be painful and destructive as well as fulfilling and enriching.

The allusion to the negative aspects of conventional relationships suggests that, ultimately, they can often be restrictive to the individual, while a love which is free from such constraints is an ideal worth pursuing.

Try the testhttp://www.bbc.co.uk/education/guides/znhk7ty/test





Carol Ann Duffy explores the concept of love through unusual comparisons and imagery.

In ‘Valentine’, Duffy chooses to challenge the conventional symbols of love, namely the ‘red rose’ and the ‘satin heart’. This rejection of classic love tokens is indicated through the negative ‘not’ in the first stanza. Instead Duffy introduces the reader to her own symbol of love, the onion, which is unusual because the onion is a very unflattering, smelly, acidic and unromantic object. Duffy spends the rest of the poem proving to us how the onion is more faithful and reflects the true nature of love.

The poem itself is an extended metaphor about how the unromantic properties of the onion fits the notion of love. Each stanza also shows the different phases of love, how it begins with all the best intentions yet gradually deteriorates into misunderstandings and violence.

STANZA 1: Negative adverb ‘not’ indicates rejection of traditional symbols of love.

STANZA 2:  Duffy introduces alternative symbol of love; the onion. An unusual comparison, however Duffy begins to make valid connections by comparing the shape and colour of it to the moon.

Metaphor ‘a moon wrapped in brown paper’ refers to the romantic connotations that the moon carries. The moon influences the tides and all water on earth. Since 75% of the earth is water and our own bodies also contain the same amount, it means it also has an effect on our emotions too. In ancient mythology the moon was ruled by Diana, a goddess worshipped by the Roman women. She had two sides to her personality; the pure maiden and the huntress. She was believed to help pregnant women through labour, yet had a violent side to her. Duffy makes use of this in stanza 6 and 7, where love becomes a desperate hunt with violent imagery. However at this point, the image of moon/onion takes on a sensual image, and we have a hint of love-making as the beginning of the relationship.

Direct address – ‘I give you…‘, Duffy addresses the reader directly, giving the poem a personal tone.

STANZA 3: Beginning to explore the negative sides of love through similes and metaphors.
Direct address: ‘Here.‘ An offering of the onion to the reader. Very intimate, confident and bold.

Simile/ personification: ‘…blind you with tears like a lover‘. The onion is compared to a lover and the way love often leaves us in tears. A large part of being in love is also the risk of being left heart-broken. This connection is explored in the way an onion stings our eyes when we try to get to the ‘heart’ of it (cut it), the same way we may be stung by another person’s heartlessness.

Metaphor: ‘…make your reflection a wobbling photo of grief’. Imagery where we are looking ‘through’ the eyes of the upset lover who may be gazing at a their own reflection in the mirror and crying at the same time.

STANZA 4: A single sentence stanza that stands on its own. Duffy underlines how she is trying telling the bitter truth half-way through the poem. A line conveying honesty.

STANZA 5: Can be seen as the ‘second half’ of the poem and refers back to the first stanza.
Repetition: Both stanzas have the same syllable count (9), similar wording ‘Not’ and a rejection of two typical symbols of love ‘cute card‘ and ‘kissogram‘.

NOTE: Kissograms are not used now, but during the 70′s were popular. Kissograms were people who were hired on special days/ occasions like valentine’s day to go round and kiss the sweetheart on behalf of their lover with a special message.

STANZA 6: Images of jealousy and violence begin to creep into the notion of romantic love.

Repetition:  Mirrors the first line of stanza 2, carrying on with the pattern of repetition established in stanza 5.

Metaphor/ Personification: The onion is compared to a jealous lover and the way their kiss at this point in the relationship would be a mixture of passion and punishment. This is further illustrated through the way an onion’s smell clings stubbornly to our fingers when we cut it. The key word here is ‘possessive’, and this hints at obsessive love and how this is turning into an unhealthy relationship. One of the partners is evidently suffering from this claustrophobic relationship.

STANZA 7: Images of married life flash are introduced as Duffy implies that marriage kills romance and makes romantic love a chore or a punishment.

Direct Address: ‘Take it‘. Duffy is still addressing her readership in a bold and confident tone.

Metaphor: The loops of the onion are compared to a wedding ring that ‘shrink’ which implies being trapped. The loops are ‘platinum’, meaning a very precious metal, which is ironic because the onion is not at all precious or desirable. The words ‘if you like’ are added to show that the relationship could go in this direction, but it is not necessary for the things that will inevitably follow. The word ‘lethal’ is on it’s own, showing what the relationship has turned into and drawing attention to it.

The last two lines again imply the smell of the onion and introduces the knife. This is violent imagery which implies that the two lovers have become enemies. This is when the image of the moon (Diana) as huntress becomes relevant, as the dark side of romantic love (or the moon) reveals itself in the later stages of the relationship.




In this intense love poem Duffy rejects traditional symbols of love, such as ‘red roses’ or ‘satin hearts’ in favour of ‘an onion’. This suggests Duffy is criticising conventional ideas and empty gestures of love.

She is promising her lover, and the reader that her love is more original, honest and true.

Duffy shows her wit and poetic cleverness by managing to keep the extended metaphor of the onion being like her love going throughout the poem. By doing this Duffy turns an ordinary object, an ‘onion’ into an unusual symbol of love, and makes it seem a more appropriate symbol than traditional Valentine gifts.

How would you feel if a boy or girl friend offered you an onion on Valentines Day? Quite. Only Duffy’s confidence and intelligence prevent an onion being a disastrous Valentine’s present!

When you listen to the poem concentrate on the tone of voice. Then think about how you would describe it.

Duffy’s poem is structured around an extended metaphor comparing love and an onion.

In what ways is the onion like Duffy’s love?

Onion Love
It is round like a moon The moon is associated with Romance
Its skin is white It promises light – light is associated with truth, faith, beauty, innocence, etc.
You peel an onion Lovers undress each other
Causes tears Causes tears
Its taste is strong and lasting Duffy’s kiss is possessive and fierce
Onions have rings Relationship are often symbolised by a ring
The smell of onions will stay with you So will her love

Duffy creates a sense of an intimate conversation by using the words ‘I’ and ‘you’ as if she is talking personally to the reader. By starting lines in the middle – ‘Not  a red rose’ – it seems as the conversation has been going on for some time. The use of the present tense suggests it is happening now and she is handing something over – ‘here’ ‘take it’ – to someone present.




This poem is a monologue spoken by Miss Havisham, a character in Dickens’ Great Expectations. Jilted by her scheming fiancé, she continues to wear her wedding dress and sit amid the remains of her wedding breakfast for the rest of her life, while she plots revenge on all men. She hates her spinster state – of which her unmarried family name constantly reminds her (which may explain the choice of title for the poem).

Summary of Poem

She begins by telling the reader the cause of her troubles – her phrase “beloved sweetheart bastard” is a contradiction in terms (called an oxymoron). She tells us that she has prayed so hard (with eyes closed and hands pressed together) that her eyes have shrunk hard and her hands have sinews strong enough to strangle with – which fits her murderous wish for revenge. (Readers who know Dickens’ novel well might think at this point about Miss Havisham’s ward, Estella – her natural mother, Molly, has strangled a rival, and has unusually strong hands.)

Miss Havisham is aware of her own stink – because she does not ever change her clothes or wash. She stays in bed and screams in denial. At other times she looks and asks herself “who did this” to her? She sometimes dreams almost tenderly or erotically of her lost lover, but when she wakes the hatred and anger return. Thinking of how she “stabbed at the wedding cake” she now wants to work out her revenge on a “male corpse” – presumably that of her lover.


The poem is written in four stanzas which are unrhymed. Many of the lines run on, and the effect is like normal speech. The poet

  • uses many adjectives of colour – “green”, “puce”, “white” and “red” and
  • lists parts of the body “eyes”, “hands”, “tongue”, “mouth”, “ear” and “face”.

Sometimes the meaning is clear, but other lines are more open – and there are hints of violence in “strangle”, “bite”, “bang” and “stabbed”. It is not clear what exactly Miss Havisham would like to do on her “long slow honeymoon”, but we can be sure that it is not pleasant.


HAVISHAM is an exploration of love turned to hatred through the bitterness of rejection and was inspired by Miss Havisham, a character in Charles Dickens’ novel, GREAT EXPECTATIONS. Dickens is my favourite novelist. Once a beautiful heiress, Miss Havisham had been jilted by Compeyson and had lived ever since in her wedding dress amongst the decaying ruins of her wedding feast at Satis House, Rochester, where she brought up her protegee Estella to despise men. She paid for Pip’s apprenticeship and he believed her to be his secret benefactor. He rescued her from nearly burning to death; but when she later died she left almost all her fortune to Estella. In my poem, the title is HAVISHAM, to indicate a move away from “Miss” Havisham- ie this is my creation now, not Dickens’- and the poem is in Havisham’s voice. Havisham is a woman driven mad with loss and rejection and the poem is a hymn of pain and rage as she moves in and out of dream and awakening, always remembering the love of her life who jilted and betrayed her. In many ways, HAVISHAM as a poem is the opposite of ANNE HATHAWAY.


Free verse. No rhyme scheme or formal metre and the poem ordered into 4 4-line verses against which restraint the violent tone and imagery of the poem push. The jerky rhythm of the lines is dictated by the voice of the character, a voice filled with pain and bitterness. In the opening line of the poem the punctuation has been removed to emphasise this passionate intensity (“Beloved sweetheart bastard…”) and lack of control. This device is used again in the third verse when the woman dreams of lovemaking (“…my fluent tongue in its mouth in its ear/ then down till I suddenly bite awake…”). Some internal rhyme or half-rhyme is used as the poem moves towards its ending (“awake”, “hate”, “face”, “cake”, “breaks”) to end on the chord of the final “b-b-b-breaks”.


The first two words of the poem are common romantic endearments (‘beloved, sweetheart”) which are immediately followed by the angry and aggressive word “bastard”. Thereafter, the poem is the opposite of a love poem. Bodies are described harshly and negatively-Havisham’s eyes are “dark green pebbles”; the veins on her hands are “ropes”; her body “stinks”; and at the end of the poem, the body of her beloved is described as “a male corpse”. Havisham’s mind has been unbalanced and the words used to describe other things in the poem mirror this- “yellowing”, “trembling”, “slewed”, “puce”, “bursting”. Havisham’s language has been affected by the pain of rejection- (“cawing Nooooooo at the wall”; “puce curses that are sounds not words”;)- and it is only when she dreams about the time when she and her lover were together that she feels “fluent”. From the first “bastard”, the vocabulary of the poem is harsh- “dead”, “hard”, “strangle”, “stink”, “curses”, “bite”, “hate”, “bang”, “stabbed”, “corpse”- and the very last word of the poem is deliberately fractured to show that Havisham’s mind and spirit have been broken as well as her heart. (“Don’t think it’s only the heart that b-b-b-breaks.”)


Miss Havisham


This poem comes from the collection Mean Time, published in 1998. It probably provided the inspiration for Duffy’s first themed collection of poetry The World’s Wife (1999), in which she considers the often neglected women behind some of the most iconic male figures from history, literature and legend.

The speaker of this dramatic monologue is the fictional Miss Havisham from Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. Jilted by her lover, Miss Havisham spends the rest of her life decaying in her wedding dress amid the remnants of her wedding breakfast, grooming her beautiful niece Estella to exact revenge on all men.
The title of the poem, her unmarried surname, reveals her self- loathing and bitterness at being denied the epithet of Mrs and being forced to live the remainder of her life as a spinster.

Form and structure

The poem is written in four unrhymed stanzas. Duffy has said that she enjoys the way stanzas help her to concentrate and fix her ideas more effectively, and has described them as being almost like mini-canvases.

The lack of rhyme and the presence of enjambment help to create a more defined voice in the poem. However, while this can often produce a more natural, realistic speech pattern, in this case it has the opposite effect: Havisham’s voice is choppy and stilted, which emphasises the lack of order and structure to her thoughts.

Similarly, although at first glance the poem looks fairly regular, there is no fixed meter. This, and the occasional slightly off-kilter half rhymes and assonance, help to reinforce this lack of logic and the erosion of the speaker’s psyche.

Stanza one

The poem opens with the oxymoronic minor sentence Beloved sweetheart bastard revealing without ambiguity the focus of the speaker’s hatred and emphasising the expletive. The alliteration of the plosive ‘b’ sounds creates the impression that the words are almost being spat out, helping to create the caustic, bitter tone that runs throughout the poem.

This entire stanza is a kind of curse, detailing the extent to which she wishes her former lover dead through the all-consuming nature of her hatred. She is literally stuck in time, paralysed as a ridiculous parody or imitation of a bride whose love has been rejected by her fiancé.

In giving a voice to Miss Havisham then, Duffy clearly exposes the terrible, corrosive effects of such an experience on the human psyche. She has prayed so earnestly for his death, with her eyes tightly shut and her hands clasped together, that her eyes have become dark green pebbles and the veins on the back of her hands protrude likeropes.

Green, of course, is the colour of envy and jealousy and if the eyes are the windows to the soul, the pebble imagery suggests that hers is now cold, dead and hard.

The reference to strangling her lover is an allusion to Dickens’ novel, in which Estella’s natural mother strangled a rival with her unusually strong hands.


Stanza two

Miss Havisham still wears her wedding dress

This stanza opens with the word Spinster spoken like a profanity or insult. It is deliberately isolated in a sentence on its own to emphasise Miss Havisham’s own feelings of isolation in a society in which women were often defined by their marital status.

As the wedding dress decays on her year after year she is left only tostink and remember the pain inflicted on her by her lover’s rejection.

The yellowing dress imitates her emotional atrophy and, like the green mentioned earlier, Duffy exploits the negative associations of the colour with decay. The onomatopoeic Nooooo reveals the extent of the speaker’s anguish after she was jilted as she recalls viewing herselffull-length in the slewed mirror and asking who did this.

She no longer recognises the image that appears before her and the deliberate word choice of slewed shows how the world that she once knew and felt she belonged to is now similarly unfamiliar and strange.

This emphasises just how entirely out of place and alien she feels inhabiting her new persona as a spinster. In this stanza, the construction and order of the lines and words is deliberately jumbled and confused to emphasise the speaker’s irrationality and her muddled, tormented state of mind.

She presents herself as the victim – this was a wrong that was done to her and she is determined to exact revenge. The irony is that this quest and lust for vengeance is utterly self destructive and only exacerbates her pain.

Stanza three

The completion of the question in the enjambment between stanzas two and three reinforces the continuation of her suffering.

Again, Duffy chooses the colour puce with its negative associations of disease and fever to create synaesthesia, when one sense, in this case sight, is used to describe another, the sounds of the speaker’s curses.

Her hatred has left her almost mute, unable to articulate her emotions through language, and instead she can only vocalise her bitter anger through sounds not words. However, in an abrupt change in direction, a glimpse at the softer side of the speaker is revealed in the next two lines: Some nights better, the lost body over me my fluent tongue in its mouth in its ear.”

In contrast to her ineptitude with language now, she recalls how her tongue used to be fluent when she could skilfully use it to seduce her lover. Even here though the strength of her hatred continues to permeate and sour all of her most pleasant memories.

The deliberate choice not to use pronouns for her lover – instead ofhis she uses the and its creates a sense of distance from him, while simultaneously depriving him of his humanity, and therefore makes it easier for her to continue to hate him.

The stanza concludes with the violent interruption of her dreams: till I suddenly bite awake.

The use of the present tense in the verb bite reminds us that, despite the passing of years, her anger and bitterness have not abated and are just as raw today as when she was first jilted.

In addition, the choice of the word bite could also imply that she bites her tongue in her sleep, helping to explain her current inability to articulate herself or, even more sinisterly, that she fantasises about inflicting pain on her lover by biting him.

Stanza four

Again enjambment is used at the end of stanza three with the wordLove’s running incongruously into hate in the fourth. In doing so, Duffy exposes just how inextricably linked these two seemingly opposing emotions are. There is something almost possessive, distinctive about the specific and enduring type of hate that is provoked through the betrayal of love.

The white veil normally associated with the purity and virginity of a bride has now become something that the speaker hides behind. Although she clearly identifies herself as the wronged, innocent party in this image, she cannot maintain it for any length of time as there is an almost immediate contrast in the next image of the red balloon bursting. This violent metaphor represents the speaker’s heart and the rage and hatred that now consumes her.

The plosive ‘b’ in balloon,bursting and bang emphasises the suddenness and shock of this experience as her dreams were so abruptly and irrevocably shattered.

The isolation of the onomatopoeic Bang in its own sentence also serves to awaken the speaker from her reverie and prompt her back to the miserable reality of her present existence.

Hate is the only emotion she is now able to feel. Without it she would be utterly numb and so in many ways it is only by preserving and nurturing her loathing and hatred that she has a purpose to her life.

As the stanza continues, Duffy subverts our usual happy associations of weddings into another violent image by describing Miss Havisham stabbing at the cake. As the cake lies there decaying, it reminds us that like Miss Havisham, it too has never fulfilled its purpose.

Just as the cake was never consumed, so too Miss Havisham’s marriage remains unconsummated and, like her, the cake continues to stagnate and atrophy. The penultimate line of the final stanza is loaded with sinister, perhaps even necrophiliac undertones: Give me a male corpse for a long slow honeymoon. Again, she subverts our usual associations of the honeymoon with joy and happiness into something much more menacing.

The final line of the poem though is more poignant: Don’t think it’s only the heart that b –b –breaks. The last word is broken up not only to imitate the sound of the speaker finally breaking down in anguish, but to emphasise the extent of her mental and emotional disintegration.

This hatred and anger have consumed and destroyed every other aspect or facet of her personality so that she is now little more than an empty husk.



The key theme in this poem is the corrosive nature of hatred on the human psyche. In giving Miss Havisham a voice outside of Dickens’ novel, the poet is able to crystallise perfectly how the single event of being jilted can completely shatter and destroy a human being, and erode any love or compassion that could once be felt.

The mood throughout is bitter and caustic as Duffy clearly conveys how love can quickly be replaced with hatred and violence.

The wedding imagery, the cake, the dress and the honeymoon, are all used to reinforce how quickly experiences and events associated with joy can be soured and become toxic symbols to feed and nourish hatred instead of love.

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Anne Hathaway


Anne Hathaway (1556-1623) was a real woman – famous for being the wife of William Shakespeare. (We do know some things about her – she was nine years older than her husband, but outlived him by seven years. They married in 1582, when Anne was already pregnant, and had three children together. Although Shakespeare spent many years working in London, he made frequent visits to their home in Stratford-upon-Avon.)

In the poem Anne sees her relationship with Shakespeare in terms of his own writing. She uses the sonnet form (though she does not follow all the conventions of rhyme or metre) which Shakespeare favoured. She suggests that as lovers they were as inventive as Shakespeare was in his dramatic poetry – and their bed might contain “forests, castles, torchlight”, “clifftops” and “seas where he would dive for pearls”. These images are very obviously erotic, and Ms. Duffy no doubt expects the reader to interpret them in a sexual sense. Where Shakespeare’s words were” shooting stars” (blazing in glory across the sky) for her there was the more down-to-earth consequence of “kisses/on these lips”.

She also finds in the dramatist’s technique of “rhyme…echo…assonance” a metaphor for his physical contact – a “verb” (action) which danced in the centre of her “noun”. Though the best bed was reserved for the guests, they only dribbled “prose” (inferior pleasure) while she and her lover, on the second best bed enjoyed the best of “Romance/and drama”. The language here has obvious connotations of sexual intercourse – we can guess what his verb and her noun are and what the one is doing in the other, while the guests’ “dribbling” suggests a less successful erotic encounter.

The poem relies on double meanings very like those we find in Shakespeare’s own work. It gives a voice to someone of whom history has recorded little. The language is strictly too modern to be spoken by the historical Anne Hathaway (especially the word order and the meanings) but the lexicon (vocabulary) is not obviously anachronistic – that is, most of the words here could have been spoken by the real Anne Hathaway, though not quite with these meanings and probably not in this order.

  • What does this poem say about the nature of imagination?
  • Explain, in your own words, how the central image of the “second best bed” works in the poem.
  • How well does the poet adapt the sonnet form here?
  • In what ways does this poem appeal to the senses?
  • Is this poem more about Anne or her husband, or is it about them both, as a couple?
  • Does this poem change the way you think of William Shakespeare?


ANNE HATHAWAY is taken from THE WORLD’S WIFE. Anne Hathaway was Shakespeare’s wife. She was born at Shottery near Stratford-on-Avon in 1556 and died in 1623. Shakespeare had married Anne, who was pregnant, when he was 18. They had three children together. Although she was seven years older than him, William Shakespeare died before her in 1616. In his will, despite being a man of considerable property, he specified that Anne was to receive only his “second best bed”. This has generally been perceived as a deliberate insult, a way of demonstrating that Shakespeare had been unhappy in the marriage.

In this sonnet, I am taking the opposite view of the instruction in Shakespeare’s will, and imagining that the second best bed was a place of passionate love and delight. On a simple level, the poem is a tribute to Shakespeare and in particular his sonnets. Although the poem is “in the voice” of Anne Hathaway, it also draws on my own experience of sexual and romantic love. The woman in the sonnet is recalling the joys of lovemaking, which took place in the “next best” bed when her husband was alive. The poem asserts the timelessness of great love- how even death can’t erase the living memory of love.


ANNE HATHAWAY is in sonnet form- fourteen lines, using regular metre and a more relaxed rhyme scheme than a strict Shakesperean sonnet- sometimes assonance (“world/words”; “kisses/seas”), sometimes no rhyme, and a full rhyme in the closing couplet (“head/bed”). There is occasional use of alliteration (“living, laughing, love”) or buried rhymes (“taste/best”; “dozed/prose”) which is intended to suggest the random touching of lovemaking- the words, as it were, touching each other within the poem! The sonnet form, or a variation of it, is one I like to use when wriiting love poems or elegies- ie poems with a universal theme. The sonnet reminds me of a prayer- something short and easy to memorise.


Obviously the language here is not Elizabethan, it is the language of now, so the “Anne Hathaway” of my poem is a more contemporary woman than the real Anne Hathaway. I have tried to keep the language of the poem sensual- “pearls, stars, kisses, lips, softer, assonance, touch, romance, scent, taste.” In the sonnet, the woman compares her lover’s lovemaking to the art of writing or poetry. Her body is “a softer rhyme” to his body; her body is an ”echo” or assonance” to his. Literary or linguistic terms become sexual acts- so the lover’s hand on an erotic part of her body is “a verb dancing in the centre of a noun”. She imagines he has “written” her- perhaps it is as his beloved that she feels most full alive? In the “best bed”, commonly then as now given to the visitors, their guests are described as “dribbling their prose”- that is to say, the guests are not experiencing the superior poetry of the lovemaking in the second best bed. In one way, the whole poems is a metaphor comparing love and poetic creativity. Anne’s memories of their love are held in “the casket” of her “widow’s head”- more alive than the ashes of a dead body in a cremation urn or casket.



This poem, like Mrs Midas, comes from The World’s Wife, Duffy’s first themed collection of poems.

In this set of poems, Duffy considers both real and fictional characters, stories, histories and myths that focus on men, and gives voice to the women associated with them.

Although Havisham was published a year earlier, it makes a good comparison with this poem since both take the perspective of a woman living without her lover – Havisham having been jilted at the altar, while Hathaway has been widowed.

Anne Hathaway was the wife of William Shakespeare. She was seven years his senior and already pregnant when the 18-year-old, Shakespeare married her.

The room in which William Shakespeare was born

The “second best bed”

The poem begins with an epigraph taken directly from Shakespeare’s will in which despite being a man of some considerable property, he leaves Anne only his “second best bed”.

While some critics have viewed this as an insult, Duffy presents a new perspective, using the bed as a metaphor for the intense passion and romance shared by the couple. The second best bed was in fact the couple’s marital bed, while the best was reserved for guests. Duffy imagines, then, that this legacy was the playwright’s last romantic gesture.

Form and structure

Fittingly, Duffy employs the sonnet form so adored by Shakespeare. This 14-line structure is often associated with love poetry, and is highly appropriate given the subject matter of the poem. Shakespearean sonnets contain three quatrains and a couplet.

The quatrains usually present the key ideas explored by the poet with the resolution or ‘volta’ (an Italian term which literally translates as: the turn) arriving in the couplet.

In the poem, Duffy quite literally employs a softer rhyme with a much more relaxed, less restrictive rhyme scheme, combined with overtly sensual, erotic language and imagery. She uses a regular meter but her deliberate choices of assonance and alliteration are designed to imitate the random touching made during love making, so that it is almost as though the words themselves are grazing each other.

Duffy makes frequent use of enjambment in the poem to show how freely and without obstruction love flowed between the couple, as well as to place emphasis on important words or phrases.

The entire poem is a metaphor comparing the couple’s love making to the process of artistic and poetic creativity.


Item I gyve unto my wife my second best bed …”

Extract from William Shakespeare’s will

The poem begins with this actual extract from Shakespeare’s will. Although many critics consider this legacy an insult to Hathaway, Duffy uses it as the catalyst for the poem and imbues the bed with a much more magical and sensual meaning.

First quatrain

The bed we loved in was a spinning world of forests, castles, torchlight, clifftops, seas where we would dive for pearls. My lover’s words were shooting stars which fell to earth as kisses.”


Immediately the reader is transported to a magical landscape filled with metaphor, especially appropriate given that Shakespeare himself was the master of this technique.

The bed is a spinning world suggesting their love made Anne dizzy and was all encompassing.

Interestingly, despite bearing him three children, the persona of Anne created by Duffy makes no reference to this aspect of her marriage focusing on their relationship as lovers rather than as parents.

The forests, castles, torchlight, clifftops, seas recalls the setting of some of Shakespeare’s more famous works such as Macbeth, Hamlet and The Tempest, suggesting a link between these iconic works of literature and the poetry which together are echoes of the excitement that took place in this bed.

In their lovemaking, the couple found something precious and valuable, as implied by the pearls in line three. This intimate, sensual tone is continued in the metaphor comparing her lover’s words to shooting stars which fell to earth as kisses.

Hathaway was seduced by her lover’s language and poetry, which literally seems to fall from the heavens as though a gift from the gods before transforming into the physical touch of a kiss.

In this opening quatrain then, Duffy clearly illustrates the intensity of the romantic, passionate relationship of the two lovers.

Second quatrain

On these lips; my body now a softer rhyme to his, now echo, assonance; his touch a verb dancing in the centre of a noun. Some nights, I dreamed he’d written me, the bed.”


In this quatrain, Duffy extends the language metaphor – Anne’s body is a softer rhyme to her husband’s harder, more masculine body, while the erotic touch of his hand on her body is described as a verb dancing in the centre of a noun.

This deliberate comparison elevates their lovemaking to something poetic and, in doing so, literary or linguistic terms become loaded with sensuality. Anne imagines too that, like the characters in his plays, Shakespeare has ‘written her’, suggesting that it is only when she regards herself through his eyes and imagination that she feels fully alive.

The reference again to the bed at the end of line eight creates a link to the opening line of the poem and reinforces the symbolic significance of the bed as a representation of their love.

Third quatrain

A page beneath his writer’s hands. Romance and drama played by touch, by scent, by taste. In the other bed, the best, our guests dozed on, dribbling their prose. My living laughing love.”


The enjambment from line eight continues the extended metaphor from the previous quatrain as the bed is compared to the parchment on which the passion and excitement so associated with the playwright was written.

All the romance and drama contained in these pages was played out or begun on their bed, and again Duffy implies that the inspiration for his characters and plots came from their lovemaking. The wordromance is deliberately placed at the end of line nine to emphasise that this is what she most associates with their relationship.

The senses touchscent, and taste are employed to reinforce just how vividly she can still recall their lovemaking, as though through immersing herself in these memories she can experience this passion once more

In a marked contrast, she compares the poetry and sensuality of their lovemaking with those who slept in the other bed. In a withering, disparaging comment she asserts that they are only capable ofdribbling their prose. The implication is clear – poetry symbolises the most skilful and creative use of language while prose by comparison is ordinary, utilitarian and unexceptional.

At the end of this quatrain, Duffy employs elongated assonance in the phrase My living laughing love to emphasise again how vividly and clearly the speaker can recall their passion, suggesting that her lover continues in some ways to exist and survive in her memory. The dash creates a pause to allow us to reflect on this idea and prepare us for the resolution and the final couplet.

The couplet

I hold him in the casket of my widow’s head as he held me upon that next best bed.”


The final couplet ends with the masculine full rhyme of head andbed to provide a defined conclusion to the poem.

The metaphor of holding her lover in the protective casket of her imagination reiterates the idea presented in the previous line that, in our way, our memory of a deceased loved one allows their continued existence.

Duffy seems to suggest that this is much more fitting than an urn or coffin which, although they may contain the physical remnants of a body, can never capture the energy or vitality of the person’s character. By remembering her husband, and replaying her memories of their passion, the speaker is really honouring his true legacy and repaying him for the way that he held her in that next best bed.


This poem deals has three main themes:

  • passion
  • sensual erotic love
  • death and remembrance

In the poem, Duffy really concentrates on conveying that this was a marriage based on an all – encompassing, deeply physical relationship. She uses the physical legacy of the bed left by Shakespeare to his wife to meditate on this specific aspect of their relationship.

In doing so, she presents a couple completely in tune with each other both sexually and emotionally.

Fittingly, in a poem about the world’s greatest ever poet and wordsmith, she uses language itself as an extended metaphor to convey the intensity of their passion.

As well as emphasising the profound physical connection of the lovers, Duffy also considers that the most fitting way to honour our dead loved ones is by preserving the most enduring, vivid aspects of their character in our memories, thus allowing them to continue to survive.

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