Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros6.1Baring Skills, Not Soul: Carol An...

Baring Skills, Not Soul: Carol Ann Duffy’s Intertextual Games

Catherine LANONE


Maîtrisant à merveille la contre-interpellation ludique dans The World’s Wife, Carol Ann Duffy  est réputée pour ses jeux intertextuels et ses réécritures féministes des grands mythes, donnant la parole aux figures féminines que l’histoire effaçait pour faire triompher le féminin et rire du masculin. Mais son recueil Rapture, publié en 2005, s’écarte radicalement du modèle féministe pour tenter une appropriation plus discrète de la tradition pétrarquisante de la poésie amoureuse. Resémiotisant les clichés, jouant sur une simplicité incantatoire, Duffy pratique ici l’écho plutôt que la réécriture, dans un dépouillement sensuel, explorant amour puis désamour au rythme d’une poésie qui emprunte au jazz ses variations fluides ou syncopées.

Haut de page

Notes de l’auteur

Note added by Catherine Lanone and Marc Porée on 27 May 2009
The photo of Carol Ann Duffy was added on the occasion of this note.
The first female Poet Laureate
Since this article was published last year, Carol Ann Duffy has been much in the limelight, moving from scandal to public honours. Indeed, in the Fall, her controversial poem “Education for Leisure” was banned from the GCSE syllabus. She was accused of promoting knife-crime by critics who missed the point of a poem which leads from flushing a goldfish down the toilet to random murder: “Today I am going to kill something. Anything./I have had enough of being ignored and today/I am going to play God.” Censorship did not prevent Duffy from becoming the first woman ever to be appointed Poet Laureate, joining after 341 years of male domination the likes of Dryden, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Ted Hughes or Andrew Motion. Although she was overlooked ten years ago because of Tony Blair's doubts, her time has now come; the prestigious distinction, however, is also controversial, since the job entails conventional celebrations of royal activities which hardly bode well for the rebellious, openly gay female activist. In a BBC 4 interview, she acknowledges that she had qualms about accepting the job: “I think my decision was purely because there hasn't been a woman, and I kind of look on this as a recognition of the great women poets we now have [...] so I've decided to accept it for that reason.” Duffy hopes to preserve her freedom and artistic integrity and limit lines on royal events. Whether she succeeds or not, her appointment is a major step for women and women poets, as times are a-changing in Britain.
Carol Ann Duffy gave her first interview as Poet Laureate on BBC 4:

Texte intégral

  • 1  Though she was a close contender, Andrew Motion was nominated, on account of Tony Blair’s dismay a (...)

1Not having been chosen as Poet Laureate,1 Carol Ann Duffy has escaped stuffy canonization, but she remains a prominent figure of contemporary British poetry. For Deryn Rees-Jones, the secret of Duffy’s appeal lies in her use of everyday English, her wicked sense of humour and clarity:

The snappy sentences, and apparent simplicity of her work, however, do not prevent Duffy from addressing complex philosophical issues about the function of language and the construction of the self, or from dealing with a wide range of issues, from the effects of sexism, racism, immigration, domestic violence, and social disaffection, to the complexities of love. (Rees-Jones 1)

  • 2  An image used by Duffy in “Originally” (Duffy 1994, 65).

2Among the issues tackled by Duffy, one may wish to focus on Duffy’s intense awareness of gendered cultural constructs, and her attempt to appropriate the great tradition which she subverts, mostly by revisiting the dramatic monologue. Though undeniably fruitful, laying bare devices and hypotexts may appear a somewhat systematic game. To borrow words from another Scottish poet, Liz Lochhead, the reader often feels that Duffy is baring skills rather than soul, in a dazzling display of wit. In her 2005 collection of poems entitled Rapture, however, Duffy moves back towards an apparently more naive, more intimate and subjective kind of poetry as she chronicles her affair with fellow poet Jackie Kay. The progress from dramatic monologue to Petrarchan rewriting leads her to probe female language and identity, but also into the very nature of intertextuality, creating dialogic patterns so that her tongue, perhaps, sheds “its skin like a snake”2 and truly comes home.

3Duffy’s early experimentation with intertextuality and ways of voicing forbidden female desire has led her to revisit famous figures, like Charles Dickens’s Miss Havisham, a Victorian version of abject resentment. Duffy drops the infamous “Miss” so that the title shrinks to “Havisham”, but the persona remains close to Dickens’s gaunt woman clad in a yellow dress and yellow veil, carefully staging her despair and disarray. As Duffy has it, the “poems in Mean Time are about the different ways in which time brings about change or loss” (Duffy in Rees-Jones, 44). Duffy points out that “mean” refers to average, but also, one might add, to meaning, recasting previous patterns to draw new insights, as the passing of time has changed the reading of Miss Havisham’s character. Thus “Havisham” takes the reader into an eponymous “mean time”, both a time of meanness and bitter anguish, and the in-between “meantime” of life-in-death as the jilted woman, helplessly trapped in a time warp, keeps performing the scene of abandonment:


Beloved sweetheart bastard. Not a day since then

I haven’t wished him dead. Prayed for it
so hard I’ve dark green pebbles for eyes,
ropes on the back of my hands I could strangle with.

Spinster. I stink and remember. Whole days
in bed cawing Nooooo at the wall; the dress
yellowing, trembling if I open the wardrobe;
the slewed mirror, full-length, her, myself, who did this

to me? Puce curses that are sounds not words.
Some nights better, the lost body over me,
my fluent tongue in its mouth in its ear
then down till I suddenly bite awake. Love’s

hate behind a white veil; a red balloon bursting
in my face. Bang. I stabbed at a wedding-cake.
Give me a male corpse for a long slow honeymoon.
Don’t think it’s only the heart that b-b-b-breaks.

  • 3  “Autant dire qu’un grand écrivain est toujours comme un étranger dans la langue où il s’exprime, m (...)

4The poem attempts fragmentation, as the stuttering last line recalls Miss Havisham’s insistence on her broken heart, the venomous words she whispers to a stunned Pip in Dickens’s novel. Here, with the heart, the self splits, a glimpse of alienation which recalls the nineteenth-century topos of the reflection of self as other (see for instance the mirror scenes in Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights). The enjambment stresses estrangement: “full length, her, myself, who did this/to me?” Commas puncture the line, distancing “her” and “myself”, pointing to an impossible mirror stage. The door swivels to reveal the “slewed” mirror, the axis of anamorphosis decomposing the former bride-to-be into a monstrously aged woman, with petrified eyes (or “dark green pebbles”, a colour connoting envy and jealousy) and veins turned into ropes ready to strangle (the image blends Dickens’s Miss Havisham and Molly, Estella’s mother, whose throbbing hands may strangle). The lewd lure of the “slewed” mirror slays identity. The run-on line, distancing the abject image (“this”) and the sense of self (“me”) also suggests that dejection, division and frustration must be blamed on the heartless deceiver but also on Miss Havisham herself, on her pent-up anger. Language stumbles on such frustration. First of all, the speaker fails to shape her anger into the coherent syntax of pain. The verb “caw” expands the graphic emptiness of “Nooooo” into a harsh inarticulate animal sound. The spondaic synaesthesia (“Puce cur/ses”) endows the broken expressions of pain with the dark red colour of dry blood: “Puce curses that are sounds not words”. The unexpected signifier “puce” implicitly triggers a conceit which ironically recalls Donne’s flea, a metaphor of happy sexual intercourse (etymologically, the colour is derived from the French word “puce”, that is to say a flea). The speaker fantasmatically explores the lost body, “my fluent tongue in its mouth in its ear / then down till I suddenly bite awake”. Penetrating the male body, the speaker’s tongue bites, the ghost of a flea indulging in a fantasy of castration which awakening cuts short.  Other interruptions are significant, as they create the affect of a ruptured life; for instance, bite and body are opposed to the “red balloon bursting”, an anachronistic image encapsulating disappointment, not with a whimper but with an ironic “Bang” which stands on its own, between full stops, and both completes and shatters the alliteration in [b]. Similarly, the word “spinster” stands on its own, a single unit or fragmentary sentence which encapsulates loneliness, and is then decomposed into the symptoms of abjection, the very real stench which Dickens fails to mention yet which must be associated with the corrupt dress and cake: “Spinster. I stink and remember.” The ludicrous gesture (stabbing at the wedding cake) the murderous wishes (wishing him dead, wishing for a honeymoon with a corpse) are entwined with mingled expressions of love and hate, as if Duffy wished to focus on enduring desire as much as on barren revenge. Hence the oxymoronic shift stressed by the run-on line (“Love’s / hate behind a white veil”) or the opening address, twisting endearment into insult: “Beloved sweetheart bastard.” The ternary rhythm is striking but somewhat facile. The interesting dramatic monologue rephrases Miss Havisham’s pain, answering Dickensian grotesque with a modernized sense of inner split and entwined love and hate. But language fails to reach the stuttering impulse defined by Deleuze, the becoming-other of language3. The pattern cannot quite “b-b-b-break”. Parody needs to become more innovative to be truly convincing.

5The World’s Wife expands Duffy’s experimentation with the dramatic monologue in the manner of Browning. In this humorous book, Duffy adopts a post-modern feminist stance with a vengeance, so that the whole collection must be taken with a pinch of salt. The title recalls George Eliot’s famous definition of gossip: “Public opinion, in these cases, is always of the feminine gender— not the world, but the world’s wife” (Eliot 1996, 490). In the 1994 edition of her Selected Poems, Duffy had initially added to this early definition of gendered prejudices the subtitle “in progress”, as if her poems were a kind of work in progress, a revision of archetypal scenarios in order to allow the female characters— who were not part of the story to begin with— to reclaim both speech and existence, not to mention sexual power.  The poems vary in length and topic, tackling formidable figures with delight. “Mrs Darwin”thus fittingly originates in a zoo, with a wife’s contemptuous casual remark written down in a diary entry, mocking the Great Victorian figure but also recalling and mimicking the attention paid by gender criticism to diaries as a private female space allowing intimate counter-discourse:

Mrs Darwin

7 April 1852.
Went to the Zoo.
I said to Him—
Something about that Chimpanzee over there reminds
       me of you. (Duffy 1999, 20)

6Capital letters equate the almighty “Him”  (the capital letter might connote a worshipped husband) and the “Chimpanzee”. Deprived of a capital letter, on the other hand, “me” is a free agent bouncing and asserting itself as the last line begins.

  • 4   See Angela Carter’s well-known claim in her 1983 essay  “Notes From the Front Line”.

7Like Angela Carter before her, Duffy is in the demythologizing business.4 She subverts whatever she considers to be part of the canon shaped by the male gaze. She thus picks King Kong as an archetypal narrative in order to revisit the “beauty and the beast” fantasy, by turning Kong into a female gorilla while the helpless victim is male, a toy boy used to scratch and rub, to have and to hold —in the palm of a gigantic furry hand— happily ever after on the top of the Empire State Building— until he dies and is objectified, worn like a jewel, “with tiny emeralds for eyes” (Duffy 1999, 33), a parody of the hackneyed enshrining of women as works of art.  Similarly, Duffy’s Tiresias is a far cry from T.S. Eliot’s enigmatic blind old man with female breasts, “throbbing between two lives” (Eliot 1963, 71). He shrinks into a pathetic cross-dresser getting the body right but the voice wrong, moaning about period pains. The beginning of “Mrs Tiresias” dramatizes the wife’s surprise with down-to-earth irony:

All I know is this:
he went out for his walk a man
and came home female.  (Duffy 1999, 14)

8The feminized dramatic monologue subverts His/story into Herstory, addressing archetypal tales and Greek mythology as cultural constructs. Duffy’s view of the canon might be defined in terms of interpellation, to use the concept defined by Lecercle and derived from Butler and Althusser: “Language and the encyclopaedia work together in order to produce the sedimented reality from which the subject derives her social being, her self— the identification she lives by” (Lecercle 182). The poems appropriate canonized discourse in order to achieve counter-interpellation. The mythical male figures are cut down to a ludicrous size, like Midas, “the fool/who wished for gold” (Duffy 1999, 12). Once again, the tone is deliberately robust and colloquial. The empowered wife is saved by common sense, as she watches her world turn to gold:  

I locked the cat in the cellar. I moved the phone.
The toilet I didn’t mind. (Duffy 1999, 12)

9Leaving Midas in a caravan, thin and somewhat delirious, the wife goes away, and of course, ironically, what she misses most is   

Even now, his hands, his warm hands on my skin, his touch. (Duffy 1999, 13)

10“Mrs Lazarus” revisits the Gospels, turning the miracle of resurrection into a Gothic story of Kristevian abjection. After struggling through loss and grief, clawing at stones and retching her grief (the verbs imply the physical intensity of mourning) the widow has come to terms with despair, and duly forgotten about her former husband (“Then he was gone. Then he was legend, language;” Duffy 1999, 49). This is the moment when he returns from the dead, a “croaking” “cuckold” in a “rotting shroud”: “He lived. I saw the horror on his face” (50). Not content with transfocalization and making up the wives of formidable mythic figures, Duffy also wishes to revisit actual historical wives like the much-maligned Anne Hathaway. The epigraph, a quote from Shakespeare’s will bequeathing to Anne the second best bed, triggers a sonnet depicting Anne and Will’s passion, challenging the traditional view of Anne as a forsaken shrew. The universe of Shakespeare’s plays and poems seems contained in the “spinning world” of the bed; whereas guests’  dreams are but dribbled prose in the best bed of the household, the second-best bed is the stage of  a “drama played by touch, by scent, by taste”. The metaphors equate love-making and writing:     

[…] my body now a softer rhyme
to his, now echo, assonance; his touch
a verb dancing in the center of a noun. (30)

11The web of metatextual metaphors, the Elizabethan pearls and punning, suggest a longing for a more sensuous kind of poetry, and a desire to meet the Shakespearian legacy on its own ground. The 2005 collection entitled Rapture thus shifts away from mythic female subjects and parodic appropriation, exploring other ways of being both enraptured and displaced, carried away.  

12Choosing to write a sequence of poems leading from love to loss of love, Duffy must tackle the problem of tradition, as is suggested by “Syntax”, where the speaker longs to use the archaic forms “thou” or “thee”, not only to pay tribute to the beloved and voice true love, but to prompt the circulation of words, to jump start love poetry, preventing both heart  and language failure (“Love’s language starts, stops, starts;/ the right words flowing or clotting in the heart”, Duffy 2005, 53). The hackneyed question of rephrasing what must needs be a cliché runs through the collection, which dares utter words of love and attempt to retrieve them from triviality. How may a poet redeem not only a worn-out poetic tradition, but the most banal of utterances, “I love you”, words which have become almost taboo, so steeped in sentimentality, pathos and bathos, they seem? Poem after poem, Duffy self-consciously addresses this question (and thereby tradition) through a playful intertextual dialogue. Like Sidney, Wyatt, Shakespeare or Donne before her, she dabbles in conceit, paying tribute to the great Petrarchan tradition which she shamelessly revives. In “Hour”, for instance— a deliberately traditional fourteen-line sonnet complete with rhyme scheme and pentameters—, Duffy’s pun on love, time and money has distinct Shakespearian overtones:

Love’s time’s beggar, but even a single hour,
Bright as a dropped coin, makes love rich.
[…] Time hates love, wants love poor […] (Duffy 2005, 7)

13Similarly, a modernized syllepsis blends figurative and literal meaning, as “an hour together” is spent “not on flowers / or wine”, but on the boundless sky (Duffy 2005, 7). The web of images (coin, jewel, blade of grass, cuckoo spit) is slightly updated by the shift from chandelier to spotlight or the incongrous “millionaires”, but the poem thrives on tradition rather than denies it. Interestingly enough, the poem also descends from Duffy’s earlier sarcastic systematic revisionary vignettes. The poet’s persona is a new kind of Mrs Midas, turning the loved one into an ecstasy of gold, with the brush of a hand, of a word on the page (“the Midas light / turning your limbs to gold”, Duffy 2005, 7). Transience is transcended by sensuous bliss, as the adverb “now” fills up a whole sentence, transfixing time with the intensity of the moment (“than here. Now. Time hates love”) or as the incongruous juxtaposition of “thousands” and “seconds” captures the sense of infinite expansion (“For thousands of seconds we kiss”, Duffy 2005, 7). In a typical feminine shift, the last line refuses to rhyme, breaking the mould of the holy couplet, shifting from mythology and canonical poetry to fairy tale in order to assert the force of femininity:

than here. Now. Time hates love, wants love poor,
but love spins gold, gold, gold from straw. (Duffy 2005, 7)

14The sonnet is reclaimed, as “hour” becomes “our” (“so nothing dark will end our shining hour”, 7), the poet’s persona has made the poem “ours”, belonging to her lover and herself, but also to the reader, while the ternary rhythm “gold, gold, gold” adds its stitch to the tapestry of echoes which characterize Rapture as a collection, whether one thinks of the name (“rhyming, rhyming, /rhyming with everything”, 3), of itemized kisses (“hungry for this, /and this, and this,/your living kiss”, 13), or of the very words turned into a ritual incantation and thereby recalled to life and meaning (“the first”, “the second, the third, like a sacrament, / like a pledge, like a kiss,”, “I love you, I love you, I love you—  /as though they were new”, 31).

  • 5  Duffy’s conceit recalls Thomas Hardy’s fascination with relics of lost love, such as a photograph, (...)

15In this incantation which bears the fitting metatextual title, “Finding the Words”, Duffy experiments with discreet syncopation. Catherine Clément defines syncope as a weak musical beat between two strong beats, a kind of hesitation or dissonance, a whirling eclipse of the self akin to fainting— a concept which may highlight Duffy’s own definition of linguistic rapture in “Finding the Words”. The poem hinges on a conceit which turns words into gold rings left in a drawer;5 syllepsis endows the words with a very concrete, literal dimension, as if they were indeed tangible objects which may be held in one’s hand:

I found the words at the back of a drawer,
wrapped in black cloth […] (Duffy 2005, 31)

16The words are held, touched and kissed, rubbed until they gleam. Once discarded “like three rings / taken from a dead woman’s hand” (presumably the speaker’s, who forgot what their purpose was), the words are picked up, warmed, breathed upon, till they ring true. The gap between the stanzas enhances this process of revival, creating that slight hesitation, that elusive temporary absence or suspension which Clément defines as syncope. The end of the line, as it were, occurs off-beat, after a blank, a gap, the first time to signal eclipse, unbeing, the death of the heart, the second time to turn the unclosable gap into the potential site of desire, where language may break free. This is the first moment of dissonance:

[…] I had held them before,
                                             years ago,
then put them away, forgetting whatever it was
I could use them to say. […] (31)
The site of loss is then replaced by the wordless space of the kiss of life:

Like a pledge, like a kiss,
                                            And my breath
Warmed them, the words I needed to utter this, small words,
And few […]  (31)

17In both cases, the blank forces the reader to take a breath, shifting the rhythmic balance of the lines.

18In “The Love Poem” (58-59), syncopation becomes systematic. Quotations from famous canonical love poems are pushed aside, uttered off-beat, like doodled fragments in the margins of Duffy’s text, which seems like a jazz variation answering each of the embedded quotes. The modern poem plays on dissonance, rupture, the poet’s persona’s stanzas are broken by the quotes which are in turn interrupted and split at times by the run-on lines (hence the use of certain fragments which are jarringly reinserted within the main text on the left-hand side of the page, such as “with me” or “and write”). Duffy chooses a wide range of quotes, from the Biblical Song of Songs  (“Behold, thou art fair—”) to various examples of Petrarchan poetry, taken from Wyatt, Sidney, Raleigh, Shakespeare or Barrett Browning, not to mention the more obscure allusions to Scott or Campion. “The Love Poem” thus creates spectral echoes, as overly familiar quotes necessarily trigger the rest of the line in the reader’s memory, superimposing invisible echoes on the unexpected lines by Duffy which follow. Such is the case for the fragment taken from Shakespeare’s counter-blazon (“my mistress’ eyes”) —where the reader spontaneously adds “are nothing like the sun”, whereas the text actually reads “to lie on a white sheet”— or for Raleigh’s playful invitation to “come, live with me and be my love”— where the pastoral landscape in which the lovers “will all the pleasures prove” is both recalled and inverted by the waterfalls of syllables and the “pool of verse” — or for the litany of Barrett Browning’s ecstatic love sonnet “let me count the ways”— where part of the opening line, which is supposed to lead towards the climactic ending where love triumphs over death, is juxtaposed with the dismal “or shrink to a phrase like an epitaph”, a mocking collage which seems to signal the very death of poetry, as well as the end of love. Dashes replace quotation marks, a visual pause or delay which is also part of the process of syncopation, forcing the reader to take a breath, start off-beat, turning quotes into a kind of temps mort. Besides, the poem as a whole is syncopated by the anaphoric structure, which divides the poem into three sections or stanzas which begin with “Till”, though the subordinate is never followed by a main clause.

19The blank spaces create a jazzy beat, as the poem hovers between absence and presence, stitching quotes haphazardly, fragments shored against the ruins of language, allowing yet preventing renewed expression, as the speaker’s voice is trapped in compulsive repetition (“love’s lips pursed to quotation marks”). Ironically, even this metatextual anguish is a topos, conjuring up Sir Philip Sidney biting his “truant pen” (“look in thy heart / ) and write”). But the anguish also springs from the death of love itself; as rapture vanishes, language tumbles “from its own high clouds”, benumbed words shun the blank page (they “lie on a white sheet” like an abandoned body). In the second stanza, the poet’s persona is doomed to repetition, merely “kissing a line”, nothing remains but shadowy ink; in the third stanza, however, Duffy revives the topos of the poem transcending love and time, so that if love cannot be found “there”, it may still live in the mind, in a poem, “known by heart like a prayer”. Donne, the Bible and Shelley buttress the stanza, leading to the oxymoronic echo and the Shelleyan round-off:

both near and far,
near and far—
                               the desire of the moth
for the star. (59)

20Thus Duffy’s jazzy variations update the Petrarchan tradition, entwining presence and absence. In the opening poem of the collection (fittingly addressed to the lover, “You”), uttering the lover’s name is performative, “like a charm, like a spell” (a theme which is expanded in “Name”), triggering with Blakeian energy the metamorphosis of the lover into a tiger leaping among the speaker’s “camouflaged rooms “ and “long grass of routine” (note how the commas simulate the feline pace of the lover, “Into my life, larger than life, beautiful, you strolled in”) so that the poem may end on both presence and contact (“There you are/ on the bed, like a gift, like a touchable dream”, 1). A number of poems celebrate recognition and love-making, like “Fall”, for instance, where gold leaves and yellowing grass are associated with sexual ecstasy, or the eponymous “Rapture”, a sonnet which equates requited love with perfect rhyme shifting from loss to bliss, or “If I Was Dead”, an elegiac memento mori, in which the itemized scattered body —eyes, bones, skull and heart— is drowned but resurrected by love, a playful rewriting of the Lazarus motif leading to ecstatic kisses this time, not the horror of “Mrs Lazarus” (incidentally, the poem includes an allusion to a “red, red rose” leading to a heart which “burned”, a casual echo of Robbie Burns). Love is a ritual, a ceremony described in mystical terms in “Epiphany” or in “Grace” where the totemic heron acts as a priest, allowing incarnation as the soul “[swoops]” into the skin, recalling in “River” marriage or baptism (“I part the leaves and they toss me a blessing of rain”, 5). But uncertainty seeps in, as for instance Duffy’s lovers, like Edith Piaf’s, may find a hotel room with a soft light, but also death in the bargain (the repetition of “cold” at the end and at the beginning of a line locks out hope), since their exile leaves no other way out (the lovers “disembark from their lives”, “homeless ,/ with no country to sail to”, 24). Traditionally called upon to celebrate the lover’s beauty, elements are now used to recreate the body which vanishes, teasingly, tantalizingly beyond reach. While “World” creates a beautiful conceit in the manner of John Donne, as the lovers exchange not hearts but night and day, passing the moon like a cup, rolling the sun, exchanging bouquets of clouds in a trans-continental affair or courtship which creates cosmic harmony, absence gradually creates a more painful longing which the elements strive to compensate; in “Rain”, the rain is used to materialize a spectral face, a presence which kisses neck, palm, and ultimately the body which is missed through the slightly ironic magic of syllepsis and simile: “And the rain came down like a lover comes to a bed” (9). In “Bridgewater Hall”, though the lover is simply attending a concert on the other side of town, the rain parts the partners “like a veil”, the speaker’s hand is held and filled by drops which spill “like a broken rosary”, connoting broken vows. Air replaces rain in “Hand”, where the run-on line denies the separation which is being asserted (“Not there”), recreating presence step by step (“Away from you, I hold hand with the air, / your imagined, untouchable hand”, 15). “Absence” is an incantation where the rhythmical, anaphoric repetition of “Then” attempts to create moments of intensity, transmuting absence into presence, opening lines of flight in the landscape which recreates the beloved’s presence. Sun, bee, trees, river, all shape a face rather than a land; another anaphora, the recurrent verb “is”, stitches landscape and beloved as the second line of each verse itemizes the body, like a blazon:

“is your gaze”
“is your skin”
“is your opening hand”
“is your mouth”
“is desire”
“is a garment discarded”
“is your tongue”
“is your breath”
“is your kiss, your kiss”  (10-11)

  • 6  “All faces develop an unknown, unexplored landscape; all landscapes are populated by a loved or dr (...)

21The echoing kiss lingers upon an embrace enhanced by the traditional image of the cherry, but the poem goes beyond a mere blazon, seeking to create the intensity of deterritorialization rather than mere comparison, spinning what Deleuze calls “face-landscape” (Deleuze 173), a process of becoming.6

22But the attempt is reterritorialized by anger. In “Row”, the landscape is merely personified, in a series of sorrowful figures mourning the lovers’ quarrel, such as the sun banging the gate or the trees tearing their leaves. The anaphoric line “But when we rowed” slashes the poem, the magnetic ternary rhythm is inverted (“our mouths knew no kiss, no kiss, no kiss”, 18) and the last line (“love turned, and ran, and cowered in our heads”) seems to parody the rhythm of Yeats’s rewriting of Ronsard:

[…] how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars. (Yeats 41)

23 Humour turns into bitterness. The emblem of modern love, the cell phone, appears in the second poem of the collection as a latter-day version of love poetry, with its shorthand version of affect, broken, ephemeral soothing messages  (“We text, text, text/our significant words”, Duffy 2005, 2).  But the mobile is held “like an injured bird” which soon dies (“I clutch the small stiff body of my phone”, 36), or works as a weapon in the grotesque drawn-out conceit “Quickdraw” where the two phones become guns, a mock western or parody of the Petrarchan equation between love and war. Dismissing rapture, the collection tackles the death of love, in a poignant attempt to come to terms with loss, an attempt which recalls for instance Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art”, in which the poet’s persona teaches herself to bear loss by practicing, losing something every day, keys, a watch, cities, and of course, ultimately, the object of love:

the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster. (Bishop 178)

24Duffy’s fourteen-line “Art” petrifies feelings, syncopation (the dash in the opening line) is replaced by a dull rhythm leading to jarring dissonance (“and where my soul sang, croaking art” (Duffy 2005, 60), which connotes the hoarse sound of a crow replacing the emblematic heron, but also, in cynical slang, art which kills or dies).  The penultimate poem of the collection, “Unloving”, gives a lesson in loss which recalls Bishop’s. The anaphoric imperative “learn” hammers home the need for stoicism. The landscape is both personified and itemized, but this time it bespeaks only indifference, “lifeless as Latin verbs” (61). Former emblems reappear, but the correspondence between landscape and love is shattered, with a merciless distance reminiscent of Thomas Hardy’s dark blighted world: the speaker must learn from the trees, from the river, from a dead heron and a crow cursing, from a “dumbstruck garden” stripped of its fairy-tale glamour (“not a Beast’s rose”), from the deceptive heart-shaped stones “perfect with relentless cold”. Even prayers vanish, though rain and clouds, which used to connote a mystical embrace and unity, remain:

from the torn veil of a web;
                                                         from our daily bread:
perpetual rain, nothing like tears, unloving clouds;
language unloving love; even this stale air
unloving all the spaces where you were. (61)

25The speaker becomes a kind of Lady of Shalott entranced by her broken web, threads of meaning undoing themselves, spinning madly, as the adjective “unloving” severs language from love, rain from affect, places from memories, like a knell tolling, as if nothing remained.

26The last poem of the collection bears a fitting metatextual title, “Over”, signalling the end of the collection, and  apparently confirming both loss of love and loss of words. Indeed, “Over” may be considered as a kind of palinode, rewriting the happy mood of “December”. Whereas “December” ended on a Keatsian “bright star” (“my” signalling both poetic appropriation and sensuous consummation), the night is now dark, the garden an open grave, the moment almost unbearable, so keen is the sense of absence. Yet the word “rapture” discreetly reappears in the epigraph, a quotation from Browning which celebrates the power to sing twice, to recall and therefore “recapture” rapture. The poem is not over but “twice over”, through the miracle of repetition; the ephemeral marriage (with its “ring of grass”) is gone, yet it may be recalled, bringing the memory of rapture, a kind of happiness in itself, not ecstasy but a song, something which pierces and moves, like Barthes’ punctum. The bird in the quotation is a far cry from Hardy’s “darkling thrush”,  heralding monstrous modernity. Browning’s thrush is simply “wise”. Forgetting about Browning’s dramatic monologues, Duffy simply keeps the echo of his voice, recapturing both intertextual rapture and textual and emotional balance. The collection comes full circle, echoing the moment of awakening conjured up by the opening poem, where the uninvited thought penetrated the speaker’s dream, mingling name and tears; in the very last poem, the speaker awakens, and stands by the dark window, yet the name may be uttered again; though the curse of loss cannot be broken, its magic is revived, “the sound of its bright syllables / like a charm, like a spell” (1). The name is now associated with a bird’s song, a symbol of inspiration, like Keats’s nightingale, bringing to mind the correspondence between lover and landscape achieved in the opening lines of “Absence” (“Then the birds stitching the dawn with their song / have patterned your name”, 10). Though the early poem “Forest” uneasily recalled Keats’s “Belle Dame Sans Merci”, leaving the speaker “lost”, all alone in the thorny forest,  the last poem strays from the banks where no birds sing. The simple sentence “I say your name again” quotes “Name” (“I love your name / I say it again and again”, 3), a performative utterance which defies death and brings back, if not Eurydice, the treasure of memory, repeating the pattern of the blissful gift which runs through the collection, so that both poem and collection end on a bird song and the significant “first” light of dawn rather than the gloom of loss:

[your name] is a key, unlocking all the dark,
so death swings open on its hinge.
I hear a bird begin its song,
piercing the hour, to bring first light this Christmas dawn,
a gift, the blush of memory. (62)

27Thus the collection has come full circle, following the cycle of seasons, leading from a happy to a sad Christmas, a chronological pattern which suited Duffy, as she acknowledges in interviews. Refusing to disclose the female gender of the beloved, Rapture strays from feminism and experiments with rhythm, an achievement which is confirmed by Eliana Tomkins’s successful musical transposition (though some poems are unexpectedly weakened, like “December” which is transformed into a naive Christmassy story, Tomkins’s husky voice and jazzy beat neatly fit Duffy’s world).  Instead of merely challenging the tradition of male poetry, Duffy chooses to quietly appropriate it, using intertextuality as a playful but powerful weapon, like other contemporary female poets, as Marc Porée points out: “On se réjouira de les savoir libérées du spectre de la poétesse écorchée vive ou suicidaire (Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton) et de les voir se mesurer à la poésie des hommes, engageant avec eux un dialogue serré par le biais de l’intertextualité” (Porée 315)…

Haut de page


Bishop, Elizabeth. The Complete Poems 1927-1979. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983.

Clément, Catherine. Syncope: The Philosophy of Rapture. Trans. Sally O’Driscoll,

Deirdre M. Mahoney. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994.

Deleuze, Gilles; Guattari, Felix. A Thousand Plateaux. [1987]. Trans. Brian Massumi. London: The Athlone Press, 1988.

Deleuze, Gilles. Critique et clinique. Paris : Minuit, 1993.

Duffy, Carol Ann. Mean Time. London: Anvill Press Poetry, 1993.

——. Rapture. London: Picador, 2005.

——. Selected Poems. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1994.

——. The World’s Wife. London: Picador, 1999.

Eliot, George. The Mill on the Floss [1860], Oxford World’s Classics, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Eliot, T. S.  Collected Poems 1909-1962. London: Faber & Faber, 1963.

Lecercle, Jean-Jacques. Interpretation as Pragmatics. London: Macmillan, 1999.

Lochhead, Liz. Dreaming Frankenstein & Collected Poems. Edinburgh: Polygon, 1984.

Porée, Marc. “La Force de la poésie au féminin”. Etudes Anglaises 60 3 (2007) : 304-316.

Rees-Jones, Deryn. Carol Ann Duffy. Plymouth: Northcote House, 1999.

Yeats, W.B. The Poems. Ed. Richard J. Finnernan. New York: Macmillan, 1989.

Haut de page


1  Though she was a close contender, Andrew Motion was nominated, on account of Tony Blair’s dismay at Duffy’s open blurring of gendered boundaries.

2  An image used by Duffy in “Originally” (Duffy 1994, 65).

3  “Autant dire qu’un grand écrivain est toujours comme un étranger dans la langue où il s’exprime, même si c’est sa langue natale […] il taille dans sa langue une langue étrangère et qui ne préexiste même pas. Faire crier, faire bégayer, balbutier, murmurer la langue en elle-même.” (Deleuze 1993, 138)

4   See Angela Carter’s well-known claim in her 1983 essay  “Notes From the Front Line”.

5  Duffy’s conceit recalls Thomas Hardy’s fascination with relics of lost love, such as a photograph, a miniature (“A Forgotten Miniature”) or a lock of hair (“On a Discovered Curl of Hair”). The motif of the gift runs through Duffy’s collection, from the gift of sorrow (“Grief, your gift, unwrapped”) (49) to the gift of joy (unwrapping bodies in the dark as a Christmas gift in “December”, turning into the precious/painful memory of “Over”).

6  “All faces develop an unknown, unexplored landscape; all landscapes are populated by a loved or dreamed-of face, develop a face to come or already past” (Deleuze 1988, 172-173).

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Catherine LANONE, « Baring Skills, Not Soul: Carol Ann Duffy’s Intertextual Games »E-rea [En ligne], 6.1 | 2008, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2008, consulté le 26 novembre 2022. URL : ; DOI :

Haut de page


Catherine LANONE

Université de Toulouse, UTM, CAS

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur


Creative Commons - Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International - CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Haut de page
  • Logo Laboratoire d’Études et de Recherche sur le Monde Anglophone
  • DOAJ - Directory of Open Access Journals
  • OpenEdition Journals
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search