“Valentine” by Duffy

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In “Valentine”, Duffy uses the onion to give an original and, in some ways, a shocking view of love: “Not a red rose or a satin heart” – she ignores the cliches and opts for something more dramatic and powerful. This is the first line of the poem, and it automatically gives a negative impression, as the first word in the poem is negative – ‘not’. Also, the title of the poem is very misleading. One would expect to read of romantic love, instead she writes about cynical love, suggesting that she may have been hurt in previous relationships.

The first line is not part of a stanza, so we can assume that the poet wants this part to be emphasised. The poem starts by telling you what it is not about, then what it is about.

We learn that the poet has chosen to give her lover an onion as a valentine’s gift. She uses the onion to symbolise love. Duffy is deliberately trying to be unconventional in her gift of onion as an onion is not usually associated with a love poem. She uses an extended metaphor to convey this idea. “I give you an onion, it is moon wrapped in brown paper.” With this literary device, she creates an air of mystery. “It promises light, like the careful undressing of love.” In this metaphor, Duffy cleverly uses repetition of the ‘I’ sound to create an exotic feeling. She adds to this feeling by referring to undressing, which could be viewed as being sexual. She also uses the moon as a metaphor, which is a usual representation of love.

Further in the poem, the use of the word “here” makes the reader feel that the poet is in control. This almost seems forceful, and it makes the reader pay attention because it has one syllable. Also when saying the word, you have to take a breath before and after. She continues with the extended metaphor “it will blind you with tears.” Not only will the onion make your eyes water, the pain caused by a loved one will make you cry too. She is referring to the pain and heartache sometimes associated with relationships. Also, she could be suggesting that the pain can make one feel bitter and disillusioned. “It will blind you with tears like a lover. It will make your reflection a wobbling photo of grief.” Everyone knows that onions make you cry when not handled properly, and Duffy is comparing handling an onion to the fragile structure of love.

She explains that she does not want to be unkind to the receiver by giving this kind of gift. She uses a single line to emphasise its meaning and mood: “I am trying to be truthful.” It is almost like Duffy is responding to an unimpressed comment by her lover through declaring her honesty. She stakes this claim that she is realistic further by saying: “I am trying to be truthful”. She is using alliteration, and the repetition of the ‘t’ sound gives it the feeling of sincerity. In the next line she says: “Not a cute card or a kiss-o-gram”. Duffy again uses a negative technique to start the line. This line is saying that an onion is not a typical gift.

In the next verse, Duffy repeats a line again: “I give you an onion.” This line may be repeated to make sure that the reader can see what the underlying message is and also to again remind the reader how unusual the gift is. Duffy then moves on to write about the properties of an onion, but she links these properties to her theme: “Its fierce kiss will stay on your lips”. This means that the bitter taste of an onion remains on a person’s lips just like the memory of a kiss can stay with someone forever. She also suggests that love does not always last forever, and that a partner can cheat on the other at any time: “Possessive and faithful as we are, for as long as we are”. Duffy starts her last stanza with a single sentence: “Take it”, insisting that her lover accept her gift.

In a sense she puts down marriage. She compares the loops of an onion to a wedding ring, and implies that marriage can reduce the love and passion that two lovers share with each other – surely, a thought from a personal experience. The next line is a single word: “Lethal”. Here Duffy either wants the readers to think that marriage will ultimately lead to death or divorce, or she has written it sarcastically to the lover, maybe because he thinks marriage is meaningless. She adds to her lovers thoughts by saying: “Its scent will cling to your fingers, cling to your knife” where she is stating that love has such a possessive grasp on her, it clings to her. Also that people from a broken marriage or love, will continue to experience heartache, pain and bitterness. “Its scent will cling to your fingertips, cling to your knife”. The repetition of the word ‘cling’ is effective. The word ‘knife’ gives the image of a wound and the sharpness of their relationship. This may be due to the fact that Carol Ann Duffy has been hurt in previous relationships.

In addition to the content, there is also much variation in the form and structure between the poems.

To His Coy Mistress is a 46 line poem that is divided into 3 stanzas. As the poet is trying to advance an argument, it can be seen as a solid structure for a poem of this kind because it doesn’t give the reader many pauses, and so keeps the atmosphere constant throughout the poem. The tempo of the poem can be understood to be quite a medium-fast one. This rhythm works against the slow, enduring structure of the poem to make it a very logically structured/formed poem as the rhyming couplets at the ends of the sentences and the regular rhythm help to keep the argument moving and undermine its logic too.

Rhyming couplets are used to try and set the pace of the poem. These couplets used in conjunction with his elaborate ideas are there to try and confuse the lady and for her make an on the spot decision. These lines also make the lady rush, which is ironic as the main theme of the poem is about time. This rhyming couplet scheme binds together the three separate stanzas by the tightness of the AA BB rhyming scheme.

The poem is structured in three parts to logically develop the argument, for example at the beginnings of each stanza we have “had we; but at; now therefore”.

Furthermore in the poem, the speaker is trying to convince the listener to go to bed with him. Therefore the tone is insincere, as the speaker says anything to argue his case. Also with the concept of death in the middle part of the poem, the overall tone is also melancholic. There is also a change of tone specially in the second section of the peom, where Marvell’s mistress is accused of ‘bad taste’.

On the contrary, Valentine is a poem which has a mere 23 lines and no stanzas. This is because free verse lyric is used instead, where Duffy uses a series of observations and then links them throughout the poem by their common theme. Also, Duffy doesn’t write in sentence forms throughout – she uses disjointed phrases or even a single word. So the poem does not have a regular form and the lines and stanzas are of irregular length. Here, Duffy could be suggesting that love cannot be ‘ordered’ and ‘regular’. It also infers to the reader that Duffy’s thoughts are going directly onto the paper, which gives the poem a certain kind of urgency. It can also be a very simple reason – that she doesn’t want give in to another stereotype of writing a traditional poem which rhymes and is very regular.

Free verse lyric therefore gives this poem a reasonably fragile structure compared to the solid stanzas of To His Coy Mistress.

However, this is an effective structure for this poem as the speaker is not trying to convey a clear argument unlike in To His Coy Mistress. The whole poem instead depends on the extended metaphor of the onion. “I give you an onion” says the speaker and various aspects of this onion are discussed as the poem develops, each with a particular significance for love. As if to make up for its lack of structural firmness; as the main metaphor is the onion itself, the subsidiary metaphors appear one by one in each stanza, so the structure becomes more complex instead. Valentine has a normal meter, much like the tempo of the way we normally speak. It is like this because of the fact that unlike in To His Coy Mistress where rhyming couplets are used at the end of each sentence, there are no rhyme patterns in Valentine. Most of the poem sounds as if the lines are natural and spontaneous, being written down by the poet as they come to her. Despite this, some of the sounds are still carefully arranged, like when she writes: “Its fierce kiss will stay on your lips.”

Because an onion has a fierce and tangy taste similar to a passionate lover, who has a fierce kiss. The ‘s’ sounds may suggest a sinister-like mood, or can even sound like a couple kissing.

Additionally, as much as the form and structure is of importance, so is the historical context. The historical context affects the language of the poem too.

To His Coy Mistress was written in the 17th century. Andrew Marvell wrote this poem while he was a tutor for a young lady called Mary Fairfax. This young lady might have been inspiration for him, and could have been the ‘mistress’ who is talked about in the poem.

“Courtly love” was also very popular during the 17th century. Men in these times used to try and woo women by writing extravagant love poems to them; most were adoring the women’s bodies and flattering them by describing their beauty. Most of this was done without any reaction from the women. Some 17th century poetry mocks this courtly love by saying that there is no need for it and it just wastes time, as we see in To His Coy Mistress.

Following this, we can understand why Marvell’s mistress is being so unwilling not to have sex. However, we can also see why Carol Ann Duffy is so critical of love when we think of how far love has since Marvell’s times. Valentine is a modern poem when compared to To His Coy Mistress, and love nowadays is not as powerful as it once was. In Marvell’s times, cheating was probably unheard of, and where there was, it was treated with the strictest confidentiality. That was in the days when the Christian church had ultimately more power and influence over people’s lives than they did themselves. Considering in modern times that the church isn’t as influential as it used to be, and also that most people in aren’t even Christian, there is more freedom in today’s society. This in turn, provides people with the opportunity to cheat in relationships – an opportunity that they wouldn’t have had in Marvell’s era.

However, in the poem Marvell’s language consists of subtle and not so subtle arguments. He manipulates his language considerably, even in the first few lines where in lines 1 and 2 he talks of complaint, he moves to talk of enjoyment in lines 3 and 4:

“Had we but world enough, and time,

This coyness, lady, were no crime.

We would sit down, and think which way

To walk, and pass our long love’s day.”

This strange contrast confuses the reader significantly, as normally the first few lines of a poem are what the reader to looks for to get the basic gist of the poem. However in as we can see, the opening lines of this poem do not let the reader understand it easily. This causes one to delve further into the poem.

The speaker, Marvell, uses alliteration to make his words more tempting when ‘wooing’ his mistress. There is a lot of alliteration throughout the poem, and it is in the first stanza where we see it most. Each of the first four lines contains alliteration: “We”/”world” (line 1), “coyness”/”crime” (line 2), “we would”/”which way” (line 3), “long”/”love’s” (line 4). This alliteration adds to the speaker’s playfulness and the poem’s beauty in the sections in which he is trying to woo his lover. As at its beginning, the end of the poem’s first section contains a lot of alliteration. “Thirty thousand” (line 16) and “should show” (line 18) are unusual sounds, repeated for emphasis of playfulness. During the middle section there are no alliterations. However, the speaker returns to it at the end therefore, ending the poem with a flourish. “Thus” and “though, “sun”/”Stand still,” and “we will” are alliterations that conclude the poem. Also, I feel that the alliterations aim to impress the listener.

There are also similes in this poem, they both occur in the final section, back to back. This is the speaker’s most desperate hour, because he is trying to introduce his ideas quickly that are full of imagery in order to make them easily understood. At the same time, he uses the second simile to present an aggressive, passionate image. This simile is meant to make the situation ‘crystal clear’ to the listener. The simile is a comparison of the listener to nature: “The morning dew, like the speaker’s youth”. This simile shows the speaker’s desperation and his rising passion.

In the final stanza Marvell uses the word “now” to emphasise the instant need for action. It supposes that Marvell is getting quite impatient with his mistress’s obstinacy. He stresses her stubbornness by using formal language throughout the poem to make his arguments clear.

Valentine is more modernised than Marvell’s poem. It was written in the 20th century by Carol Ann Duffy and the language she uses in Valentine is very different to the language of To His Coy Mistress. This is most probably due to the difference in time of them being composed. However, as Valentine is more recent, its language is less complex and alien to the reader. Duffy’s language and vocabulary is very straightforward to perhaps suggest that she wants a simple, uncomplicated love. She uses many metaphors to get her point across to the listener. It is also very informal – with a purpose, as Duffy doesn’t want to come across as being stereotypical.

The structure, where Duffy makes short statements in preference to stanzas also adds to the language. They make the poet, Duffy, sound definite and authoritative. This can imply that the poem was a message to a former lover, whom she wanted to address in an intrepid manner.

Thus, we bring to a close this analysis. In conclusion, Valentine try’s to destroy the myth of commercial love. To His Coy Mistress however is trying to promote the physical side of love. The use of metaphors plays an important role in both poems as does use of poetic imagery. In my view Carol Ann Duffy seems to have a better understanding of love.

Overall I prefer Valentine because it is irregular and it uses many effective images. I like the way some words are isolated because it makes them outstanding and more important, it makes you try to thing what they mean.

Remember that you don’t choose love. Love chooses you. You can only embrace it when it arrives and give it away when it comes to you. But if it chooses to leave from your heart or from the heart of your lover, there is nothing you can do and there is nothing you should do. Love always has been and always will be a mystery.

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