A Close Analysis of Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Valentine’ [66%, 2004]


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A Close Analysis of Carol Ann Duffy’s Valentine

{Essay CONTENTS: Introduction; Rejection of clichéd notion of Valentine’s Day; Positive connotations of symbolic onion; Negative connotations of symbolic onion; Continuation of pervasive declarative tone; Repeated renunciation of Valentine’s Day convention; Imperative interjection, move towards threatening tone; Literary conceit of symbolic onion; Concise declarative statements highlighting candid tone; Aggressive agenda illustrated by lexical choices; Conclusion.}

In this close analysis of Carol Ann Duffy’s Valentine, I intend to demonstrate that Duffy forces her gift of an onion onto the object of her affection – an honest, yet threatening, gesture. I will do this by working my way analytically through the poem, before highlighting the way in which the onion is used to symbolize Duffy’s beliefs about relationships. Through probing her lexical choices, I shall highlight the menacing subtext to her poem.[^]

The poem begins with a single, standalone declaration, “Not a red rose or a satin heart.” (L.1) Red roses and satin hearts are typical Valentine’s Day gifts; by stating that she will not give either as a present, the speaker immediately rejects the commercialized notion of Valentine’s Day in favour of a present that is more in keeping with her views on the nature of relationships.[^]

In the first orthodox stanza she makes another declaration, “I give you an onion.” (L.2) An onion can have a multitude of symbolic meanings, and Duffy proceeds to metaphorically label it “a moon wrapped in brown paper.” (L.3) The optimistic connotations of her onion are continued when she uses a simile to describe its promise of light, “like the careful undressing of love.” (L.5)[^]

The simple, striking, single word “Here” introduces stanza two, continuing the declarative tone of the poem, before Duffy uses another simile to contrast the positive implications of the onion with her honest experience of relationships, “It will blind you with tears/like a lover.” (Lines 7-8) A further metaphor underlines this move away from happiness, “It will make your reflection/a wobbling photo of grief.” (Lines 9-10)[^]

Duffy then employs another standalone declarative statement to justify her belief that one’s lover will bring tears to one’s eyes, “I am trying to be truthful.” (L.11) A second consecutive standalone declarative emphasizes the speaker’s honesty, “Not a cute card or a kissogram.” (L.12)[^]

The third orthodox stanza consists of two declarative statements: “I […] onion” (L.13) and “Its fierce […] for as long as we are.” (Lines 14-17) Duffy’s repetition of the fact that she will give her valentine an onion is a reminder of her renunciation of the Valentine’s Day convention; a reminder of her blunt honesty.[^]

The imperative – “Take it.” (L.18) – beginning stanza four marks the speaker’s changing emphasis from an expression of her views on relationships to a more menacing, ‘never-forget-me’ message. Although a more defensive statement follows, “Its platinum loops […] if you like” (lines 19-20), the threatening tone is reinforced in the final stanza. “Lethal” (L.21) is the standalone word specifically chosen by the speaker to emphasize her serious mood. The fact that the onion’s “scent will cling to your fingers,/cling to your knife” (lines 22-23) serves to underline the fact that if her valentine decides to end the relationship, the memory of the speaker will linger on – the beloved will never be rid of her.[^]

Duffy employs the poetic device of conceit in her symbolic use of the onion as an extended metaphor throughout the poem. Choosing a food that literally has many layers to it, Duffy gradually peels away at her onion to reveal how the onion accurately symbolizes her belief in the contrasting ‘layers’ of a relationship: on one level it is full of promise (the onion itself being personified, as when Duffy says, “It promises…” (L.2) the satiation of a need), on another it will make one cry. Thus, the onion is a potent and distinctive representation of Duffy’s frank belief in the nature of relationships.[^]

In order to dramatically separate the materialism associated with Valentine’s Day and her true feelings toward her lover, Duffy uses a series of declarative statements to justify her immediate disavowal of the conventional gifts of the day. The way in which the majority of these statements are so concise (the 20-word “Its fierce kiss…for as long as we are” declaration is the longest sentence in the poem) highlights Duffy’s starkly candid tone. The fact that the poem consists of a series of short declarations based on personal experience is the reason for the absence of a rhyme scheme and the dearth of a set metre; Duffy’s reason for writing this is not to dress her feelings up in clever, orthodox poetry. Enjambment is present on several occasions (for example, “It will blind you with tears/like a lover” [lines 7-8]), although this isn’t used to the expected poetic effect – it is merely a requisite for Duffy in order to run her unambiguous assertions over two lines so that the visual form of the poem does not become any more irregular. Therefore, the speaker employs free verse in this threatening, meaningful lecture to her lover.[^]

The aggressive agenda within this poem is exemplified by the unequivocal handing over of the onion, “I give you an onion. […] Take it.” (Lines 13 and 18) Duffy is not going to allow the rejection of her onion gift by her lover, even when it becomes clear to the object of her affection that the present is given with the defamiliarized meanings attributed to it by the speaker and is not used to represent domestication and practicality. A further illustration of the speaker’s threatening stance comes across in her lexical choices. She uses emotive lexis such as “blind (L.7)…grief (L.10)…fierce (L.14)…Lethal (L.21) to highlight the fact that this is not a throwaway gesture on her part; this is the speaker sincerely opening up to her valentine.[^]

In conclusion, I believe that a close analysis of Carol Ann Duffy’s Valentine reveals that Duffy forces her gift of an onion onto the object of her affection, and at the same time expresses her beliefs on the nature of relationships, in a threateningly honest manner.[^]

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Forty-year-old father of three wonderful children [William, Seth, and Alyssa]. Works as an Assistant Technical Officer in the Sterile Services Department of Treliske Hospital, Cornwall. Enjoys jogging, web design, learning programming languages, and supporting Arsenal FC. Obtained a BA degree in English from the University of Bolton in 2008, and has continued to gain qualifications in a diverse range of subjects thereafter.

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Posted in English Degree [Bachelor of Arts]

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