Analysis of Poem Valentine by Carol Ann Duffy

Updated on February 3, 2019
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Carol Ann Duffy
Carol Ann Duffy | Source

Carol Ann Duffy and A Summary of Valentine

Valentine is a poem that offers an unconventional approach to the traditional, romantic, commercially driven idea of a sugar coated Valentine's day. It shines the spotlight on that most common of everyday kitchen vegetables, the onion, and infuses it with drama and symbolism.

Carol Ann Duffy, born in Scotland but raised in England, is well known for her dramatic poetry and her exploration of gender roles, feminism and relationships. Myth and fairy tale are also to be found in her work, often mixing with a tough reality.

Published in the book Mean Time in 1993, Valentine remains fresh and valid because it challenges convention on many levels.

  • It is also a useful example of how the poet can create a persona, a character, rather like a playwright, and frame the voice within a unique structure, so that form enhances content.
  • In addition, the tone challenges the reader. We know this is an alternative take on the romantic idea of what a Valentine should be and which the world takes for granted. But, is the speaker angry? Obsessed? Over reliant? Sensing danger?
  • Note the structure. There are some single lines, end stopped; some lines contain only one word. This is an unusual monologue and the reader sometimes has to pause and think - is this some rehearsal a lover is going through or is it all in the mind of a hurt person?

Valentine

Not a red rose or a satin heart.

I give you an onion.
It is a moon wrapped in brown paper.
It promises light
like the careful undressing of love.

Here.
It will blind you with tears
like a lover.
It will make your reflection
a wobbling photo of grief.

I am trying to be truthful.

Not a cute card or a kissogram.

I give you an onion.
Its fierce kiss will stay on your lips,
possessive and faithful
as we are,
for as long as we are.

Take it.
Its platinum loops shrink to a wedding ring,
if you like.
Lethal.
Its scent will cling to your fingers,
cling to your knife.

Analysis of Valentine Line By Line

Line 1

The opening is direct and almost abrupt yet there is also the idea that the speaker has been thinking about and preparing what to say. This first line, and first stanza, is a peek into the mind of the speaker following a decision on or near Valentine's day or to her Valentine.

Not..... an adverb, is what's known as a function word and tells the reader straightaway what the speaker doesn't want to offer as a valentine's gift. So this is essentially a negative statement.

The red rose is traditionally given at Valentines. It is a symbol of true love and is famously used by Scots poet Robert Burns (1759-1796) in his poem A Red Red Rose:

O my luve's like a red, red rose,

That's newly sprung in June;

Line 2

So the reader already knows that the speaker is not one for romantic gestures - the second line, the start of the second stanza, adds further controversy (and a comical twist) because what is on offer is ...an onion....the lowly vegetable of the day to day kitchen chopping board.

The tone is matter of fact, mundane, possibly tongue in cheek. Again, it is a single complete line, reflecting its direct importance.

Line 3

From the realistic to the figurative in one fell swoop. The onion is given metaphorical significance; it is the moon wrapped in brown paper. The brown paper refers to the layers of onion skin surrounding. Brown paper is also a common and plain kind of material.

So this is indeed a strange gift because the moon is a symbol of all things feminine; of emotion, of profound feeling and romance. It is of course the cause of the ocean tides, and has for centuries been associated with lunacy and instability.

Line 4

The moon promises light, that most romantic of settings for an ideal romance. Note the enjambment as the line runs on into the next, so keeping the sense.

Line 5

The simile compares moonlight and the rather seductive act of undressing ready for love. There is the suggestion of something sexual and intimate here. As an onion is peeled of layers of skin, to reveal the inner light so to speak, so is the physical body stripped of clothes in love.

Line 6

A single word. The speaker offers the onion to a second person. It's only a single word but the image it creates is that of a hand held up in front of the lover, the partner, the wife, husband, in an attempt at what?

Line 7

Because it is an onion it has the power to cause tears to flow, enough to cause blindness. Behind the tears is emotion. Note the enjambment, the flow of meaning continuing on into the next line.

Line 8

Another simile comparing the onion's effect to a lover, a person who can have the same effect as that onion, stirring emotions that result in salty tears and lack of vision.

Line 9

A direct reference to the second person (the valentine) - this onion will cause their reflection to distort, inevitably, which will result in grief.

Line 10

This is getting quite serious. The lover's reflection - when they look in a mirror - will be wobbling, which implies instability. Not only that, the use of that shortened word photo could be a reminder of their past relationship, a snapshot, this time incorporating sadness and tears.

Line 11

A single sentence stanza. Use of the personal pronoun here brings home the fact that the speaker is in earnest, is trying hard to be sincere.

Line 12

And this need to be serious and honest is reinforced with a repeated Not...there will be nothing commercial or trivial given.

Line 13

The speaker insists on giving an onion. Another repeat. There will be no sweet sugary messages sent at this Valentine.

Line 14

The speaker wants the fierce kiss to endure - onion juices are potent - and again there's a reference to the lover's anatomy...your lips. Does this image reflect a certain bitterness on behalf of the speaker? Raw onion taste lingers and isn't that pleasant.

Line 15

The speaker and the lover have possessed one another, as is often the case in a deep relationship. They've been faithful too.

Line 16

They are still together.

Line 17

And will remain that way, possessive and faithful, until they end the relationship.

Line 18

Two words, an imperative. Single line. Direct. Does the speaker want rid of the onion and so the relationship? Or is the onion a true symbol of their love?

Line 19

The insides of the onion are likened to platinum, a precious metal, and the rings or loops so called do get smaller the further you undress the onion revealing its inner core. There's a clever ploy as these loops shrink to resemble a wedding ring.

That word shrink suggests the relationship isn't what it was; it is now restrictive, but could be so different, that is, the loop could be a symbol of marriage?

Line 20

The speaker here is giving scope to the valentine, the lover....the onion loops could be anything they want...a wedding ring perhaps? Or not.

Line 21

This single word line hits home hard. The poem up to this point has been a little ambiguous, the stance of the speaker uncertain. The speaker isn't concerned with the fake romanticism Valentine's commercialisation represents. That has to be a positive attitude surely?

Yet why give an onion? Isn't that being a bit cruel?

Perhaps the speaker has been hurt by the lover and so wants to send a message that they will not forget easily.

Line 22

The smell of the onion lingers, is strong and not readily removed. The fingers are the focus of this line...wedding rings are placed on fingers.

Line 23

But fingers also create the hand that holds the knife. And the knife cuts. Note the phrase your knife ....we've had your reflection, your lips, your fingers.....this has been a deeply personal narrative.

Perhaps the speaker has been upset by the lover, the valentine, who has cut off the supply of love, severed the bond holding the relationship together. This has caused pain and the loss of any romantic feelings the speaker may have had towards them. Hence the unlikely Valentine gift of an onion

Sources

Being Alive, Bloodaxe, Neil Astley, 2004

www.poetryfoundation.org

www.poets.org

© 2019 Andrew Spacey

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