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Poem Analysis: "The Feminine Gospels" - History by Carol Ann Duffy

Carol Ann Duffy published "The Feminine Gospels" in 2002.

Carol Ann Duffy published "The Feminine Gospels" in 2002.

Potted Biography of Carol Ann Duffy

I am going to analyse "History" by Carol Ann Duffy from a metaphysical and reading for meaning standpoint.

Brief Biography of Carol Ann Duffy

Britain’s first female Poet Laureate appointed in 2009. The first in 300 years.

Born in Glasgow (1955), raised Roman Catholic, and openly lesbian. Grew up in the West Midlands, Staffordshire, England.

Degree in Philosophy; Liverpool University, 1977.

Adult Poetry

Rapture (Macmillan, 2006);

Selected Poems (Penguin, 2004);

Feminine Gospels (2002);

The World's Wife (2000), famous wives and infamous ones.

Mean Time (1993), Whitbread Poetry Award and the Forward Poetry Prize;

The Other Country (1990);

Selling Manhattan (1987), Somerset Maugham Award;

Standing Female Nude (1985), Scottish Arts Council Award.

Writes character-driven polemical pieces that capture modern society, or the lack of it. She writes poetry for children too.

"History" - Stanza 1 and 2

"History" - Stanza 1 and 2

Duffy Asks: Whose History Is This?

We are told that the persona "woke up old at last, alone," and in the first line there is the presence of apposition, whereby the lack of punctuation between "old" and "at last" has the effect of joining ideas of waking up and being old. There is the hint that this woman has reached a great age for which she has longed. Far from being relieved about being old, the subsequent metaphor "bones in a bed" creates agonising imagery along with the pararhyme within the verse; "head", "dead", indicating ill-health.

Duffy characteristically uses the grotesque to shock as this elderly woman leaves her bed dressed in rags and "smelling of pee". Afflicted by all the nemesis old age has on offer, our poor unfortunate protagonist has a tongue that can only "slurp"; a dirty house and weak lungs as she dresses in a coat and lies down to sleep again in Stanza 2.

Who is this woman? This subject of history? Perhaps we could evaluate this from the position of hyperbole. Duffy has portrayed an elderly lady who has given up on every domestic grace and decayed into slovenly living and rotting health; "not a tooth in her head." Is this type of future possible for a woman? Does this level of squalor affect women in the real world? Is this exaggeration for artistic effect only? Perhaps if we harken back to the title of Duffy's collection, The Feminine Gospels, we might come to the conclusion that her portrayal of the winter years where elderly women live alone in their houses and long for death is Duffy's examination of a modern polemic. Neglect.

"History" - Stanza 3 to Stanza 7

"History" - Stanza 3 to Stanza 7

History: Stanza 3 to 7

Biblical Allusion

In stanza 3, the capitalisation of "History" and "Cross" anchors the reader firmly in the time of Jesus Christ. Duffy juxtaposes the present-day elderly woman in stanzas 1 and 2 with the witness of Mary Magdalene at the crucifixion of Christ. "She was History" might indicate the persona is dreaming of biblical visions as she sleeps on the sofa. She has become Mary Magdalene in this dream state and views the mother of Jesus mourning her son and the soldiers mocking him.

Time flashes forward in stanza 4 as the fisherman who saw him on the road to Damascus see the resurrected Christ. The rising "basilicas" of "Jerusalem, Constantinople, Sicily" and the beginnings of the church in Rome compress the time after Christ's death when the religion of Christianity spread like wildfire throughout the Middle East and Southern Europe. Our persona is in the midst of nostalgic visions, living in a time of grand aspiration. A time that lasts until the tenth century AD.

Holy Wars

Stanza 5 alludes to the crusades which raged across Europe and the Middle East as Christians fought against the emerging Muslim faith and what they viewed as the false prophet of Mohammed. The wars mentioned contain atrocities and multiple casualties:

Bannockburn: 1314 Battle between Edward II of England and King Robert Bruce of Scotland. The Scottish prevailed.

Passchendaele: 1917 British Allied Forces attacked the German Empire in what is known as the Third Battle of Ypres. The loss of life was staggering, with estimates of up to 800,000 for both sides combined.

Babi Yar: 1941. Babi Yar is in the Ukraine and the site of a massacre. Nazis killed 33,771 Jews in a single operation. In the area, up to 100,000 residents of Kiev were shot and buried in the same ravine at Babi Yar. The ravine is named after "baba" or an "old woman" who was sold to the Dominican Monastery where the land is situated.

Vietnam: 1955 - 1975. War against North Vietnamese communists, which claimed up to three million lives.

The horrors of stanza 5 seem to be key moments in modern centuries up to the time of the Vietnam War. We are reminded of the presence of the feminine persona if we look at the first lines in each stanza; "been there"; "witnessed the wars", "seen up-close"; and her final positioning; "in the empty house."

Life Flashes Forward in Dreams

The dream state of the elderly woman snoring on the sofa is very intense and vivid. The history markers portray times of grand victory and tremendous defeat, and there is a direct struggle presented between earlier times where noble victories seemed the result of civilsation, and later times where evil has risen again and waged unholy war upon the earth.

She seems to begin exiting this dream state as history becomes more modern and kaleidoscopic: "The saint whistled" may refer to the whistling army of the Mormon Church of Latter Day Saints who waged war in Utah in the 1830s and could be heard whistling as they approached the "enemy". [If you have another idea, please leave it in the comments!]

The dictator who shot himself refers to Adolf Hitler who did this in the bunker before he was captured by the Allied forces. The children waving "their little hands from the trains" refers to the transportation of Jews to the death camps of World War II.

Lovely dreams this lady has.

In the final stanza, we are compelled rudely back to waking life as bricks fly through the window "now", the front doorbell is rung, "fresh graffiti" sprayed on the door, an act of aggression and the placement of a soiled parcel on her floor. The perpetrators are nameless and faceless but it brings us back, perhaps using the device of ellipsis, to the haunting helplessness, to the haunting reality of this woman's life in stanza 1 and 2.

Overall Theme?

I mentioned at the start that perhaps Duffy wants to explore the idea of neglect in modern society. The elderly are left to die alone in their homes, undefended from the tyranny of wayward youth who taunt them for fun.

The cruel behaviour enters the woman's world from the outside. The inside of her home has similar conditions to cruel prisons. Her dreams are filled with the depressing history of moments when evil has triumphed over good. Linking historical markers to everyday reality, the point of this Gospel in Duffy's collection lies in the capitalisation of the word "Bricks". Deliberately placed in the final stanza, so it joins the lexis of historically significant acts of cruelty that preceded it, the word "Bricks" summarises the modern act of cruelty. I think the question Duffy is asking is how many of us are throwing a metaphorical "Brick" at the elderly today? She is remarking that none of us can be identified. Our uniforms are hidden. The tragedy of this woman's end of days is that none of us are being caught.


megamind1 on February 13, 2018:

@paula of course you are

Ananya Dubey on August 02, 2016:

Thank you so much Eliza!

Lisa McKnight (author) from London on July 22, 2016:

Great comments Ananya. I believe, to answer your comment about why she is history, take a look at stanza 3. The first line is "She was History". The capitalisation of the "H" makes what is usually an abstract noun into a pro-noun. This confirms the idea that this woman's specific 'history' with a small 'h' is, in fact, a good example of multiple experiences, or a wider 'history' of the elderly population during our times. She uses the same trick with the capital 'B' in 'Bricks' - "Bricks" are people who commit crimes against the elderly.

Ananya Dubey on July 11, 2016:

Hi! I just have one doubt, I still don't quite understand the idea of personifying the old woman as history.

I mean, looking at the first and the last stanza I can understand why this poem might refer to the neglect of women (older women, specifically), but I don't get what is History's role in this. The whole concept of following a dream sequence then going on and on about the horrors history has suffered, how does it all contribute to the main theme of the poem? Also, if we consider the young people who throw "bricks" at her house, how does this relate to history?

A really great analysis by the way!

Lisa McKnight (author) from London on March 16, 2013:

@ chef-de-jour. Thank you for your comments and votes, I really love Duffy's work, she is razor-sharp about dysfunctional society and relationships. She gives us all something to think about that endures.

Andrew Spacey from Sheffield, UK on March 12, 2013:

A great analysis I think, with some useful terms for those not used to looking deeply in to poems.

I like the way Duffy mixes personal history and yes, shock tactics, plus she leaves just enough darkness to leave us guessing and wondering. She deals with taboo subjects too which is brave and necessary.

I looked at her Brothers poem today (I think its her poem) in which she presents the reader with a potted history of a dysfunctional family, owned by time, with nothing to say, and hints of abuse and vacuum within a tight knitted structure.The voice is that of a sister.

Votes for this hub, I enjoyed it a lot.

Lisa McKnight (author) from London on July 20, 2012:


I guess you can appreciate why someone like Carol Ann Duffy is made poet laureate. She certainly jam packs her poems. I have to google the techniques constantly when I analyse one to check I've remembered it correctly and am applying it well. There is more in this poem than I've found, I guess we all feel a bit lost when attempting to take meaning from her poems. I think we all have to try if we are able to a little bit.

I don't think you are hopeless ... I think like most people who read poems you understand the main theme the poem explores. What is interesting is to take it further and understand the wider references and how the poet was thinking perhaps, when they chose those kinds of elements that eventually make a work of art. Don't worry if you can't put in that effort. That's what I'm writing this stuff for!

Suzie from Carson City on July 19, 2012:

This is VERY all honesty, perhaps too deep for me to fully appreciate? Not that I lack intellience (I certainly hope!) but my grasp of all the mysticism and word-play.....and all that you so eloquently describe in your intro...pertaining to "Poetry" becomes quite lost somewhere in my head.....having an even more difficult time finding it's way to other vital parts of my being......Do you think I'm hopeless???.........Peace, my friend......(maybe I'm too lazy to put forth the effort?) I hang my head in shame......