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"Feminine Gospels" by Carol Ann Duffy: "Tall"

I am a passionate writer with 22 years’ experience in the industry, writing for various print and online media here in England and abroad.

Extra tallness in women does not translate into higher earnings - as it does with taller men.

Extra tallness in women does not translate into higher earnings - as it does with taller men.

"Tall" by Carol Ann Duffy

Reflexivity is a social function. It commonly refers to the capacity of an agent (in the case of the poem "Tall", the persona) to recognise forces of socialisation and alter their place in the social structure.

An appreciation of the social theory of reflexivity is the key to understanding the meaning of Carol Ann Duffy's poem, "Tall".

Reflexivity Theory

The theory abides by the idea that low levels of reflexivity result in an individual being shaped largely by their environment. A bit like someone who 'fits into' society. A high level of social reflexivity means to shape societal norms, tastes, politics and desires through individual will. According to the theory, it is better to be highly socially reflexive to become autonomous, socially mobile—and particularly upwardly socially mobile.

For the persona Duffy creates in "Tall", upward social mobility is achieved in the most ironic fashion. Duffy's female character literally grows extremely tall, attracting hordes of curious on-lookers who marvel at her great size. Duffy's character becomes isolated in a crude inversion of the theory of social reflexivity. By describing a character who visually increases in size, we can infer Duffy's running allegory for upward social mobility.



Why Become a Useful Member of Society?

What follows is a stanza by stanza analysis of "Tall" by Carol Ann Duffy. I use English Language and Literature terms to analyse the poem in a metaphysical sense, concentrating on reading for meaning.

Stanza One

The poem "Tall" is written in the first person. The first word, "then," is a conjunction. "Then" is normally placed in the middle of two clauses, denoting what happened before and joining this by the use of then to what happened after or next. This placement has an impact on the tone of the poem. It is as if the speaker is telling the story in an exclamatory tone of incredulity.

"Like a christening gift" positions us in a time and culture where babies get christened and receive gifts - as the norm. Line two juxtaposes this gift-giving rite of passage with the phrase "or a wish arriving later in life". This surprise 'wish' almost seems to be a twist on an idiomatic expression, whereby a gift that arrives later on in life means an unplanned pregnancy. The woman's tallness has arrived unexpectedly. From the start of the poem, we read on with a prevailing sense of ambiguity and alarm.

The didactic intentions in stanza two become clearer when you hear Duffy reading aloud. "Day one saw her rising at eight *pause* foot" (sic); is meant to sound as if the woman rose at 8 am. Importantly, she is "bigger than any man" yet, has to kneel in the shower. If we join the opening reference to "christening" with "knelt", we can begin to see a leitmotif used throughout "Tall"; religious gifting is offered as an explanation for tallness. For Duffy's character, tall-ness is a figurative term for social mobility - and the success or failure of the character's story relies on how well she responds to the fast-changing circumstances of her tall-ness. Equating the original gift of tall-ness with religious blessing places a responsibility on the woman to live up to the full potential of the gift. Calling this excessive tall-ness a gift runs throughout the poem, and the leitmotif runs a thread of ridicule, too, as the woman's tall-ness becomes impossibly obvious and excessive.

I'm going to suggest we take this leitmotif one thread further and equate the gift of tall-ness with the gift of 'other'-ness. In theoretical feminism, otherness is defined as being contrary to everyone who is the same. So, if you are classified as 'other', you are a living, breathing individual: but generally excluded, sub-ordinated, and isolated by everyone. Obviously, feminists believe all women have been classified as 'other', and suffer, to one degree or another, some form of stigmatisation in their daily lives.

In the final line of the first stanza, we have a description of "her clothes", heralding the outward signs of other-ness. This woman looks different to other men and women. She can no longer be categorised as 'same'. She is literally growing upward, which will require her to fit into a new sociality, and she does go on to have mobility problems. Duffy creates a fable-like character designed to parody the social theory of reflexivity. Perhaps she is suggesting that if you are to be a socially upward woman, you must make sure you still look like everybody else.

Why this woman in the poem Tall continues to be useful to society is the crucial thematic question at the centre of this poem.


Rejection and Self-Awareness

Stanza Two

The opening word in stanza two is "out". Our persona is cast out of the realm of normal and into the world of others, as we read, she is now "eye-high" with street lamps. The internal rhyme forms a series of rhythmic beats designed to mimic the action of walking: "down-town", "whooped" and "stooped", "stared" and "scared", "heart" and "chest" and "turned" and "fled".

The image of the red heart is iconic and symbolises love. The presence of this symbol as a tattoo on the chest of the small, frightened man indicates genuine fear has possessed him. For the tall woman, the crushing realisation that some view her gift of tallness as grotesque leads Duffy to qualify "he turned and fled—like a boy". The technique of apposition applies here, where the description of the man fleeing is compared to something a boy would do. For the first time, our character encounters another person, is rejected, and is now self-aware. Yet this does not deter her from continuing on her walk.

We come back to the crucial thematic question behind this poem: Why does this woman continue to strive to be useful?



Stanza Three

Hyperbaton is a technique where the logical word sequence is altered or where normally associated words are separated. Here we can put "further on she went" into a phrase, which has been split by hyperbaton throughout the stanza. Figures of speech are targets of this technique, too, as we notice birds "sang on her ear" instead of the usual "sang in her ear". The inference is that birds are landing on her ears because she is walking equally to the height of trees. This technique brings incongruity to the narrative, and joins in with the notion of ridicule, which is an undercurrent tone in the poem.

We see red imagery employed again, with apples and traffic lights. Apples are an iconic representation of the sexuality of women, and red traffic lights are an archetype sign representing "to stop". It is as if this woman is getting too big for her boots. She's eating anything she can reach and doing someone else's job for them. Gorging and splurging.

Duffy continues to use language to invert the normal, as her persona views events normal people aren't privy to. She glances "into upper windows in passing", which is a clever use of the gerund form - ironic as she's averting her eyes, so she is 'passing' on a closer look and physically 'passing' by. As her discoveries include viewing a dead man in a chair, she pauses and breathes on the glass by the window. This self-referential behaviour is the first time the character has looked at a reflection of herself. Like her, we wonder what it must be like to see a dead person and what expression might cross our brows if we did. If we look back to our theme of reflexivity, this character is now beginning to struggle with the dizzy heights of her 'literal' upward mobility and has come to a social crossroads.


The Challenge of Upward Mobility

Stanza Four

Did she bow like a servant or bend like a bow? Look carefully at line one of stanza four. This phonetic play-on-words mix the literal and the figurative—while both definitions of 'bow' apply. A successfully upwardly mobile person will adjust their surroundings to suit their dreams and desires. Here, the tall woman desires to enter a bar. If she did so as a servant, she's trying to 'fit in'. If she created her body to form a weapon, she's successfully adapting her gift of tall-ness to a new environment. Duffy leaves us struggling with ambiguity once again.

Perhaps this is deliberate, as our persona goes on to get dreadfully drunk. Things get blurry, just like Duffy's language, as we can't be sure if her drink was served for free or, quite literally, "on the house"—because she's grown so tall. The "drunk passed out, or fainted" could mean our woman is so tall she can't see the drunk very well and isn't close enough to decide if he had an adverse reaction to her. She pulls up a stool. It is an important use of "pulled" because it uses the past tense of the verb 'to pull', and it is difficult to determine if her action is passive or aggressive. Gin is a drink normally reserved for aggressive drunks, which increases our anxiety as she orders a large one—even though it is probably due to her size—or is it?

For the second time, our tall woman looks at herself in the mirror, noting her higher position and equal height with the bar's top shelf. This messy afternoon leaves her emphatically hungover, which Duffy underplays through rhythm, sounding a bit like a dance-hall tune: "Her head in her hands in the hall." There's didacticism in the use of the word "mortal" which could be pronounced "more-tall", harking back to this extraordinary 'gift', notions of religion, and the reality of 'other-ness'—which is fast becoming a nightmare for our woman.

Pragmatic as ever, she decides to purchase a "turret". Linguists need to note here the introduction of archaic language, which anchors significantly with the final words of this poem, where people fall from "burning towers". Towers and turrets indicate medieval iconography, which could relate to Duffy's point of view—that women who 'rise' up in society are treated no better than they were in medieval times.

Deification of the Tall Woman

Stanza Five

The stanza begins with indirect speech as the tall woman "found one" turret. It seems she can still find circumstances to suit her situation, and she continues to rise to her station in life.

The miraculous appearance of this tall woman brings "pilgrims". This is the longest period of time she stays in one place, residing in her turret. Despite the "chanting" of the crowds, it would seem that she was unable to cure anyone. Our upwardly-mobile woman has risen so high that the only recourse for her to remain within society is to be deified. Unfortunately, she is unsuccessful and does what people who've lost their place in the community commonly do—"she upped-sticks". Duffy uses idiomatic phrasing and indirect speech (as we can imagine the crowds using this phrase) to show how the crowds mock the woman, who could do nothing—apart from being tall. It is as if the crowd is asking what the point of having such a gift was if you couldn't do anything special with it?

The religious leitmotif enhances the isolation the character experiences, as her special gift has become so extreme—she's now "thirty foot - growing"—and she's "no wiser". The stanza ends with a powerful use of epithet. "Taller" has become her name. Taller has also become an outcast. The use of a semantic triplet: "colder, a loner, no wiser" indicates otherness.


Duffy and Elegy

Stanza Six

In the end, it is as if this character gets killed off. She's unsuccessful as a tall woman, and is relegated to being a weather-woman. "What could she see up there?", the indirect question seems to mimic the tall woman's new employment—disaster forecaster.

She dutifully 'fits into' society, settling for her place in the social order. She's now a person who tells others what to watch out for. Despite having exceptional ability, she's hit a glass ceiling. You might think society wasn't ready for the likes of this tall woman. You might think Duffy is commenting on women (as 'others') encountering the glass ceiling of employment. Duffy might be saying, despite women having unique and exceptional talents, especially talented women are viewed as grotesque.

Duffy is most likely suggesting that upward social mobility is not for even the most talented woman to achieve. If, somehow, the talent a woman possesses is exceptional and 'plain' for everyone to see, she won't be rewarded with a position. She'll be relegated to a prophet.

The final lines are in elegiac form, using couplets "away/Milky-Way" and "hurled/low", culminating in the final blast of archaic and religious language: "souls/burning towers". Our persona, "Taller", bends down from her great height and catches people falling from these towers. This is a contextual reference to the bombing of the World Trade Centre, and the bodies that fell from the twin towers.

Duffy seems to pontificate on the woman who "howled", because she saw it all in advance, from a great height, before it happened. And, perhaps, if she hadn't been relegated as a freak, the people would not have died. But when they did die, she still helped anyway, out of some notion of being a useful member of society, despite her despised "tall-ness".

It's another reason the poet is called "Tall" and not "Taller". The towers were the tallest.


© 2014 Lisa McKnight


megamind1 on February 13, 2018:

when she rises at 8am, its didactic but what does it mean? what does it indicate? Also when it says 'colder, aloner, wiser' what does that mean?

I need it for my coursework thanks,

Finn from Barstow on July 05, 2017:

An interesting analysis of an intriguing poem. You have witty diction and make good use of sound quality in your writing. I was amused at some of the obscure double entendres you pointed out. And of course, a curious poem.

Lisa McKnight (author) from London on April 14, 2015:

Hi Kenneth,

Thanks so much for your comments. These pieces take a long time to write and compose and draw on my years of experience as an English Literature teacher. It gives me a lot of pleasure now, to write for understanding, rather than exam boards! Hubpages is good for this. I wish you the best of success on here too. As for Abstract/Prose, I don't know what that is. I just used MWord and made jpeg images from screenshots. Probably the long way around, but thanks for saying it looks good.



Kenneth Avery from Hamilton, Alabama on March 31, 2015:

Hi, Eliza

This was one fantastic read! Loved every word. I voted Up + all of the choices. Your graphics usage was superb.

Do you like to use Abstract/Prose in your publishing? Some of these text boxes were very similar to this form of poetry. Great call!

I like hubs like this. I urge you to keep up the great work and may you have a world of success on HubPages.


Kenneth Avery

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