The poem, ‘Answer’ by Carol Ann Duffy gives an answer to an implied, rather enigmatic question: “Will I always love you?”; “Will you marry me?”; “Would I still love you if …?” And to give an answer to these questions; the poet makes use of the traditional idea of the four elements; earth, water, fire, and air, with which the whole world is supposed to be made up. With the use of these four elements, the poet wants to show that her love is totally encompassed by the person addressed in the poem.
All five stanzas of the poem consist of the same rhythm, meter, and structure; this similar formation of each stanza helps in reflecting her unchanging and never-ending love. Her love is calm and considered, instead of fragile and impulsive. Moreover, the answer is repeatedly given in affirmation, yes, yes, at the end of each stanza lays an additional emphasis on the poet’s love towards him/her, and indicates towards the determined and unwavering love of the poet towards her lover. The last stanza in fact tells that whatever be the condition, she will continue to love her lover.
Analysis of Answer
The conditional ‘if’ in the very first line of the poem, which can be read in full here, suggests a rhetorical question as if asking they feel they are made of stone. The use of the word ‘stone’ connotes coldness and unrequited love on the side of the questioner, and denotes ‘earth’, but the poet says that this earth is neither life-giving nor fertile like ‘soil’. All of the images used in the first stanza indicate a passionless and lifeless life. There is hardly any possibility of a living, loving sexual relationship, but the poet believes that in spite of this, her love still persists towards her lover, and she would go on loving him/her even if they cannot return that love.
Duffy gives an account of the various parts of her love’s anatomy: for example; when she says: ‘your kiss a fossil’, she compares the lips of her lover to a fossil, which connotes death and darker imagery as compared to the loving context we are made to believe the poem is about; and the lips are metaphorically dead, with no sexual responsiveness when they come in contact with her lips. The metaphor suggests that the kiss is lifeless, while sealed in your lips juxtaposes the warmth of a kiss versus cold, hard stone.
When she says: ‘eyes sightless marble’, she means that the eyes of her lover are like marble, which can’t even see her. Sightless which is normally associated with eyes is instead used to describe marble. Sightless becomes a transferred epithet reinforcing the cold closed-off feelings hidden by the narrator.
In the further line, when the poet says; ‘grey hands’, she compares her lover’s hands with the lifeless statute, which is standing still and can’t even move its hands to touch her. This gentle imagery juxtaposes the harsh language of the prior lines indicating that she is truly and actually in love with her lover, but this generic and boring imagery also indicates compassion and kindness.
Moreover, with the use of simile in line like; ‘legs cold as rivers locked in ice’, she wants to show that her lover’s legs are so cold and frigid that they seem to have got locked in ice, and become immobile. The long legs indicate an attractive feature but this is contrasted by the cold harsh imagery of the ice and negative lexis of locked.
When we come to the second stanza, we find the poet wishing her lover to be made of fire. In the stanza, the use of the fire image is threatening, painful, and ugly. However, she still wants to continue her love towards him/her even if her lover is abusive and violent. In this stanza also, Duffy gives an account of several parts of her lover’s anatomy when she says: ‘head…Medusa hissing flame – this is an image of the snake-haired monster, which is known for effective onomatopoeia for snakes and flames.
The poet further compares her lover with “tongue a red-hot poker, whereby she refers to an instrument of torture, which invokes the idea of Hell, while by the line: ‘heart a small coal’, she compares her lover’s heart with a lump of small coal – which is neither living nor capable of love. And in the last line of this stanza when the poet says: ‘fingers burning pungent brands on flesh’, she seems to be talking of the terrible pain and the stench of burning flesh that she experiences with each touch of her lover. However, having all said, she is still ready to go on loving her lover.
In the third stanza of the poem, ‘Answer’, Duffy makes use of the ‘water’ image, which is also very threatening and dangerous. Here also, the poet gives a description of the various parts of her lover’s anatomy, when, in the next line of the stanza, she says: ‘voice… roaring, foaming’. All these adjectives mean the uncontrolled anger and violence in their voice, which is raving and ranting.
She compares her lover’s arms with a whirlpool which keeps spinning her. This is really a dangerous verb and violent metaphor, whereas by the line: breast…deep dark lake nursing the drowned’, she compares the breast of her lover with a deep dark lake which nurses the drowned people –this is a really deadly image and ominous adjectives. However, despite of all this, the poet wants to go on loving her lover.
In the fourth stanza of this poem, the poet still wants to love her lover even if she were made of air. This is the last element out of the four discussed above. The poet here compares her lover with the air, which renders a sense of emptiness. As we know the air is hallowing with no physical form.
When she says: ‘your face empty and infinite as sky, she is talking of the face of her lover which is empty and as infinite as the sky above – the face though is the most significant part of the body, yet there is nothing to see, and your words are like a wind, which again shows the emptiness; the alliteration here renders the idea of the sounds being scattered, and creating silence.
In the fourth line of this stanza when she says: ‘your movements sudden gusts among the clouds,’ she compares the movements of her lover with the sudden gusts among the clouds. This is an extended use of image with gusts and breeze, and there isn’t anything physically present of the person to love or to be loved, but yet her devotion or lover will go on.
This means that despite of all these, she will continue to love her lover no matter whether she/he is made of water, stone, fire or air. Her love towards her/him will continue to persist.
The final stanza of the poem, ‘Answer’ by Carol Ann Duffy is the gist of what the poet said in above stanza. This stanza repeats what she compared above. It is in fact an emphatic reiteration of what she says from the very first stanza of the poem. The poet is not a bit hesitant in answering in a sacred vow tone. She says that whether you were made of fire, stone, water, air, or were none of all these, or even were a death, she would continue to love her/him despite of all these facts. No matter how bitter, dangerous, ugly, and harmful they are. Her lover towards her lover will always persist and she is not going to give up in any condition.
About Carol Ann Duffy
Carol Ann Duffy represents an important voice in the contemporary British poetry. She belongs to the generation of those women poets who have carved niche in the world of poetry. This new generation includes women poets like Michele Roberts, Alison Fell, Michelene Wander, Judith Kazantzis, Fleur Adcock, Carol Rumens, Elaine Feinstein, Liz Lochhead, Grace Nicholas and many renowned women poets. In spite of their disparate social, political and cultural characteristics, they all reflect the distinguishable lineaments of their foremothers – the women of the feminist movement of 1960s and 1970s.
Very worried with the questioning of certain accepted gender norms, Duffy’s work also had to put it to scores of racial prejudice, religious bigotry, the nuclear nightmare, the political indifference projected by the Thatcher administration towards the jobless and the under-privileged.
Born in Glasgow, but brought up in Staffordshire and educated in Liverpool, she now lives in London and holds a clear identification with the penurious regions of Britain wherein she grew up. Though she is a lesbian and a feminist yet, she displays none of the self-congratulatory essentialism commonly associated with such a stance. Her work is analytical, profoundly disturbing and committed to posing far more questions than it answers. It is also at times genuinely humorous.