Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Betrothal’ shows the ardent desire of a woman who wants to get the love of her betrothed. A betrothal is a formal engagement before the actual marriage. In different parts of the world, the vowing ceremony is performed differently.
In order to define the desperate desire of the woman, Duffy makes use of a great deal of imagery and metaphors. The most important thing to note in the text is its language. Each end of each stanza of the poem ends with a wish of the woman. All these desires and wishes show she is ready to endure hardships and do anything to be his betrothed part.
In this poem, the speaker or the poetic persona convinces her betrothed that she is prepared to go to any extremes just for the sake of being his life partner. This wish is very well made clear from the first stanza of the poem, wherein readers find her convincing him that she would lead her life according to his wishes and be prepared to go wherever he wants. By the end of the poem, it becomes clear that Duffy is trying to show a soul’s desperation to fit in. Only marriage can ease her longing. Otherwise, it is far more difficult for a woman to stand alone in a patriarchal society.
You can read the full poem here.
I will be yours, be yours.
Make me your bride.
In the first stanza of ‘Betrothal,’ readers can actually feel the intensity of the speaker’s feelings. She seeks someone to devote herself entirely. Not only that, she is ready to take any means in order to be his partner. She can walk on the desolate moors with a spade in order to clear the surroundings and build a happy abode. All that she wants to do is to be his bride. Throughout the last text, readers can find the speaker swearing such appealing yet dangerous vows to be a perfect bride.
I will be Brave, be brave.
Make me your own.
With the introduction of these vital lines, Duffy succeeds in creating an image of a woman who is desperate enough to be at her lover’s side. The speaker tells her partner that she would be brave enough to dig her own grave for the sake of getting his love. She would happily lie down in her self-made grave just for the sake of being his “own.” This vow of the speaker seems a bit hyperbolic. Who can ever live with her desired partner after death? From her wish, it is clear that she somehow needs love or some sort of assurance. To get this, she can even accept death happily.
I will be good, be good.
Make me your love.
She is even prepared to die and lie in her grave and will consider herself lucky if he comes and kneels beside her grave. The pledges the speaker takes in ‘Betrothal’ remind readers of the traditional wedding scenes where a bride has to swear an oath of allegiance to her other half, portrayed as her protector. Besides, the speaker reminds her partner that she will be good to him. She will sleep in the “blankets of mud,” a symbolic reference to her own grave. Then she will wait for him to come and accept her as his partner. All she needs is his “love.”
I’ll stay forever, forever.
make me the one.
In the fourth stanza, the speaker says that she can wade in the river, a symbol of hardships. The poet uses a metaphor in “gown of stone.” It is a hint at marriage as a form of burden. The speaker is ready to wear this burden for the rest of her life in order to be the “one” in his life. From the speaker’s tone, it can be understood that she is ready to submit herself to her partner completely. Her voice is troubled, and a bit nervous that portrays her mental state.
I will obey, obey.
Make me your spouse.
In the above lines, the vows and pledges from the speaker continue. Here the poet again continues with her nuptial vows and says that she is prepared to do anything possible, even go to the ends of the world if only he becomes her partner. She will obey her partner’s orders and float to distant places. She would clear her conscience of any hesitation by gargling the vows. So, the marital “vows” are a kind of tool in order to purge a woman’s mind of her selfhood, individuality, and subjectivity. Being someone’s spouse needs one woman’s complete submission. Otherwise, society will castigate her.
I will say yes, say yes.
make me be wed.
The voice of the speaker sounds more helpless in the sixth stanza of ‘Betrothal’. She utters the term “yes” in succession in a kind of fear and desperation. What she says in the following lines is more shocking to hear from a woman. She says that she will sprawl in her wedding dress in her watery bed. It means she is ready to offer not only her mind but also her body to be his wife. If he accepts to marry her, she will provide her virginity as a form of sacred offering to her mortal lord.
I’ll wear your ring, your ring.
make me your name.
Readers can feel her intense feelings and her burning desire when she utters these lines. She would wear the ring and even be willing to sing and dance in the flames if she got his name. In this stanza, the term “flames” symbolically hints at the nature of the institution of marriage. For a woman who has self-respect, it feels like walking in the flames while uttering the vows. But, in the speaker’s case, she is ready to marry her partner as her identity is at stake. She needs her partner’s “name” to fit in a conventional society.
I’ll feel desire, desire.
Make me your lady.
Her burning desire is further intensified when she says that if she becomes his lady, she would feel so much passion that instead of perishing in flames, she would simply bloom and prosper in the fire. She would be so overwhelmed with her emotions that she wouldn’t be able to hide them and would be blushing like a baby. She would eagerly agree to all the marriage vows and do anything for him if only he made her his lady.
Thus, in the above lines, the speaker completely surrenders herself to her lover or husband. She is ready to do anything and is prepared to get adapted according to him, provided he accepts her as his wife.
I’ll say I do, I do.
Make me your wife.
The last stanza of ‘Betrothal’ makes everything clear to readers. Until the previous stanza, it seems that the speaker is madly in love with her partner. She is desperate to be with him for the rest of her life. After reading this stanza, the underlying message has a shocking effect on readers’ minds.
According to the speaker, she will be “ash” in a “jar.” Here, “ash” is a metaphor for her lost self, and the “jar” symbolizes subjugation or lack of freedom. It means that marriage burns a woman’s personal desires to ashes and keeps them in a sacred jar. The woman looks at it and laments her foolishness. Besides, the speaker offers this jar of her emotions to her partner. If he wishes, he can scatter her life.
In this way, Duffy does not show the desperation of a speaker to be someone’s wife. Instead, she points at the impact of marriage on a woman’s mind. It is a means to subjugate women and bury their emotions.
‘Betrothal’ consists of 9 quatrains or stanzas having four rhyming lines. Duffy loosely employs the AABB or the rhyming couplet form. In some instances, the regularity in rhyming breaks is due to the use of slant rhymes. For example, in the last two lines of the first stanza, “spade” imperfectly rhymes with “bride.” Besides, this poem is written from the perspective of a first-person speaker. The speaker is a woman whose weak voice finds a partner in order to carry on her journey.
Duffy makes use of the following literary devices in ‘Betrothal’.
- Anaphora: It occurs in the first two lines of each stanza. The lines begin with the first-person pronoun “I.”
- Repetition: There is a repetition of a specific term in the first line of every stanza. For example, in the second stanza, the speaker repeats the word “Brave” for the sake of emphasis.
- Refrain: The last line of each stanza contains the speaker’s wish that starts with the phrase “Make me ….”
- Metaphor: Readers can find an analogy in “blankets of mud.” It is an implicit reference to the grave. It also occurs in “gown of stone,” “watery bed,” “bloom in the fire,” etc.
Carol Ann Duffy is one of the most critical voices in contemporary British poetry. She belongs to a generation of women poets that includes Michele Roberts, Alison Fell, and several other famous women poets who carved a niche in the world of poetry. Despite their disparate social, political, and cultural characteristics, they all exhibit the recognizable contours of their foremothers – the women of the feminist movement of the late 1960s and 1970s.
Immensely anxious with the interrogation of certain accepted gender norms, Duffy’s work also had to confront a lot of racial intolerance, religious bigotry, the nuclear nightmare, the political indifference exuded by the Thatcher administration towards the unemployed and the underprivileged.
A psychoanalytical, challenging, and philosophical style are used in Carol Ann Duffy’s poems. Very beautifully, she brings together the romanticism of expression with the realism of clarity. In a very philosophical and provocative style, Duffy paints a picture of the society we live in.
When Duffy makes love the subject of her poems, she describes the intense sensations that come into play when we fall in love very beautifully. She always writes these love poems in the first person, which further increases the sense of intimacy and the disclosure of the poet’s personal thoughts and feelings. Through her technique of bringing together her analysis of personal feelings and linking them with romantic associations, she succeeds in creating some beautiful imagery.
Love, marriage, society, and customs are the subject matter of most of Duffy’s works. Some of these themes interplay in ‘Betrothal’ as well.
About Carol Ann Duffy
Born in Glasgow, brought up in Staffordshire, and educated in Liverpool, Carol Ann Duffy lives in London and retains a clear identification with the impoverished regions of Britain in which she grew up. Although she is a lesbian and a feminist, she displays none of the self-congratulatory essentialism commonly associated with such a stance.
Her work is analytical, deeply disturbing, and committed to posing far more questions than it answers. It is also at times profoundly humorous and innately probing like ‘Betrothal’.
Carol Ann Duffy’s poem ‘Betrothal’ is about a speaker’s desperate attempts to impress a man. She somehow wants to be his wife and do anything to get this done. There is selflessness in her voice and utter helplessness in her tone. Besides, this piece also ironically comments on the institution of marriage.
The poem was first published in 2005. It appears in Carol Ann Duffy’s best-known collection of poetry, Rapture, which received the T.S. Eliot Prize in 2005. This book taps on a number of themes, including love, gender, death, marriage, loneliness, etc.
The term “betrothal” means a formal engagement to be married. This custom varies from one region to the other depending on the beliefs or customs of a particular community. In most cases, the nuptial vows demand one woman’s complete devotion or submission to a man. Duffy’s poem showcases this aspect.
The following poems encompass similar themes present in Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Betrothal’.
- ‘The Ache of Marriage’ — This piece explores how difficult marriage can be, with the poet portray it as a painful affair.
- ‘The Difficulty that is Marriage’ — This poem taps on themes of marriage, relationships, love, and devotion.
- ‘Bees, So Many Bees’ — This piece comments on a failing marriage and being lost in a relationship.
You can also explore the best-loved poems of Carol Ann Duffy.