‘Dolphins’ by Carol Ann Duffy is a four stanza poem that is divided into even sets of six lines, or sextets. These sextets do not follow a specific pattern of rhyme, but that does not mean that there isn’t rhyme present in the text. For example, there are moments of internal rhyme between words which do not correspond at the end of lines. At the end of line three of the fourth stanza, “own” and “stone” rhyme. Additionally, the end words of lines four and six of the second stanza rhyme, “began” and “man.”
There are also instances of half or slant rhyme within the text. These are words which line up due to similarities in vowel or consonant sounds. For example, “flesh” and “blessed” in lines two and three of the second stanza are connected due to assonance, or the similarity in the short “e” sound.
Alliteration is another technique which pops up in ‘Dolphins.’ It occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. A reader can see it happening with phrases such as “silver skin” or “deepen to dream.”
The most importune technique used by Duffy in ‘Dolphins’ is anthropomorphism. She used the dolphins as the speaker/s of the poem, giving their perspective on their own confinement. Due to their obvious sentience, the reader is unable to escape the fact that the dolphins are miserable. They know they are not where they’re supposed to be and they are capable of missing the past. There is no way for a human look on this situation, after hearing from the dolphins themselves, and think that it is okay to keep them captive.
You can read the full poem here.
Summary of Dolphins
The poem begins with the speaker defining the world as the space where one exists. To the dolphins in captivity the world is the pool. They know very well the world they were taken from, the open ocean, and now have to contend with a future of confinement. There are only men and hoops and endless circles around the pool.
The dolphin speaker goes on to describe how they first came to know their space and realize their terrible change of circumstances. They used to be “blessed” but soon realized that that time was over. Now they are “not blessed.” The poem concludes with the dolphins explaining that they know there is no hope of ever leaving this place, not while there are human beings in existence.
Analysis of Dolphins
In the first stanza of this piece the speaker begins by stating that the world which one interacts with is the world which is real. This means that if you “swim” or “dance” in a space, that is your world. The speaker, who is revealed to be a collective of dolphins, states that dolphins in captivity are “in [their] element but…not free.” This line is particularly impactful as Duffy uses the cliche phrase “in our element.” It takes on an important second meaning in that water is an element in and of itself.
In the next lines the speaker walks through the two different worlds they have belonged to. There is the one that has their “shape” and then the one in which “you cannot breathe for long.” The latter is the human world, the one in which the dolphins are forced to perform in. It is the free ocean world that they strive for, but unfortunately they have the human keepers to contend with. They are forced to deal with “hoops” and “man” and their demands.
The stanza ends with the line, “There is a constant flowing guilt”. The word flowing relates back to the overarching image of water, and the guilt connects to the inner emotions of the keepers. They know keeping the dolphins in captivity is wrong but they do it anyway.
It is interesting to consider how one might approach this piece without the title. If a reader applied these same lines to the human condition, how might they be interpreted.
In the waters of the theme park the dolphins have “found no truth”. There is nothing familiar about the world they’re forced to live in. They can’t tap into the history of their “flesh”. The speaker makes use of a simple way of describing what happened to them. They were “blessed” in their previous world, and in this one they “are not blessed.”
In lines four through six the dolphin speaker/s explains how they came to understand their new, confining space. They travelled it for “days” and then “began / to translate.” They figured out quickly that there was nothing more to it than what they initially experienced. It “was the same space” day after day. They are also able to count on the continued presence of man “above” the space.
In these lines a reader should take note of the three different times the word “space” is used. The speaker says, “such space” once and “same space” twice. This is in order to emphasize the importance of place and space in the dolphin’s world.
In the third stanza the speaker uses the word “blessed” again. They know that they are “no longer blessed” because the world doesn’t act like it used to. It will not “deepen to dream in.” This contrasts with what they knew before. The oceans were to them a world which reflected back their own selves.
There are moments in which they see one another, and the flash of “silver skin” and think they are somewhere else. It brings up a memory of the past in which they were free to swim and be with others of their kind. Now, the only colours they really see are the ones on the “ball.” The stanza ends with the speaker saying that there is no way out of this situation for them until “man has disappeared.” This is a dark statement which alludes to more than the end of that day’s show. They know that dolphins, and all those like them, are not going to be free until men are gone for good.
In the fourth stanza the speaker begins by saying that the “moon has disappeared”. In ways which are familiar for animals in captivity, the dolphins circle and circle. They speak on the “well-worn grooves” in the water and of a music that is lost forever. This is the language of their previous lives. It is the pattern of their prior movements and the interactions they use have with the larger ecosystem.
In the final lines the poem ends on a very dark note. They spend the night circling, and eventually sink to the bottom of the pool. As stated in the last stanza, they know there is “no hope” of getting out of this situation, there are only the “limits of this pool”. Then, the man is back again and the “whistle blows”. They are forced to perform while knowing in their minds that they “will die here.”