“Epiphany” by Carol Ann Duffy is a short fourteen-line poem that does not follow a strict rhyme scheme but does have a number of repeating sounds. For instance, the end rhyme, “-ight” appears three times in the poem, and the end rhyme, “-ed” appears five, acting as a refrain of sorts. It is utilized to give the poem a sense of unity and keep the reader on pace. Epiphany appeared in Duffy’s collection, Rapture: Poems, that was published in 2005. The full poem can be found here.
“Epiphany” begins with the speaker describing a number of revelations that she has said since entering into a relationship. First, she now knows that she is unable to close her eyes “to the light,” as it is inside her own head. The warmth, brightness, and brilliance of her significant other is blinding her. She cannot block it out as she would the sun. Second, she tells the reader that she is unable to sleep in her own bed, but only in the bed that is “thy warm skin.” She is only comfortable and able to fall asleep when she is with this person.
She continues, stating another way her life has changed. She is unable to really “live, when days,” and nights are spent without this person. It is like she is no longer living, she is spending her time with the dead.
She also states that she is no longer able to “talk sense.” Her words are muddled and her speech uneven, as seen so far in the poem, as if a “caul” is wrapped around her.
Finally, the speaker states that she is changed by the doubt she feels about the relationship she is a part of. She feels doubt but also doubts her doubt. There is still a “light” burning within her. Sometimes it is bright gold and warm, other times it is burning red.
Analysis of Epiphany
The speaker of this poem, perhaps Duffy herself, begins this piece by stating the first of a number of epiphanies that surround one particular person. She has come to understand a few basic things that are new about herself. This unnamed significant other has changed her in these fundamental ways.
Before reading the first line of Epiphany, in an effort to make understanding each line a little easier, the reader can imagine the words “I can’t” preceding each new statement. This mental trick is especially helpful in the first line as the poem seems to begin out of nowhere. The speaker states that she can’t “close [her] eyes to the light.” It is impossible for her now to block out the light that is shining within her. It is not coming from the exterior world, but from within her mind. She has been lit by new thoughts, new experiences, and presumably love for this person.
She continues on to state another thing that she is unable to do now, “sleep.” No longer is she able to sleep alone in her bed. Her only resting place, is “your…warm skin.” She reiterates this line twice, stopping in the middle to insure that the reader completely understands the necessity of her companion. She does not need a physical bed to sleep but only this person’s presence.
In line seven the speaker hinges her whole life on her listener. She states that she does not live when she cannot see “thee.” The “days,” and “nights,” that pass while she is not with them are lifeless hours spent “with the dead.” She has so little life in her, so little will to live, that she might as well be dead when this person is not around.
The relationship is affecting all aspects of her being and at this point in Epiphany, the reader might stop to think whether this is a healthy situation to be in. Her life seems to be totally rearranged by even the thoughts of her partner, she does not have the control she would have over herself without them there.
Whether the relationship is healthy or not, the speaker still has two additional ways that she is being changed by the connection.
When she speaks or attempts to “talk sense,” she is unable to. The repetition of the phrases, “when words, when words” and “sightless of you, sightless of thee” make more sense after reading this line. Not only has Duffy chosen to repeat them for emphasis but also to highlight her, or her speaker’s, inability to communicate clearly.
Words are to the speaker, “the cauls of the unsaid.” A “caul” can be defined as a confining, and close-fitting hairpiece worn by a woman. The “cauls” that contain her words feel restricting and act as barriers to clear speech. The “caul” that is affecting her is her love and constant dwelling on her unnamed listener.
The poem concludes with two final lines that throw darkness on the relationship. Up until this point, the reader has had no reason to doubt whether the feelings are reciprocated, but in the final lines, there is some concern.
The narrator speaks of “belief” and how she can’t “believe when belief / is a light gone out yet burning.” It seems as if the speaker’s object of affection may not be as considerate or responsive in their love as she is in hers. She is unable to believe in this person when that belief is a “light gone out.” It no longer lights her or gives her peace. Yet still, the light, she states, is “yet burning.” This double negative shows the conflict in the speaker’s heart. She knows she should not believe in this person but within her, she is still nursing a small amount of hope. That hope, or belief, changes quickly from “gold” to “red.” It is at once gold: warm and comforting, and then red: passionately needy and angry at the fact that she’s doubting at all.
About Carol Ann Duffy
Carol Ann Duffy was born in Scotland in 1955 and grew up around her four younger brothers. She went to school at Liverpool University and received a degree in Philosophy. Throughout her life, she has worked as a reviewer, critic, and editor of anthologies, alongside her publishing of numerous books of poetry. She was made Britain’s Poet Laureate in May of 2009, and is the first lesbian poet to ever hold this position.