Carol Ann Duffy is a famous and iconic poet born in Glasgow, Scotland, and raised in England. She is a prestigious poet who obtained the honor of becoming a poet laureate. She was the first female to receive this prestigious honor that is chosen by the monarch. Duffy often writes poems in the first person and takes on the voice of characters that are misunderstood, perhaps because in her early life she lived in an impoverished city. She is pro-feminism and that is reflected in this poem which tells the story of a character from Charles Dicken’s novel “great expectations” Although interestingly the poem refers to the character as Havisham rather than Miss Havisham. This is a conjuncture, but perhaps that is supposed to symbolize the character trying to rid herself of that moniker as it is a reminder of how she was jilted?
Form and Tone in Havisham
Havisham is told from the perspective of Miss Havisham, a bitter and twisted character from the novel Great Expectations. Carol Ann Duffy created a series of poems told from the perspective of female characters from literature and mythology, although this poem does not come from that collection. The poem is presented in four stanzas and is written in free-verse with no rhyming pattern. The poem is dark and angry in tone and contains explicit language which helps to emphasize the anger that Miss Havisham’s character probably felt.
You can read the full poem Havisham here.
Beloved sweetheart bastard. Not a day since then
I haven’t wished him dead. Prayed for it
so hard I’ve dark green pebbles for eyes,
ropes on the back of my hands I could strangle with.
The very first line is immediately impactful, using a sentence constructed of three nouns with no commas to separate it. It is also an oxymoronic sentence as you wouldn’t associate the words, beloved and sweetheart, with the word bastard. This is striking as right from the off it shows Miss Havisham’s conflicting feelings towards her former lover. (in case you aren’t familiar with Miss Havisham’s story she was jilted at the altar). She then reveals her strong feelings of hatred, but is this sentiment undone by the preceding statement’s mixed message? We see in the end part of this stanza that holding on to this animosity is starting to take its toll on miss Havisham in a very physical way.
This stanza helps us to develop a level of sympathy for the narrator. The first two sentences are short and snappy, perhaps mirroring the personality of Miss Havisham herself. She reflects on what she has become and clearly can’t bear the sight of her own reflection. She evidently feels disempowered as she is yelling, seemingly at nobody. The dress she refers to is a wedding dress that Miss Havisham wore at all times. She even goes so far as to fail to recognize the person standing in front of her in the mirror. Referring to herself in the third person suggests she has become dissociative as if she no longer wants anything to do with the person she has become and it is clear from the final three words she wants to blame somebody for how she feels.
A lot of sentences in this poem run over into a new stanza. This gives the poem a very stuttering feel and is a nice way to emphasize the tension and anger that this poem is trying to evoke. Puce is another word for a brownish/red color, the etymology of the word is from the French word for flea and the color is often likened to the dead remains of a flea. When Miss Havisham talks of the “lost body over her(me)” she is presumably talking about her lover. She imagines him and clearly she still sexualizes him as in the next line she talks about using her tongue in his mouth and ear. Although interestingly she does not describe him as a him, but as an “it”, objectifying her former lover somehow demonizes him. She says she “goes down” and then “bite awake” could this be a polite way of describing her performing fellatio and then biting? There is a link too with the act of biting and the use of the word Puce, it almost gives her former lover a vampiric like quality. I think Miss Havisham is describing her former squeeze as a bloodsucker probably because she feels he sucked the life out of her.
hate behind a white veil; a red balloon bursting
in my face. Bang. I stabbed at a wedding cake.
Give me a male corpse for a long slow honeymoon.
Don’t think it’s only the heart that b-b-b-breaks.
I think that the word hate being carried on from the previous stanza is not coincidental it makes it emphatic and again Duffy makes the nod to the wedding dress in this stanza. She uses onamatepia for dramatic effect with the “bang” is that bang the sound of the balloon bursting or the stabbing of the wedding cake? These are both violent images and the fact that the word is a sentence all by itself means that you cannot tell to which sentence the bang attributes itself. Yet more graphic imagery is used by Miss Havisham’s character as she requests a corpse for a honeymoon. I think the suggestion being that if she can’t marry her partner that she may as well kill him. With the final line adding credence to that disturbing notion when she suggests it isn’t just hearts that break (perhaps meaning you can break bones as well!) The crass image of necrophilia suggested in the penultimate line is probably enough to make any sympathy for Miss Havisham subside. Whilst a person may have been understanding up until a point it is clear that Miss Havisham is a vile creature and whilst she has been scorned terribly it truly has left her a fiendish woman.
Summary of Havisham
This poem is full of violence and gives a chilling insight into the mind of Miss Havisham. It helps the reader empathize with the character whilst still giving her the cold, hard edge that she is famed for. Colors are used throughout the poem which gives it a very visual, very visceral feel. With the descriptions so vivid you can almost feel the character carrying out the deeds she describes. The sex scenes and the implied violent acts. What Duffy managed to achieve in this poem is to take an existing character and imitate their inner voice. Unlike her usual work, this character does not address the reader directly but instead, this is a monologue where Miss Havisham is probably thinking out loud. It creates an element of understanding for the character and then destroys it by letting the reader see just how twisted she has become. What we see in this poem is a very sudden descent into madness.