History by Carol Ann Duffy explores the female perspective on history, always being present but being ignored by the men who have written accounts of the past. Duffy personifies history into a single woman, this woman being mistreated and left alone in her old age. History demonstrates the presence of women throughout historic events, this woman having witnessed all. Duffy rallies that women were always there for these events and therefore cannot be forgotten or erased from history. Duffy goes against the notion of the quiet old lady, subverting the idea of beauty in order to firmly state the idea: women are here, they always have been, and they will not be forgotten or lost to age.
History by Carol Ann Duffy uses personification to compound all of the events in history into one woman. This woman, representing all women, has seen every major event in the past, Duffy reminding the reader that women have always been present, even if history does not remember them. Right from the moment Jesus was removed from the cross, up until the wartime evacuations within the world wars, women were there, watching and partaking in history. Duffy aims to remind the reader of the female experience, often lost within a history that focuses on the lives of men. The personified ‘everywoman’ is left alone in a rotting house, representing the mistreatment of women throughout history – something that is now only beginning to change.
You can read the full poem History here.
Form and Structure
Duffy writes History in 7 stanzas, each measuring 6 lines. There is no rhyme scheme within the poem. However, there are several cases of internal rhyme. In using this more subtle form of rhyme, Duffy is pointing to the subtextual or hidden history of women, often not remembered but absolutely important. The internal rhyme creates a connection between lines, the subtle ringing of syllables reflecting the connected nature of history. The rhyme creates a link between words, emblematic of the connection between women that spans across history, women present at every major historical event – a testament to their perspective.
Context to History
Duffy references many events within history during the poem, with many spanning across the whole of recorded history. Between stanzas three-six, Duffy alludes to many events which I have summarised below.
- The events begin with Jesus being taken off the cross: ‘ease him down/from the cross’.
- The shaming of Jesus (Matthew 26.67): ’the soldiers spitting’
- Jesus’ resurrection: ‘fisherman swore he was back’
- The rise and fall of the Roman Empire: ‘basilicas rise’
- Medieval wars: ‘the bloody crusades’
- IRA and British army clashing: ‘Bannockburn’
- World War 1: ‘Passchendaele’
- World War 2: ‘Babi Yar’
- The war of Vietnam: ‘Vietnam’.
- Hitler’s suicide: ’the dictator strutting and stuttering film blew out his brains’
- Going to concentration camps: ‘children waved/their little hands from the trains’
Duffy uses these events to illustrate how in every historic occurrence women have been ignored and rejected from memory. By placing the woman personification of History within these events, it gives agency to the idea that these women all lived once, they deserve to be remembered as a part of history as much as anyone else.
The most important technique Duffy uses when writing History is personification. The central unnamed woman within the poem comes to represent all of those forgotten women of the past, events of history personified into the mystery character. In doing this, Duffy connects the female experience, emphasizing the importance of women’s perspectives while also demonstrating how they have been continually abused and undervalued throughout history. The final figure, ‘smelling of pee’ portrays a woman forgotten, women’s perspectives often deemed not important enough to remember or take care of.
Another technique that Duffy employs within History is caesura. Caesura disrupts the natural flow of a line, creating tiny pauses that derail the movement of the meter. In doing this, Duffy emphasizes keywords with these pauses coming before or after important phrases. An example of this would be how ‘the Cross, his mother’ both emphasizes ‘Cross’ and ‘mother’ due to the caesura in the form of a comma coming between them and inserting a slight pause.
Stanzas One and Two
She woke up old at last, alone,
The first word of the poem chimes ‘She’, instantly establishing the central theme of the poem: the female perspective. Duffy places the personified ‘History’ as the first thing the reader encounters upon reading the poem, the disoriented woman waking up ‘alone’. This status of being ‘alone’ reflects how women’s perspective is often forgotten within history.
Duffy rallies against the patriarchal notion that women must be pristine and beautiful, creating a depiction of a woman who goes against these ideas. Her mouth is ‘tooth[less]’, looking ‘half-dead’ as she ‘limped downstairs’. The use of verbs within these two stanzas, ‘limped’, ‘slurped’, ‘wheezed and coughed’, ‘dozed, snored’ all further the indelicate and graceless presentation of the woman. Going against the patriarchal archetype of women, Duffy has creates a woman who does not have to look perfect and beautiful, portraying someone who doesn’t care that they smell ‘of pee’.
This description, coming as the final and shortest line of stanza one, ‘smelling of pee’ is finished by an end stop. The blunt nature of this description intends to shock the reader, Duffy displaying the natural state of this woman through a manner that goes against the stereotypes of women. Ugliness and lacking grace are not something to be shied away from, Duffy putting these qualities at the center of this woman. This simultaneously dismantles the stereotype, while also suggesting that the woman (representing women’s perspectives throughout history) is not cared for by society, Duffy demonstrating how women are left unattended as they grow old.
Stanzas Three – Six
She was History.
cold, in the dark,
These stanzas begin with the phrase ‘She was History’, the short sentence contrasting the following lengthy descriptions of moments in history. Duffy’s use of a short sentence creates a blunt line, furthered by the use of an end stop. These poetic techniques culminate in a bold depiction of the woman, the grandeur of ‘History’ being attributed to the equally impressive ‘She’ – both being capitalized in this short sentence.
Duffy uses these stanzas to move through different events in history, each one being witnessed by women. It is interesting to note that the verbs that Duffy uses, ‘been’, ‘seen’, ‘watched’, ‘witnessed’, ‘observed’, are all passive instead of active. This could suggest that women are silent observers in history, watching passively while events happen around them. This links to the historic conception of a woman’s place, Duffy focusing on the idea that women’s perspectives were deemed less important, therefore taking on a passive, rather than active, role in history.
Many poetic techniques are used to emphasize the events, including plosive ‘b’ across ‘blew out his brains’ to further the horror of this imagery, horrific imagery within ‘burnt at the stake’, and enjambment to reflect the movement of the children way on the trains while they ‘waved/their little hands’.
in the empty house.
onto the floor.
The final stanza returns to the present, the woman withdrawing from memories of the past to explore the ‘empty house’. Her home has been vandalized, ‘Bricks through the windows…fresh graffiti sprayed’, demonstrating how people don’t care for this woman, letting the perspective and memories of women be lost to time.
The final image, ‘shit wrapped in a newspaper posted/onto the floor’ cements the terrible treatment of women. The gentle verbs ‘wrapped’ and ‘posted’ seem soft and nonchalant, furthering the disgusting image of the ‘shit…onto the floor’, Duffy once again disquieting her audience. This woman, representing all of the women throughout history, is neglected and abused by society, her incredible wisdom and knowledge being undermined by a society that does not care about the female perspective. By writing this poem, Duffy gives a voice to those forgotten women, outlining that women are here, they do matter, they will not be forgotten.