A second analysis: Ithaca is a love poem. It describes a woman coming back to the town of Ithaca to seek out her lover.
Form and Tone
Ithaca’s tone is quite light-hearted, although it is touched with poignancy as it looks at love from a viewpoint that analyses the highs and the lows. The poem is written in free verse and consists of one singular stanza. There is no consistent rhyming pattern although there are a couple of times that end-rhymes do feature throughout the poem.
This is a really simplistic hook. The poem starts in medias res, meaning in the middle of the action. Starting the poem with the word “and” suggests that there were previous actions we weren’t privy to which straight away gives us, as readers a sense of intrigue and a desire to continue reading.
Duffy uses alliteration here which adds a nice flow to the narrative of the poem. It also helps to set a scene and create a visual of the main character. Duffy knows that creating the image of a sailor will evoke certain stereotypes in a person’s mind and she uses this to her advantage by subverting what we think we know in the next line.
slipped on the dress of the girl that I was,
Yep, the narrator is a girl! Didn’t see that coming did you? The use of the word “was” is slightly jarring here. Although the poem is written in the past tense it lends an ambiguity to the line, why would the narrator say that she was a girl. Is she no longer a girl?
It is not stated here why she is going overboard but the use of the word slid is interesting. This denotes an easy movement. Could this have a deeper meaning? Perhaps it is to add to the alliteration as “s-words” are frequently used in the first few lines of this poem.
There are a lot of paces called Ithaca. But given all the maritime references and the description of the sea that is given later in the poem, it’s fairly safe to assume the eponymous Ithaca is indeed the one in Greece.
The evening softened and spread,
Here Duffy uses personification in order to bring the water to life. As previously mentioned, the water here is Turquoise, which is an apt description of the water in and around Greece. The waters of the Ionian and Aegean seas, as well as the Mediterranean, are famed for their deep turquoise hues.
Now the sky is personified. I think this is a nice bit of interplay as it creates a symbiotic relationship between the water and the sky. This emphasizes the natural beauty of the area.
My hands moved in the water, moved on the air,
This is a very physical description. I believe these are actions that the character actually performed rather than being symbolic in any way.
I think as this follows on from the previous line, by doing this it is likening the tracing of her hand through the water to the tracing of her hand through her lover’s hair, etc. Although she describes the lover that she “was” there’s that word again. So much of this seems like it is describing somebody that doesn’t exist in the same form anymore. This is one of only two rhymes in the poem and I think it is utilized to bring the two comparisons together.
She flits from describing intimate moments to describing the landscape. Could she be doing this to draw a comparison between the two?
shouldered like rough shields,
Here it is unclear whether she is describing her lover or the geography. It could be relevant to either. I think the ambiguity is deliberate.
This is almost certainly describing Ithaca itself and confirms if it hadn’t been done already that the poem is based around the town that is situated on a Greek island.
jewels are used in the description of the landscape here because they are associated with beauty. Duffy is evoking nature which is typical of romantic poetry.
the olive trees ripening their tears in our pale fields.
Once again olives are an allusion to the poems Greek locale. They are described and compared to tears which is an interesting way to end the descriptive part of the poem.
The drifting that the narrator is doing here is presumably drifting towards the shore of the island.
Until now the descriptions have all been very visual this description invokes scent which adds an extra dimension to the description making it more authentic.
the fragrances of your name,
This line suggests that the aforementioned fragrances make the narrator think of her lover.
The narrator seems pretty obsessed with their lover. Chanting their name repeatedly certainly suggests an almost unhealthy obsession!
It’s clear then that she had been to Ithaca before and her intentions upon returning are also clear she has come for her lover.
to Ithaca, all hurt zeroed now
It sounds like whatever sadness she had been feeling had been canceled out. Why is this? Had she taken time away and just needed time to heal? Or is it just all the memories of her lover making her blind to how she was feeling?
It is clear that the narrator’s emotions are greatly tied to their partner. Their partner can do damage with a single word? That is a lot of power over the narrator!
This is probably a reference to the fact that Ithaca is supposedly the home of the mythical Greek hero Odysseus.
This description I think is supposed to make the narrator seem a bit dowdy. To belittle herself in order that she isn’t compared to a hero.
dragging my small white boat.
Once again this is designed to make herself seem insignificant, hence the mentioning that the boat is small.
About Carol Ann Duffy
Carol Ann Duffy is the current poet laureate for Great Britain. This is a highly prestigious honor and is awarded by the British Monarch. She is of Scottish descent having been born in Glasgow, although she lived in England from about the age of eight years old. Her poetry is widely loved and widely studied! It appears on the syllabus for GCSE and A-level English in England. She is well versed and can vary her style accordingly, she is great at using poetic structure to help emphasize meaning. Her poems tend to center around contemporary issues and emotions.