Nostalgia by Carol Ann Duffy explores the moment in which the term ‘Nostalgia’ was coined, following the crusades of 17th century Swiss mercenaries. It follows the path of the mercenaries, hired to kill for money, as they begin to miss their homes.
The poem is split into three stanzas, the first two stanzas measuring 9 lines and the last 10. This shift in line length is emblematic of the changes the soldier encounters upon returning home. Everything seemingly the same, yet slightly different. There is a thematic focus on the mental afflictions and heartache nostalgia brings, and the tragic impossibility of recapturing the past.
Context to Nostalgia
In the 17th century, Swiss mercenaries were hired to fight other people’s battles, earning money, ‘crude coins’, as they did so. They left their homes to seek employment, earning for their brutality. They were a feared force and had no trouble finding people who would pay for their services. Yet, being away from home for so long in lands completely different to their own had consequences. Many of the mercenaries yearned to return to their home, missing the people they had left.
A medical student working with the mercenaries coined their condition ‘Nostalgia’. The word stems from the combination of the Greek words for ‘Homecoming’ and ‘pain/ache’. This was the birth of the word ‘nostalgia’, around which Duffy focuses her poem.
You can read the full poem Nostalgia here.
The unidentified ‘it’ within the first line of Nostalgia by Carol Ann Duffy presents the condition as an unknown force. Not given a name until the second stanza, the affliction of Nostalgia makes the mercenaries physically ‘ill’. This first stanza focuses on the symptoms of the unknown sickness, with Duffy commenting on the historical situation of the 17th-century mercenaries.
The harsh hyphen placed at the end of the first line serves to sever the mercenaries from the description of their home. This punctuation forces a physical break within the poem, representative of the distance between the soldiers and their home. They are separated from ‘the mountains’ and ‘fine air’, seemingly unable to regress back home.
The double repetition of ‘leaving’ solidifies this distance, with the emphasis of the action of departing being elevated by Duffy. Repetition is used to a similar effect with the focus on ‘down, down.’ This focus on the descent not only realizes the physical journey of the mercenaries, leaving the mountains but also implies the decline of their mental conditions, sinking deeper into the unknown affliction of nostalgia. The caesura after the double repetition forces a slight break within the line, further elevating the melancholia of these opening lines.
The adjective ‘dull’ serves to present the ‘coins’ which they are gaining as not enough to bear the weight of the pain they feel. For the mercenaries, it doesn’t seem worth it to be away from home.
The repetition of ‘wrong’, collocated against different sensorial inputs charges the poem with a sense of synesthesia. Each sense is physically rejecting being away from home. This is a full-body yearning to escape back to the ‘mountains’ from which the mercenaries came.
The finality of ‘it was killing them’, placed within grammatical isolation from a preceding caesura and proceeding end stop compounds the sense of hopelessness. The mercenaries are so impacted by their desire to be at home that they are physically dying. The bloodthirsty soldiers reduced to ‘pined, wept, grown men’.
Within this stanza, Duffy focuses on the moments after the ‘Doctor’ has named ‘it’ as ‘nostalgia’. There is a great deal of alliteration within this stanza, specifically on ‘h’: ‘Hearing’, ‘heart; of how it hurt…heavier…hear…home’. This repeated sound is emblematic of the word passing from person to person, the idea of ‘nostalgia’ catching on much alike how the mercenaries themselves have become inflicted. The repeated ‘h’ also creates a soft flow within the poem, reflecting the somber tone which has been created.
The grammatical isolation of ‘- the sad pipes-‘ brings a melancholic tune to the poem. The reader can imagine a soft, ‘sad’ song playing in the background as the ‘dwindling light’ fades to nothing. The poem is sensual, drawing upon multiple senses to evoke this sense of longing in the reader. Duffy works cleverly with image, sound, and even ’smell’ to elevate the synesthesia of the poem. Nostalgia being a multi-sensory concept itself, the poem essentially embodies the concept, being a mechanism to impose the feeling of nostalgia upon the reader.
The focus on a particular moment, ‘where maybe you met a girl’, furthers the sense of time passing. The moment is now long gone, but the fixation and romanticization of the past is palpable. Duffy focuses on these tiny moments, those which remain in your memory long after they have passed. The longing to return to the past, yet inability to do so is a depressing reality, the tonal melancholia of the poem driving this somber paradox.
This stanza is the most tragic of the three. It focuses directly on the inability to recapture the past, the impossibility of returning to the moment which the mercenaries are longing for.
Perhaps the most complex line in the poem is routed at the start of this stanza, ’Some would never fall in love had they not heard of love’. This line states that because the word ‘nostalgia’ was coined, people can now associate their feelings with that term. This concept of language allowing a pathway for feeling is incredibly metaphysical. Here, Duffy suggests that because a term to describe the feeling has been created, more and more people can now identity and self-diagnose their feelings as ‘nostalgia’.
The sense of melancholy is palpable in this stanza, focusing on the depressing blend of memory and longing to return to the moment that memory took place. Duffy explores two examples, the first of a ‘priest’ ‘crying’, the second of a ‘schoolteacher’ who is ‘too late’. The focus, especially with the schoolteacher on the passing of time and the inability to return to the past is extended into the final quatrain. The inescapable tragedy which the feeling of melancholia brings manifests in different ways. Either the physical ‘crying’, or the more subtle silence of the schoolteacher thrust into memories of the past.
The final quatrain focuses on one of the mercenaries who decide to return home. The instant warmth and new beginning suggested by ’Spring’ implies the possibility of recapturing the past the solider had longed to return to. Yet, this image also suggests a passing of time, foreshadowing the final lines.
The triple repetition of ‘same’ chimes back to the first stanza’s repetition of ‘leaving’ and ‘down’. The employment of a mirrored technique binding the poem together in tonal melancholia. Although he expects everything to be how he remembered it, the depressive sense of the inability to recapture the past chimes through from stanza 1.
The final three words, placed after a caesura elevate the melancholic final moment of the poem. The soldier gave in to his desires, left the mercenaries, and returned home. Yet, ‘everything changed’, what he was searching for is impossible to regain. This odd sense of nostalgia, a yearning for a particular moment in the past is impossible to recreate. The final insinuation of the soldier standing in a familiar place, unable to find the past happiness he once had is incredibly depressing. The poem embodies this sense of nostalgia, focusing historically on the coining of the phrase through exploring the impact of the affliction. The inability to recapture the past is palpable, with Duffy mounting it’s passing.