‘Originally’ by Carol Ann Duffy is a three-stanza poem which is divided into sets of eight lines. The stanzas do not follow a specific rhyme scheme, nor do they contain one overpowering technique. Duffy makes use of a number of different ways of contrasting images in her reader’s minds.
Throughout the poem, Duffy has utilized alliteration. This is most obvious in the first stanza with the repetition of the ‘f’ sound. It can be seen in “fell,” “fields,” and “fathers,” all within the first few lines.
Additionally, the first stanza is told from a very personal perspective, as if the events are happening almost in real-time. On the other hand, the two following stanzas seem to come from a place of greater knowledge. As if the child from the first section has grown up and is looking back on her life during this time period.
It is also important to note the title of this piece, ‘Originally.’ This word only comes into its full relevance in the final lines as the speaker contemplates what it means to originate from somewhere. She is clearly torn between the world she has made herself a part of, and the place she physically came from.
The poem begins with the speaker describing a car ride that took her and her family from their home country to a new one. They were all jammed together and thinking the same thoughts, that they wanted to go home. That was not possible though as the place they loved was many miles in the past and “vacant.” It was home no longer.
In the second stanza, the speaker has started to become a part of her new setting but is still frightened by the voices and actions of the people around her. She does not know how to contend with the boys who seem so grown up, or with her parent’s anxieties.
In the final stanza, she describes what it was like to lose her original accent and begin to sound like the other students. She also speaks about all the things she knows she has lost since coming to this new country and the questions she still has about her identity.
Analysis of Originally
We came from our own country in a red room
which fell through the fields, our mother singing
where we didn’t live any more. I stared
at the eyes of a blind toy, holding its paw.
In the first stanza, the speaker begins by letting the reader know that she is travelling with a group of people. These events are not happening in the present moment, they are being recalled at a later time. All the same, this first stanza seems to be more confined to the moments of the present than do the following two sections.
The speaker describes the family travelling together as being within “a red room.” While this phrase seems strange and out of context, as one continues through this section it becomes clear that it is in reference to the car they are driving. It has come to be much more than a car, they have spent so much time in it, with all of their possessions, it is as if they live there.
The mother and father are struggling with this journey just as much as the children are. He is driving, and she is “singing [his name] to the turn of the wheels. The mother is constantly telling him what to do and where to go. On top of this, the speaker’s “brothers” are crying, one of them is truly “bawling.”
She sees them all as feeling the same way. Their thoughts are cast back to the place they came from, “Home, / Home.” It is many miles away by now, back in a city they used to love, on a street and in a house that is now “vacant.” It seems as if the family is moving unwillingly, or at least that the kids are.
The speaker is quite young at this time and is not crying like her brothers, but contemplating what is happening while staring at a stuffed animal toy that has lost its eyes. She holds its hand for comfort.
All childhood is an emigration. Some are slow,
in my head. I want our own country, I said.
In the second stanza, the speaker is clearly much older. She is looking back on the times of her childhood when she felt like an immigrant. She sees childhood as being one big constant emigration in which one is forced from one situation to another and is made to learn and relearn the culture and customs.
Some of these moments of emigration are “slow” and leave one feeling “resigned.” Others are “sudden” and provide no time for preparation. No matter what type of emigration it is, it always leaves one with the wrong accent and without an understanding of the “familiar.” Nothing is comforting and everything seems to be out of place. It is easy for one, especially a child, to get lost, physically and mentally.
When growing up in different places a child would also be comforted with “big boys / eating worms,” something quite intimidating, and the sounds of shouted words that are not understood.
The speaker continues to state that in her situation, her parents were always anxious and that their anxiety was transferred to her. She never stopped wanting to go back to “our own country.”
But then you forget, or don’t recall, or change,
strangers ask. Originally? And I hesitate.
In the final section of the poem, the speaker is explaining what it means to become accustomed to a new home and culture. Eventually one forgets the past and all the other places they have called home. A transformation takes place.
This process is something the speaker is easily able to recall. She remembers forcing herself to speak in a new accent and how it felt like her “tongue [was] / shedding its skin like a snake.” She finally heard her own voice become identical to those in her classroom.
Now she has grown up and long since moved past the childish fears of a new place. There is still something out-of-place in her identity though. She knows how much she has lost from her past and when she is asked, “Where do you come from?” She doesn’t know how to answer.
Should she lay claim to her birthplace? Or maintain her new identity to which she has become so accustomed?