Carol Ann Duffy wrote ‘Parliament’ in reaction to parliament’s lack of action in the face of the global climate crisis. The poem speaks on themes of the environment, as well as human nature, and politics.
The poem takes the reader through various ecologically delicate environments around the world. Birds, from a macaw to an albatross, speak on the nature of these places, the damage occurring within them, and the danger of doing nothing. Some of the birds who listen on react dramatically while others seem to have no regard for this information. The poem concludes forebodingly, alluding to a future in which no one does anything meaningful to alter the path humanity is on.
You can read the full poem here.
‘Parliament’ by Carol Ann Duffy is a fifty-two line poem that does not follow a specific rhyme scheme but does make use of rhyme throughout the text. These include examples of half-rhyme and full rhyme. Full rhyme, also known as perfect rhyme, is found at the end of several lines. It can be seen in the similar end sounds of the words “trees” and “seas” in lines three and nine as well as “croak” and “oak” at the end of lines four and five.
Half rhyme, also known as slant or partial rhyme, is seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line or multiple lines of verse. For example, “wood” and “world” lines one and two and “saw,” “slow,” and “thaw” in line thirty-eight. Another example appears in line forty-seven with “snow” and “slowly”.
Duffy makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Parliament’. These include alliteration, enjambment, metaphor and personification.The first, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “magpie mocked” in line six and “written word” in line forty-six.
Metaphor is a comparison that doesn’t use “like” or “as”. It’s used to say that one thing is another, in order to create additional meaning or play into the poem’s larger themes. This entire piece, with the references to birds, is an extended metaphor for Parliament, the cacophony of opinions leading the an entirely inadequate and disastrous to the climate crisis (as seen through the different sounds the birds make) and inability to listen to one another.
Personification occurs when a poet imbues a non-human creature or object with human characteristics. Throughout ‘Parliament’ the birds are personified, they are given the ability to speak, make arguments, and embody other character traits of squabbling human beings.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. This technique is used throughout ‘Parliament’, such as in the transition between lines six and seven and nine and ten.
Analysis of Parliament
In the first lines of ‘Parliament’ the speaker begins by setting the scene. The reader is getting some insight into the events playing out in the “writers’ wood”. There, one can find “every bird with a name in the world / crowd[ing] the leafless trees”. These trees, without new growth, symbolize a lack of some kind. This becomes important later on in the text as the speaker begins to allude to the climate crisis and the changes taking place all over the world.
The birds in this tree are ones “with a name”. They have been named, and therefore recognized as important in some way. This is clearly a reference to the nature of parliament and those who are sent there. Each bird “took its turn to whistle or croak”. Everyone had something to say, and a different way of saying it. The first three examples depict an owl, magpie, and rook. Each of these birds makes a different sound and sits in a different tree. This is representative of the varying opinions and the different backgrounds from which those opinions originate.
In the next lines of ‘Parliament’ Duffy gets into the details about what some of these birds said. There is the cormorant who spoke about the “Stinking seas / below ill winds” and the fact that there is nothing swimming in the ocean. Its a “plastic soup” and for thousands of miles is filled with “petroleum crap”. After this depiction of pollution within the earth’s oceans the next birds, representative of other areas of ecological importance react.
The next depiction of the state of the plant comes from the seagull. It described coral bleaching, speaking on how it turned from red to white and is now “dead / under stunned waters”. Even the water in this piece is personified. It reacts as another living creature, flabbergasted at the changes occurring. In addition to the coral, the gull also speaks on the fish that have lost their “language”. It has been “cut out at the root”. Their world has been destroyed, irreparably so. The oceans are “Mute,” gagged with oil. The bird points out the Gulf of Mexico specifically.
Continuing on, the birds react to this news but don’t have anything to say about it. Some are more concerned than others. The “vulture picked at its own breast” and the “woodpecker heckled,” as if disbelieving.
Next to speak on the climate crisis is the “macaw”. It describes the degradation of the rainforest. It’s being destroyed through an endless repetition of forest fires and logging. They’re torn down with chainsaws, making room for grazing cattle, and the growing and selling of cocaine. There are the “Ranchers” and “Loggers” to contend with, as well as the “Shooters”. The list-like structure of these lines creates a feeling of escalation as one problem is added to the next.
Again, there are a few reactions from the birds. Most notably, from the “nightingale” who is only able to “garble” something in return. Then, there is the crane who speaks on the melting permafrost and broken terrain. This bird describes how the methane is seeping up from underground, where it has been trapped for millions of years beneath the ice.
In the last lines of ‘Parliament,’ the speaker depicts the reactions of the raven, a heron, and a bat. The bat is deeply depressed by these pieces of information and hangs as if committing suicide. Although they have all shared the terrible news with one another and should’ve, as metaphors for members of parliament, being able to act, they don’t.
Nothing happens and so history is written. Its fall upon the earth is compared to an eagle in silhouette. The last image is that of the albatross speaking on the “Arctic ice” and the moon separating or calving from the earth. These lines are more abstract than the previous ones. They allude to utter devastation the likes of which no one can survive.
The last symbol to note is that of the albatross. As was popularized in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ the albatross is a symbol for self-sabotage. It kept the sailors’ company on the ship until they shot it, dooming themselves to increased bad luck. The living albatross was a symbol of creation, life, and flourishing future growth. But once dead, it represents sin from which no one can return The connection to the climate crisis and the lack of action on the part of humankind, especially those in power, is clear.