Prayer by Carol Ann Duffy is a four stanza poem which is divided into three sets of four lines and one set of two lines. The quatrains, or sets of four lines, follow a consistent rhyme scheme of cdcd efef, with the ending two-line couplet rhyming, gg. The poet has chosen this particular rhyme scheme in an effort to mimic the sing-song-like nature of an actual prayer. You can read the full poem here.
Summary of Prayer
Prayer by Carol Ann Duffy describes the different forms that a prayer can take in the modern world, and how those forms provide comfort in desperate times.
The poem begins with the speaker describing a moment in which one has run out of options. All the subjects of her poem are in this same space. They have nowhere to turn, and have run out of faith to fall back on. She continues on to describe how the simplest things, a sound, sight or memory can bring one back to happier moments. These serve as remedies, as a prayer might have in the past, for dark and depressive moments.
The poem contains a number of different descriptions of these moments. They range from reconnecting with nature, and hearing a piano scale, to the sound of a mother calling her child.
By the end of the poem the speaker has concluded her array of prayer by mentioning the BBC Shipping Forecast and how the regularity of its broadcast can bring one peace and induce calmness over times of stress.
Analysis of Prayer
In the first stanza of this piece the speaker begins by describing a situation in which one feels stunted. This moment, and ones like it, are times that drive a person to prayer. The speaker specifically states though that this moment is so overwhelming that one “cannot pray.” Even the refuge from chaos, which prayer is considered by many, is inaccessible.
The speaker has yet to make clear what would have to be happening for a person to feel this way, at least within the context of this poem. That being said, it is quite easy to find these emotions within oneself while reading. All people, no matter where they’re from, have felt desperation and the inability to act.
In the following lines the speaker describes what it is that happens next. A person, in this case a woman, who has found themselves on the brink of emotional or perhaps even physical desperation, might hear something that allows them to “lift / [their] head from the sieve of [their] hands.” The speaker is describing a very familiar pose in which one rests their head in their hands and their fingers separate around their face, creating what she calls a “sieve.”
When this has happened, and the woman has heard the familiar sound, she lifts her head. She is hearing the “minims,” or half-notes, “sung by a tree.” This moment is a “gift,” one that lifts her spirits and reminds her of better times. The natural world has returned her to a more peaceful state of mind.
In the second stanza the speaker continues to describe another stand-in for prayer. She understands that on “Some nights,” one is unable to believe or devote themselves to a religion. One becomes “faithless.” In this instances there are other outlets to relieve stress and pain. Prayer can take other forms, aside from the traditional recitations and pleas.
In this particular instance, while one is feeling faithless, a “truth” is able to enter one’s heart. This is a revelation or the feeling of coming to terms with the reality of one’s situation. The pain one experiences is “familiar,” and that familiarity is a comfort.
In the second half of this stanza the speaker describes another person, a man, who is standing “stock-still.” He is recalling a sound from his youth and being transported back to a happier time. This moment places additional emphasis on the importance of simple actions, memories, and experiences. This person can hear his “youth” through the “Latin chanting of a train.” He has made a connection through the world around him.
In the final quatrain of this poem the speaker moves to include herself within the body of people who suffer from moments of desperation. She asks that the readers, or any listening to the poem, “Pray for us now,” referring to all of those suffering.
In the final lines of this section she brings up two more memories that might take someone away from the pressures of the world and bring up more pleasant thoughts of the past. She speaks of the sounds of “Grade 1 piano scales,” that a “lodger” is about to hear while “looking out across” the town he is staying in. Once more, this featured person is being transported to his past.
In the next memory the speaker recalls the sound of someone calling their own child, and the sounds that make up the child’s name, helping to console another for “their loss.”
In the final short two-line stanza the speaker brings all her memories of various experiences and alternatives to prayer, to a conclusion. She describes how there might be “Darkness outside,” and one’s outlook might be dimmed by the events of life, but “Inside” something else’s going on.
There is always the “radio’s prayer” to fall back on, she states. The following lines bring this reference farther as she names off a shipping forecast for the areas around the British Isles. This is a piece of BBC radio programming that is quite familiar to those who reside in Great Britain, and is providing the reader with an amount of comfort and dependability in a desperate moment.