‘Stafford Afternoons’ was first published in Carol Ann Duffy’s 1993 collection, Mean Time. This poem deals with a speaker’s (or Duffy’s) specific memory concerning a loss of innocence that leads to a transition from childhood into understanding adult reality. Duffy is a famous postmodern poet who was the first female and a member of the LGBTQ community to be the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom. Her poetry, as a member of the New Generation poets, concerns itself with a variety of themes, including love, politics, power, the problem of language in a postmodern world, the multiplicity of emotions and experiences, and many more.
Explore Stafford Afternoons
‘Stafford Afternoons’ by Carol Ann Duffy begins with a child lacing up her shoes only to look up and find an unfamiliar familiar world; the place is the same, but something has changed.
In the beginning, the child starts exploring and describing her surroundings. All throughout, there is a simultaneous sense of thrill and danger permeating the air of the poem. Many instances are accounted which are symbolic in nature and the process of the child’s encounter with the darker world of adulthood.
Gradually, the speaker comes across “a small wood”, which she ventures into with a sense of adventure. Despite being scared and lonely, she comes across a sexual “predator,” a man who scares her with his “living, purple root.” She runs back in search of safety and familiarity. However, something has shifted. Duffy handles this theme of shocking transition with seriousness and maturity.
You can read the full poem here.
Only there, the afternoons could suddenly pause
an ice-cream van chimed and dwindled away.
The poem, ‘Stafford Afternoons’, begins with a simple, nostalgic memory of the speaker. One afternoon the speaker, a child, bends down to lace up her shoe, and when she gets back up, she finds herself on “a long road” with “no one,” and the gardens all empty. She can only see or hear the chime of an ice-cream van getting further and further away from where she stood. All of these images are symbolic. The “ice-Cream van” symbolizes childhood, innocence, and joy in little things, but in the poem, the speaker listens to that sound dwindling/fading away, which means she is losing her childhood innocence.
She has strayed off and is in an unfamiliar place; loneliness haunts her, and the familiar aspects of childhood comfort have disappeared from her surroundings. She is free, and there is a sense of “thrill” there for a child who craves freedom from parents’ sheltering and overprotectiveness. However, it is also a lurking fear concerning where she will go now as she is free.
On the motorway bridge, I waved at the windscreens
and invented, in colour, a vivid lie for us both.
Children with their evermore curiosity about things wave at windscreens of cars. In the poem, the child does the same but what she receives back are “blurred waves”, and she is hurt instead of feeling a sense of unadulterated joy. The world of adults is always in a hurry; people and cars race, they move from one place to another, always striving for more. Therefore, the “blurred waves” are representative of adulthood, and the high pace of living that comes with it.
However, children do not feel that way, and their motivations are different. That is why at the sudden change, the child transitioning into adulthood is hurt. She feels confused and lost. Like a child to find some comfort, she uses her imagination to create a “vivid lie” for herself; children’s imaginations are powerful. They can imagine up and make themselves believe a lot of things. That is what the speaker does with a horse. The vibrant “colour” she sprinkles on her thoughts brings a sense of bright joy and relief.
In a cul-de-sac a strange boy threw a stone.
The green silence gulped once and swallowed me whole.
The child is in a “cul de sac,” an unsheltered, unprotected environment, but she leaves as a boy throws a stone. All these are warning signs the child takes no account of, and she ventures out into a small, silent, yet dangerous wood. She is going to leave the shell of her innocence and get lost in the unknown, where things cannot make sense from her childish way of looking at things. The silence of the woods are significant; silence conveys the danger lurking in the corner for the child who was on her own on that afternoon. They are a premonition of events that would change her life and way of thinking forever.
I knew it was dangerous, the way the trees
and flowering nettles gathered spit in their throats.
The adult speaker reflecting upon those childhood events regrets if she could understand the signs that were all around her in the woods. This stanza is haunted by the sense of the child being prey in the adult world. “Sly faces” stalking her, the “sticky breath” pouncing on her back, and nettles gathering “spit” – all indicate that something terrible is about to happen that will follow the child through her entire life. The evil omens foreshadow something grave that is depicted in the following stanza.
Too late. Touch said the long haired man
made sound rush back; birds, a distant lawnmower,
“Too late” are the first words of this horrific, nightmarish stanza. The child’s freedom has led her upon the path where an awful man sexually abuses her innocence like a predator, asking her to touch his erect “purple root,” insinuating his male organ. This is Duffy’s social commentary upon the pedophiles or those who are sexually attracted to children, moving in the adult world preying upon innocent girls. Duffy describes how girls could be subjected to such terrifying trauma at a young age.
The sight stuns the child, and sounds from distant places echo in her ears as she tries to run away from that man and that dark place she accidentally stumbled upon. But perhaps it is already too late, and there is no escape from what she has witnessed. Even if she goes back home, the scene will come and haunt her for the rest of her life.
his hoarse, frightful endearments as I backed away
and time fell from the sky like a red ball.
The “frightful endearments” of that “hoarse” long-haired man scared her, and she ran back for safety where children “shrieked” and “scattered” while playing games. She felt time rushing and falling from the sky like a red ball. She is back at ease, but something has altered forever. Her innocence is on the verge of evaporation. Even if the liberating childish game makes her feel at home, she can feel the shift in time. She is no longer the same girl; the experience has changed or scarred her deeply. All these are symbolic of the pains of growing up, of coming to understand the darker nuances of the adult world.
‘Stafford Afternoons’ has six stanzas, each of them being a quatrain, that is, stanzas consisting of four lines. There is no fixed rhyme scheme, but it flows as the poet beautifully weaves her narrative of events occurring one after the other.
The poem is written in free verse, and the speaker of the poem is an adult who looks back to the incidents from her childhood. While the speaker is an adult, the point of view is that of a child. Duffy with atmospheric effects catches upon the emotions of the child that begins with the “thrill” of finally being free but ends on a note of fright of that very freedom as the child’s understanding of the world shifts from innocence to adulthood.
Duffy’s ‘Stafford Afternoons’ contains the following literary devices:
- Enjambment: It occurs when the thought of a particular poetic line spills onto the next line since the poet puts in no break to make the readers delve deeper into the emotions their speaker tries to convey in the poem. In this poem, Duffy uses it in one way or the other in all the stanzas; for instance, it occurs in “On the motorway bridge, I waved at the windscreens/ oddly hurt by the blurred waves back, the speed.”
- Simile: Duffy, in the last line of the poem, compares “time” falling from the sky to a “red ball”, which is an example of simile. Duffy uses “like” to compare two distant ideas in an explicit manner.
- Metaphor: The events of the poem are metaphorical of a child’s encounter with the darker realities of adulthood and Duffy remarkable traces of that journey. The given example of the “red ball” is an extended metaphor for change, warning, and adolescence.
- Personification: The trees of the wood the child accidentally went into are given human characteristics or features; they make “sly faces,” they breathe down upon the child’s neck, and they gather “spit in their throats.” The wood is personified as a sinister human (primitive) figure luring the child into an ominous, doomed world.
Duffy taps on the themes of loss of childhood innocence, an encounter with a foreign adult world, childhood trauma, and the effect of traumatic experiences in ‘Stafford Afternoons’. It is a serious poem that considers the nuances of experiences a child could have while growing up. This poem also hints at the dangers that lurk in the adult world and the consequences of straying off the safe path in life. Adventure, the seduction of thrill, the terrifying nature of silence, and the world of “experience” all are talked about in this symbolic poem.
Drawing scenes from memories of childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, Carol Ann Duffy, in her 1993 collection, Mean Time, which won a number of awards (Forward Prize, Scottish Arts Council Book Award, and Whitbread Award), traces moments of change, love, and loss, desire and betrayal, etc. Recollection connects the poem ‘Stafford Afternoons’ with other poems from the collection, as Duffy tries to capture glimpses into the paradoxes of life through the complexities of language. It is a powerful poem that is filled with haunting memories of childhood and a sense of lurking danger during adolescence.
Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Stafford Afternoons’ is about a child who gets enticed by the silent woods during a lonely afternoon. The way she first encounters the danger in the adult world is the story narrated in this symbolic poem.
The wood is sinister and appears as an evil nexus waiting to trap an innocent child. According to Duffy’s speaker, the wood was “lonely” and “thrilled.” The “silence” of greenery swallowed her whole in a flash. While she wandered in the wood, it seemed alive; the trees drew scary faces, let out sticky breath on her back, and the nettles seemed drawing spit in their throats.
The ice-cream truck getting further away, lack of people, loneliness, the dark woods, the blurred waves the child received while waving at the rushing cars, and the “cul de sac” hint at the loss of innocence. Finally, the encounter with the hoarse, long-haired man is an indicator of the shift from the world of innocence to that of experience.
The last lines convey the change the child underwent, having encountered a dark reality. Childhood games were no longer liberating or comforting. She did not feel at home. It seemed time rushed and fell down like a red ball, a conceit for change and adolescence.
Here is a list of poems that similarly tap on the themes of Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Stafford Afternoons’. You can also explore more Carol Ann Duffy poems as well.
- ‘Adolescence’ by W.H. Auden — This poem concerns a speaker who looks back at his life and the landscape he grew up in.
- ‘On Turning Ten’ by Billy Collins — This coming-of-age poem is about a speaker, a child who is turning ten, who realises that he is no longer a young child.
- ‘The Young Ones’ by Elizabeth Jennings — In this poem, Jennings tries to compare her own young-hood to the youths of her time.
- ‘Beautiful’ by Carol Ann Duffy — This piece explores the physical and mental damage that can come from beauty.
You can also read about these best-known Carol Ann Duffy poems.