Carol Ann Duffy is a wonderful poet who likes to use simple language in her poems. She was raised in Glasgow, in a deprived area called Gorbals. This informs the poem, Stealing, as there is a strong chance she would have known people much like the character she has created. Unlike the poem’s protagonist, Duffy isn’t known for her apathy having risen to become the United Kingdom’s Poet Laureate. She is the UK’s first female laureate.
A trademark of Duffy’s is to be able to slip into the voice of a different character and she shows that in this poem creating a strong narrative voice that is remarkably different from her own. The poem both opens and closes with a question giving it an interesting symmetry. The opening question sounds like the narrator is echoing back a question they have just been asked as if the poem is the meandering answer to the question. The last line acts as if, having told their “story” the narrator is frustrated that the person asking the original question doesn’t understand their answer, doesn’t get their motivation. My favorite part of the poem is the symbolism.
Duffy purposefully uses the snowman as a metaphor for the protagonist this is clever as people generally associate the cold and adjectives relating to the cold with negative personality traits. EG “I was given a frosty reception”, “she gave me an icy stare” etc. Within a small number of words Duffy has created this cold, calculated, character who has no problems with committing a crime just for the thrill, or out of boredom, even going so far as to break into a home and not even steal anything. But she also creates an element of sympathy for this character. You start to sense they are not happy with their lot in life. That the angry and vile things they do, their acting out, is a mask for insecurities.
You can listen to ‘Stealing’ in full here.
Duffy engages primarily with themes of isolation and failure in ‘Stealing.’ Throughout the poem, the speaker expresses his solitude through his frustrations with the world. He, or perhaps she, feels as though no one understands him. No one listens, or truly hears his words when he speaks. While it’s impossible to say exactly why the speaker steals and acts out, it’s likely as an outlet for his broader frustrations and disappointments with his life. He steals anything and everything just for the fun of it. He also takes pleasure in the sorrow of others, suggesting that he sees himself differently than he does other people.
Structure and Tone
The poem, Stealing, is presented in five stanzas with no set rhyming pattern. Duffy has stated that, like many poems she writes with a conversational style, the poem naturally fell into verses of five lines. The tone is quite morose and angry. The poem is told in the first person and is unlikely to be the voice of the poet herself. The gender of the speaker is never revealed and left ambiguous.
Duffy makes use of several literary devices in ‘Stealing.’ These include but are not limited to imagery, enjambment, and alliteration. The latter is a type of repetition that’s concerned with the use and reuse of the same consonant sounds at the beginning of words. For example, “Midnight,” “magnificent,” and “mute” in line two as well as “Shakespeare” and “strangest” in lines three and four of the last stanza.
Enjambment is a formal device that occurs when the poet cuts off a line before it’s natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines three and four of the first stanza as well as lines eleven and twelve.
Imagery is one of the most important literary devices that a poet can use in their work. It can be seen when they use creative and evocative descriptions for events, people, feelings, and more. For example, in the first lines when the poet’s speaker describes the snowman as “magnificent; a tall, white mute / beneath the winter moon.” Or, later on in the poem when the speaker describes himself as a “ghost.”
The most unusual thing I ever stole? A snowman.
within my own brain. I started with the head.
Duffy, as is common in her work, addresses the reader directly. The use of a question to open the poem instantly engages the reader. She uses a very strong narrative voice in this poem. She employs short sentences throughout the poem this creates a sense of abruptness and hints at the character of the narrator. She shows glimpses of suggested frailty to the narrator as the narrator refers to the snowman as a “mate” signifying that they don’t have a real friend. The character has a strong but negative opinion of themselves suggesting that the coldness of the snowman mirrors their own personality. This is a reoccurring theme throughout the poem.
Better off dead than giving in, not taking
that children would cry in the morning. Life’s tough.
The opening line and the enjambment line that follows give the character an anti-authoritarian quality. Suggesting that life isn’t important if you don’t get the things you want. Throughout this stanza, the snowman is almost certainly a metaphor for the character themselves. This idea is solidified in the penultimate sentence when the narrator says he gets a thrill out of knowing that stealing the snowman will hurt children. Then the short sentence “life’s tough” acts as an exclamation point. When I read this line I imagined it being said scornfully, dripping with a sardonic tone.
Sometimes I steal things I don’t need. I joy-ride cars
A stranger’s bedroom. Mirrors. I sigh like this – Aah.
In this stanza, Duffy very cleverly uses enjambment lines once again. On the first line, she states she joy-rides cars, on the second line she follows that up with “to nowhere” that sentence running on, gives a slight pause as if there is a refrain for a brief second. Could this be the narrator being wistful? Looking back on their misdeeds, perhaps? The character further reflects on their actions. “Watching their gloved hand”, “mirrors” this stanza is all about the character being introspective, and rather than being reviled by their own devious actions the character “sighs” in an almost blissful way. Like someone relaxing on a sun lounger. This is the character’s comfort zone. At this point, they show no shame and a reader probably wouldn’t feel a lot of sympathy for them, but perhaps sense that there is more to them than meets the eye.
It took some time. Reassembled in the yard,
alone among lumps of snow, sick of the world.
Here we see another insight into the narrator. Before we have seen them as scornful and hateful but here we see them as much angrier. In my opinion, this ironically softens them a little. It almost gives the reader a chance to understand why they are so hateful. They get to see that the hatred is fuelled by anger and gives an inquisitive mind the desire to understand the motivations as to why this person is so angry. The act of attacking the snowman which has acted as a metaphor for the narrator themselves is symbolic of self-destruction. Once again in the fourth line Duffy uses another clever enjambment line. Putting the word alone on the fifth line isolates it from the rest of the sentence. This cleverness is a hallmark of Duffy’s, she likes to be clever with words. The final sentence does give a strong insight into how the narrator feels isolated and alone even going as far as to say that they are “sick of the world”
Boredom. Mostly I’m so bored I could eat myself.
You don’t understand a word I’m saying, do you?
When I read the first line of this stanza it makes me feel as if the character is trying to justify their action by stating they are bored. They then go on to elaborate. Maybe because they don’t think it is acceptable to do those things out of “regular” boredom but somehow being so bored they could “eat themselves” make it okay. The stealing of the guitar mentioned in this stanza represents that the character is apathetic. The fact the narrator says that they thought they might learn to play suggests they didn’t but without starting a new sentence they move quickly to another weird object they stole as if to take the attention away from the failure of not having achieved their goal.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Stealing’ should also consider reading some of Duffy’s other best-known works. For example, ‘Mrs. Midas,’ ‘Anne Hathaway,’ and ‘Prayer.’ The latter is an emotional piece about how one confronts the world in times of need. Prayer is one way of doing so. ‘Mrs. Midas’ and ‘Anne Hathaway’ are both poems from Duffy’s The World’s Wife. In the first, she takes a fictional character, King Midas’s wife, and focuses the narrative of her husband’s “gift” around her. Anne Hathaway was Shakespeare’s wife, someone barely mentioned in history books. She focuses on Anne’s life in the poem while also helping the reader understand the love Anne shared with her husband.