The Cord by Carol Ann Duffy explores the connection between mother and daughter, the symbol of the umbilical cord being extrapolated to represent their innate connection. Although Duffy’s daughter is growing up, the connection is still maintained, no matter how far away from Duffy she roams. The poem explores the relationship between a mother and a daughter, Duffy depicting the strength of their connection.
Explore The Cord
The Cord by Carol Ann Duffy begins by focusing on the moment in which they ‘cut the cord’, severing the physical link between the poet and her daughter. As the child grows, she remains curious about this ‘cord’, wondering if it was a real thing or just something Duffy made up. She listens to the story of it being buried in the forest, eventually venturing out into the ‘Great Forest’. This could represent the child moving out into the real world. Although things seem scary in the real world, ‘shadows/blurred into one huge darkness’, Duffy’s daughter can always rely on the guiding light of her mother – the connection remaining strong wherever the daughter goes.
You can read the full poem The Cord here.
Form and Structure
The Cord is split by Duffy into six stanzas, each measuring 6 lines. There is no rhyme scheme, although Duffy’s use of enjambment allows the poem to flow rhythmically from one line to another. The quick pace of the poem due to enjambment could also reflect the process of Duffy’s daughter, Ella, moving out and away from Duffy. This poem is written for Ella, with Duffy wanting her daughter to know that no matter where she is, Duffy will always be there to support her – their link, unlike the umbilical cord, never severing.
Context to The Cord
Duffy’s The Cord uses the image of an umbilical cord to center the poem, providing both the literal object of the poem, as well as the basis for metaphor. The initial reference discusses an umbilical cord, the connection between mother and fetus that allows for passing of blood and nutrients between the two. This is the natural object of the poem, that which Ella (Duffy’s daughter) searches for. Yet, the image of a ‘cord’ also suggests a mental connection, with Duffy further using this to insinuate her strong relationship with her daughter. Although the physical connection between them is severed, their mental connection will always be present.
Duffy draws upon the semantics of myth within the poem to depict Ella’s young age and rampant imagination. Throughout the poem, Ella is portrayed as thinking of the outside world using mythical proportions: ‘Great Forest’, ‘princess’, ‘golden spinning wheel’ all suggesting that majesty of the world. She is longing to explore this magical world, Duffy writing this poem to ensure she understands that their close relationship will last forever. The mythical semantics also plays into the idea of a fairytale, Ella’s young age being suggested through these linguistics.
Another technique that Duffy uses when writing The Cord is imagery. Dotted throughout the poem are beautiful images of the forest, the cord, and Duffy herself represented by the ‘stars’. Duffy conjures a poem that treads the line of fantasy and realism, allowing Ella’s imagination to run wild while also acting as the governing voice of the poem.
The Cord Analysis
They cut the cord she was born with
to the tip of her thumb.
The poem begins with the act of severing the ‘cord’ between Duffy and Ella. Duffy uses ‘they’, the unfamiliar doctors being presented as separated from the cohesive family unit. On one side is ‘she’ and Duffy herself, the other is characterized by the outside world, the doctors being a part of this. The fact that it is ‘they’ who ‘cut the cord’ indicates external forces separating mother and daughter, this being extrapolated into Ella wanting to leave home later in the poem.
The brutality of this first image is furthered through the consonance of /c/ across ‘cut the cord’, the harsh sound penetrating the verse to rally the depiction of the severing of their physical connection.
Duffy applies personification to the ‘Great Forest’, the first element of mythical language being employed here. In doing this, Duffy presents the idea that she chose to bury the cord somewhere important, furthering the suggestion that she cares deeply for Ella, wanting even the first point of connection to be honored. There is something poetic about returning to nature, Duffy furthering this idea later in the poem with images of ‘birds’ and ‘stars’ leading Ella.
Stanzas Two and Three
She learned to speak and asked them,
if the cord was made of rope,
The second and third stanzas further employ the semantics of mythically. Duffy suggests Ella’s young age by using these semantics, images of ‘princess’ and ‘holden spinning wheel’ playing into the narrative of fairytales, something Ella would have been familiar with considering her age. The triple repetition of a question, ‘wheel?’, ‘silver?’, ‘real?’ further the elusive nature of the cord – the object that represents their connection taking on mythical proportions.
The image of it ‘hidden/in the roots of an ancient oak’ creates the sense that Duffy is narrating a fairy tale to Ella, creating a story that she can actively take part in and enjoy. This is a beautiful image, with the poet clearly showing the love she holds for her daughter through the spinning of this narrative.
Ella’s changing perception of the ‘cord’ demonstrates her own aging. At first, it doesn’t seem real at all. Yet, by this third stanza, she assumes that it ‘was made of rope’, deciding on the material value of the cord. After deciding that it is real, Ella then begins to plan to go and find it.
they stared from the house she lived in
scribbed sentences wherever she looked.
The use of the verb ‘stared’ suggests the length at which Ella begins to obsess over the ‘cord’. She is sure it is real, looking out over the forest and dreaming of finding it. The image of the ‘rooks…like black unreadable books’ could show that she is still young, not totally understanding how the world works. This immaturity is what drives her to explore further, embracing nature and ‘following a bird’ into the forest.
So she went on foot to the forest
to hunt for her cord. She went deeper
Duffy uses enjambment within stanza five to reflect Ella’s ‘hunt for her cord’. The ownership of ‘her cord’ suggests that Ella has taken the symbol upon herself, seeking the original thing that connected her to her mother. The simplicity of how she is traveling, ‘on foot to the forest’ is depicted through the method of movement she uses, ‘on foot’, and also the use of fricative sounds across this phrase. The fricative /f/ creates a sense of movement, air passing through the mouth when uttered, reflecting Ella’s journey into the forest.
The use of a caesura upon the final line of stanza five ensures that ‘She went deeper.’ is emphasized, Duffy wanting the moment she leaves home to bare syntactical importance within the poem.
into the forest, following a bird
was the sound of a baby’s cry.
The image of Ella ‘following a bird’ could suggest that she has become wiser about the ways of nature, and therefore the world, now being able to read the birds, something that was previously ‘unreadable’. A ‘bird’ is also a symbol of freedom, Ella finally moving out into the world and experiencing everything for the first time.
Duffy represents the outside world as dark and unfriendly, ‘one huge darkness’ symbolizing all of the evil in the world. Duffy is worried about letting her daughter freely experience life, yet permits her to go anyway, knowing this is the way of the world.
Yet, Ella knows that her mother will always be there for her, represented through the ‘stars’ that ‘were her mother’s eyes’. Stars were traditionally used by travelers to guide their paths, with Ella using the connection she has with her mother to ensure that she remains on track, always able to continue going.
The combination of natural and human within the final two lines of the poem, ‘screech of an owl’ and ‘baby’s cry’ demonstrate how motherhood and growing up are a part of every species. Even animals must let their young explore the world, the youth ‘owl’ and ‘baby’s cry’ both sounding similar. Duffy presents the bond she has with her daughter, letting her experience the world freely, but always being there if she were to need any help.