‘The Darling Letters’ by Carol Ann Duffy is a three-stanza poem that is divided into sets of six lines, or sestets. Additionally, each stanza is made up of a number of different phrases that carry the reader through an understanding of what a love letter is on its conception and what it becomes as the relationship progresses. You can read the full poem The Darling Letter here.
Summary of The Darling Letters
The poem begins with the speaker describing how lovers from all different places keep and store their letters from the past. Some, she states, are kept in boxes where they cannot be seen unless the keeper seeks them out. This does happen every once in a while and brings to the surface elements of the past that one forgot.
These elements are often deeply moving and embarrassing as they are read out of their original context. These letters are full of moments that make one feel awkward and unnerved about how they were in the past.
Additionally, the speaker raises the question of why the letters are even kept at all, especially if they raise all these uncomfortable emotions. She clarifies that she thinks this is the case because one is still able to feel the promise of the future that is present in the writings. This is something that they cannot part with.
Analysis of The Darling Letters
In the first stanza, the speaker describes one’s initial impression of a love letter, from where it is found and kept, to how they begin. She makes clear in the first lines that the way that lovers handle letters is different from relationship to relationship. With this in mind, she describes that some of these letters are kept in ”shoeboxes away from light.”
This raises an interesting question about why one would hide something away that was written out of devotion. What is the reasoning behind keeping these objects out of sight? In the second line she emphasizes, through personification, what the impact that hiding one’s current or past emotions, results in.
She states that when one is finally ready to have the letters surface again, perhaps long after the relationship is over, they come out as “sore memories blinking” in the light of the room. The writer of these letters will then be confronted by a version of themselves they are no longer familiar with.
These letters will bring back into one’s mind he passed “Private jokes,” which can no longer be “comprehended,” as well as leading statements like, “What / are you wearing?” One is forced to contend with their own “recklessness.”
In the second stanza, the speaker continues her narration about what these letters are revealing to the recipient and reader. Another phrase that sticks out to the speaker from the general history of letters, “Don’t ever change.” These simple and uncreative messages meant something to the one receiving it, but now stick out as being purposeless.
The piece continues with the narrator describing how a relationship evolves through letters. They might start out as being full of love and end up with “recriminations.” The lovers blame one another for any flaws in the relationship and everyone ends up with a sense of “absence” and “loss.”
It is clear in the following lines that the speaker is considering why letters between lovers are kept. She comes to the conclusion that this is because one can still imagine the “future” one saw then and believed in. The future appears as budding “flowers” and is appreciated through the “trac[ing]” of each line of text on the paper.
No one, the speaker states, would dare burn this vision of the future. Instead, they are put away in “cardboard coffins.”
The third stanza is striking in that it begins with one of the pet names that might be used by lovers, “Babykins.” The speaker hears the strangeness of this word and how now, it might “make us blush.”
The words of the past make one feel as though “we’d murdered / someone under an alias.” It is like a dirty past is coming up from the basement to confront one with how they were in another life.
The poet adds in another few words and phrases which might come from love letters and provide later embarrassment for the reader.
In the final lines, the speaker reengages with the idea of putting away and rediscovering the letters. This experience makes one’s “heart thud,” a sound that resembles the sound of a “spade” hitting “buried bones.” This is yet another reference to a resurfacing of the past and how dramatic and emotional that moment can be.