Carol Ann Duffy, the poet of ‘Valentine’, has a unique way of expressing her love unconventionally through this profound work of poetry. Duffy is one of Britain’s most famous poets. She was born in Glasgow and raised in England from the age of seven, where, even from a young age, she showed a great command of poetic skills. The poet spurns traditional expressions of love in favour of a nontraditional Valentine’s Day gift, claiming that it symbolized love in a much more realistic way than roses or heart-shaped candies. ‘Valentine’ uses an everyday ordinary object, the onion, to represent her deepest feelings and most abstract thoughts. The juxtaposition of ordinary objects with her intense feelings serves to create the mood and tone of this particular work.
In ‘Valentine’, Carol Ann Duffy has done an excellent job of taking a love poem and subverting it using an onion as a metaphor for love itself. The comparison gets more ambiguous as the poem unfolds and readers become unsure what is the comparison and what is being talked about, love, or the onion. However, the suggestion this poem is trying to make is that true love is about more than cliché gifts and that the nature of love means that it can be destructive if not properly tended to. It is also trying to show when it comes to love that sentiment and hard work trumps love based on meaningless gifts. It is a gift of Duffy’s that she gives away so little in her poems and always leaves one wanting more.
Form and Tone
‘Valentine’ by Carol Ann Duffy tends to deal with a difficult subject matter and is written in the first person in the form of a dramatic monologue, aimed directly at the reader. The poem is written in free verse with no rhyming pattern. It has no rhyming whatsoever save for some repeated words.
The tone is unusual in so much as it is a love poem, of sorts, but has an unsettling feel to it due to the way the poem uses an onion as a metaphor for love itself. Moreover, the short stanzas followed by longer stanzas and the mix of sentence lengths gives the poem a stuttering feel which just adds to the air of unease that the poem delivers. This device acts as a mirror for the ups and downs of a relationship. Duffy is renowned for using the form of poetry to help emphasize the poem’s point and she does that here.
‘Valentine’ by Carol Ann Duffy contains several literary devices. Likewise, in this first stanza, it is one of only two times in the poem that Duffy uses alliteration. This device symbolizes the “cuteness” associated with these items traditionally used as valentines’ gifts. “Cute card” is the second example of alliteration in ‘Valentine’. Again this line stands in isolation to highlight the importance of dismissing the materialistic things mentioned in the poem.
In the second stanza, there is enjambment. It makes the last two lines seem like the narrator was talking about the onion all along. The slightly troublesome undertones appear just briefly as the narrator talks of the “fierce kiss” and how it is “possessive”. It is suggesting that, like the onion, love can be “fierce” and that it isn’t always a picnic. the metaphor is being mixed in with love itself here and the line between them is so fine as to not exist.
‘Valentine’ by Carol Ann Duffy contains several important themes. In the poem, there are themes of love, convention, individualism, and vanity of materialism. As the title of the poem says, it is a pure love poem but unique for the poet’s unique expression. The poet metaphorically compares her love to an onion. Here, the poet refers to the qualities of onion such as its multi-layered structure, strong smell, and color for emphasizing the gift’s versatility. Moreover, the poet criticizes the conventions associated with Valentine’s day. She finds it useless to gift her beloved “a red rose” or “a satin heart”. Rather, she prefers her day-to-day companion while cooking, an onion as a gift.
This feminist text also has the theme of individualism. Here, the poet puts aside all such conventional gifts of love. She prefers the onion superior to any other valuable items. The onion is nothing in comparison to the price of “a satin heart” or an emotionless “kissogram”. But, Duffy’s heart is nurtured with emotions and love. The tinklings of materialism can’t impress her. That’s why she is content with the onion.
‘Valentine’ by Carol Ann Duffy is full of vibrant imagery. The poet makes use of some important types of imagery in the poem. Likewise, the first line of the poem contains two images, of a red rose and a satin heart. The first image is visual and olfactory imagery. Whereas, the second one is an example of visual and tactile imagery. Moreover, the poet utilizes all the images associated with the onion. For expressing her emotions for her partner, she refers to the smell, structure, colour, and taste of the onion. In the second stanza, the poet uses an image of an onion reflecting its colour. In the following stanza, she refers to its odour that brings tears to the eyes. Moreover, in the last sections, the poet uses gustatory imagery and visual imagery referring to the onion’s taste and colour consecutively.
Not a red rose or a satin heart.
The speaker of ‘Valentine’ by Carol Ann Duffy immediately reveals to the reader that she chooses to reject the traditional or expected valentine’s day gifts such as roses and heart-shaped gifts. Traditional gifts suggest traditional love, but the speaker makes it clear from the start that her love is not traditional, and that a traditional gift will not do to represent her love.
I give you an onion.
like the careful undressing of love.
In this section of ‘Valentine’, the speaker offers an entirely unconventional gift. She says that she is giving her lover an onion. She then explains this gift. She finds it more appropriate than roses or hearts. She claims that it is a moon wrapped in brown paper. Since the outer part of the onion does look like wrapping paper, the reader can imagine the speaker handing the onion to her lover, expecting her lover to open the gift. Here, the moon symbolizes love, and the speaker claims to be giving her lover the moon in the form of an onion. Lovers have often said they would give the moon if they could. Here, the speaker suggests that she has given the moon, but it turns out to be an onion.
However, the “onion” symbolizes the humble nature of the gift but also simultaneously represents the brown skin of the French onion. “it promises light” suggests that the onion is somehow a metaphor for love itself, the metaphor continues as the narrator talks about the careful undressing of love. This makes one think about how carefully one has to peel the skin from an onion to avoid tears.
It will blind you with tears
a wobbling photo of grief.
The first line of this stanza is very clever as it leaves a lot of ambiguity about what the narrator is talking about. What will blind you with tears? Is it a reference to the onion or love itself? The use of a pronoun here is what makes the line so ingenious. Here things start to take a slightly eerie turn as the narrator states “It will make your reflection a wobbling photo of grief.” What is this referencing? Love or the onion? Either way, it is not a pleasant description.
Moreover, line six allows the reader to picture the speaker handing the onion to her lover. It appears that the one to whom she speaks is unwilling to accept the gift. Thus, the speaker says, “here” and tries once again to give the onion as a gift. She then goes on to explain, “It will blind you with tears”. She explains that this is yet another reason that the onion is an appropriate Valentine’s Day gift. She says that the onion will do the same thing that a lover will do, which is to blind one with tears and make one’s reflection blurry like “a wobbling photo of grief”. With line ten, the reader can grasp a deeper understanding of the speaker’s cynical feelings toward love. She believes that love brings tears and grief. Thus, she feels the onion is an appropriate representation of love.
I am trying to be truthful.
This line of ‘Valentine’ stands in a stanza on its own purely for emphasis. To highlight its importance and to show that it is indeed the truth. Here, the speaker reveals her genuine feelings. She is not trying to be facetious or cutting simply for spite. Rather, she expresses her need to be truthful about love. She feels that offering an onion as a representation of her love is her way of making an honest gesture.
Not a cute card or a kissogram.
Again, in ‘Valentine’, Duffy scoffs at the idea of traditional Valentine’s Day gifts and favours her choice of an onion to represent her unconventional feelings toward love.
I give you an onion.
for as long as we are.
This stanza of ‘Valentine’ is full of confidence. The narrator is not to be doubted here. The last two lines have an almost wedding vow-like quality to them and this runs on from the narrator mentioning that they are faithful. Here, the poet is trying to say that real love is enduring.
Here, the speaker repeats that she is giving her lover an onion. She continues to explain why she thinks it is an appropriate gift. She claims that its “fierce kiss” would “stay on [her lover’s] lips”. She reveals the depths of her negative feelings toward love. She believes the kiss of her lover has stayed on her lips like the smell of an onion. Rather than describing a kiss as something sweet and fragrant, she describes it as powerful and potent. Though the two lovers have been faithful, they have also been possessive.
This, too, is like the smell of an onion. It lingers in the breath and on clothes and skin. The smell is not easily removed. This also represents the relationship between these two people. The words in this particular section make it difficult to conclude whether or not the speaker desires the relationship she is in. She calls it “faithful” and “possessive” in one line. This causes the reader to question the speaker’s feelings about her lover.
At the end of this stanza, however, the speaker claims that the fragrance of the kiss, like the smell of onion, will stay with them “for as long as [they] are”. This sounds very similar to the wedding vow, “till death do us part.” The speaker implies that no matter what happens between them, their love will linger for as long as they exist.
if you like.
In this section of ‘Valentine’, the two-word sentence “take it” is once again very assertive and striking. Like the narrator is forcing this gift upon their partner perhaps? The narrator then continues to compare the rings of an onion to a platinum wedding ring, the “if you like” run-on suggesting a proposal of sorts. Kind of like the narrator saying this onion could be a proposal if that’s what you want.
Moreover, in line eighteen, a reader can again picture the speaker’s lover as an unwilling recipient of this gift. She once again says, “take it”, revealing that her lover has not yet received her gift. The speaker then further explains the onion’s significance, claiming that the inner layers of the onion are small like wedding rings. She ends with the phrase “if you like” which makes the reader question the stance of the speaker’s lover. The speaker seems unsure of her lover’s feelings. She suggests wedding rings but is unsure if her lover would like that idea.
cling to your knife.
This section of ‘Valentine’, is subverted with a single word sentence: “lethal” is that meant to mean that marriage is lethal? Or a platinum wedding ring is? Is Duffy suggesting that material objects are the enemy of love, that they are somehow lethal to romance? Or is she suggesting marriage itself is fatally damaging? Once again the metaphor and reality are hard to prize apart. And the striking oxymorons further add to the reader’s confusion.
The last two lines are quite harrowing if about love and quite mundane if about the onion. The mention of a knife is particularly interesting, especially having just mentioned the word “fatal”. Coincidentally, after reading Duffy’s ‘Human Interest’, a poem about a man that stabs his wife, a reader can feel that this poem could head in that direction as well!
Moreover, line twenty-one reveals that the speaker believes that love is lethal to the human heart. She tells her lover that her love will stick to her fingers. This represents the idea that love is not easily washed away. The feelings will linger and stick. The final line of this poem can leave the reader somewhat puzzled. So far, the poem has been unconventional and somewhat cynical. It is not entirely clear whether the speaker desires to be in love with the one to whom she speaks.
Here, she ends by telling the person that the scent of her love will “cling to [her lover’s] knife”. The knife, quite possibly, suggests a cutting off of the relationship. This seems to be a warning to the speaker’s audience that when one cuts off a relationship, the feelings of love linger still like the scent of an onion.
Like ‘Valentine’, one of the best poems written by Carol Ann Duffy, here is a list of some poems that uniquely represent the theme of love.
- Peeling Onions by Adrienne Rich – In one of her best poems, Adrienne Rich talks about the process of peeling onions and how it takes the poet to the thoughts of her past.
- Valentine by Owen Sheers – In this poem, Owen Sheers talks about the deteriorating relationship that the poet had with his beloved.
- To My Valentine by Ogden Nash – In this one of his well-known poems, Ogden Nash explores the themes of love and dedication by using hyperbolic statements.
- I Wouldn’t Thank You for a Valentine by Liz Lochhead – This poem by Liz Lochhead is exactly similar to the theme of Duffy’s ‘Valentine’.
Explore more poetry on the theme of love below in our Top 10s: