Wish by Carol Ann Duffy deals with Duffy’s own depression, the poet seeking comfort in a dark moment. Duffy creates a depiction of a woman trapped in a grave, using this as a metaphor to represent her depression. Two representations of Duffy are created, one seeking to help and the other locked away, out of reach. There is no positive ending to the poem, Wish staying in the conditional tense right until the end, Duffy never escaping from her ‘grave’.
Wish by Carol Ann Duffy begins by describing a woman covered in earth, trapped underground. Duffy is willing this woman to escape, to draw herself up from the ground, and escape her hollow tomb. Yet, this is only a ‘wish’, the poet knows that she cannot use an escape. She images the corpse-like woman on the other side of a ‘heavy door’, wishing that she could help the woman escape. This ghostly figure represents Duffy, the poet personifying her depressing into the entrapped character. Although Duffy wants to free herself from depression, it is not that easy, the poet never achieving liberation.
Form and Structure
Duffy writes Wish in a sonnet form, the poem measuring 14 lines in total. Typically, the sonnet form is used to discuss love or death, Duffy indeed tapping into the imagery of death to relate to this tradition. Yet, the poet decides not to follow a traditional rhyme scheme of the sonnet. In doing this, Duffy is using structure to represent her rejection of traditionally, using aspects of the sonnet form but making it directly her own. This could be understood as a further representation of how Duffy is discussing her own mental health, rejecting traditional form in order to showcase the poem as uniquely her own.
Normally a Volta in a sonnet arrives on the 8th line, but Duffy instead only contains a tiny element of change, the triple repeated ‘Nobody’ serving to suggest that there is a possibility of salvation. But having this moment of hope encased in an otherwise depressing poem, Duffy furthers the sense of entrapment, reflecting the primary character through the use of structure.
You can read the full poem here.
But what if, in the clammy soil, her limbs
under her thumb, and pulled her up? I wish.
Duffy begins the poem by using the conditional tense, ‘But what if’ insinuating that everything that will follow is only a potential outcome. She wishes for the buried woman to ‘grab the stone’ and release herself from the grave. In using the conditional tense, Duffy suggests that this escape is ultimately unobtainable, remaining simply a dream or ‘wish’. There is potential for escape, but it is unlikely.
Duffy uses asyndeton across the opening lines to suggest that, for the buried woman, the possibility of escape is too difficult, requiring many steps. Indeed, Duffy presents ‘shifted, stirred, kicked off’ to the compound moment after the movement that would be required for escape. For someone in the grip of depression, even one simple task may seem too much, with Duffy using asyndeton to present a seemingly never-ending list of tasks that must be overcome. It does not seem easy to escape this ‘clammy soil’, Duffy presenting the horrible feeling of being depressed by the metaphorical entombment in the earth.
Duffy also uses the opening lines of the poem to characterize the buried woman. She begins to get warmer, ‘grew warmer’, the movement from cold to warm perhaps representing the release from depression. Indeed, depression is often represented as a force of ‘cold’, with this generation of heat signaling the potential for mental change.
Two words come at the end of the asyndetic list, ‘I wish.’, signaling the moment where Duffy acknowledges the impossibility of escaping from depression. Duffy encases this phrase with a caesura, ‘up?’ And an end stop, ‘wish.’, to ensure that it is emphasized, both caesura and end stop enforcing a slight metrical pause on either side of the word. Moreover, the fact that ‘I wish’ is a completely monosyllabic sentence creates a further element of being defeated, Duffy realizing that she cannot get rid of depression that easily. When this is contrasted with the asyndetic list that came just before, ‘I wish’ turns into a grizzly sentence of defeat – Duffy compounding a deep sense of melancholy through these words.
Her bare feet walk along the gravel path
wondering why do I shout, why do I run.
The vulnerability of the depressed woman is expressed through her bare feet’, contrasting with the sharpness of the ‘gravel path’. Duffy suggests that even if she were to escape depression, the world is negative and difficult to navigate – moving from one unfriendly atmosphere to another.
There is a slight glimpse of hope within the poem, Duffy using repetition to compound a sense of possibility. The triple repetition of ‘Nobody’ is an active rejection of the defeatist perspective Duffy has been engendering. Indeed, Duffy writes that ‘Nobody slept who couldn’t be woken//by the light’, with ‘light’ representing positivity and release from depression. The status of ‘sleep’ within the poem could refer to the dejected and exhausted depiction of the depressed Duffy, with the arrival of ‘light’ representing overcoming depression.
Yet, although present, the escape from depression is still only a longed-for state, Duffy not actually being able to overcome her state. She returns to the conditional tense, ‘If I can only push’, signaling the innate disbelief of her situation. The description of the ‘door’ that would provide freedom from depression as ‘heavy’ demonstrates Duffy’s defeatism, not being mentally strong enough to overcome depression.
On the other side of this ‘door’ is the depressed woman, waiting to be released into happiness. Although ‘dirty’ and ‘tired’, she is still alive, able to fight and battle against her depression – if only Duffy could free herself from this apathetic state.
The final line reveals that there is a sense of uncertainty when it comes to mental health. Duffy suggests that if she were able to free herself from depression, her mind would instantly wonder ‘why’ she was ‘shout[ing]’ and ‘run[ning]’, instantly unsure the reason for fighting so hard. This could be referencing the idea that no one really understands a person’s depression apart from the person who is experiencing it. While not in that moment or state anymore, depression seems strange, something that Duffy doesn’t totally understand. She wishes to free herself but knows that depression is no simple affliction to get over.