Work by Carol Ann Duffy explores women providing for others in society, the role of the mother expanding to unmanageable proportions. Duffy suggests that woman have learned to take on responsibility in society, the role of providing food and nurturing become a core part of women’s perceived identity. The notion of providing becomes extrapolated within the poet, Duffy adding more and more people until the woman is worked to death. Although never named, the woman can be understood as representing both every woman and also Mother Nature, both providing in different ways for others.
Work by Carol Ann Duffy takes on a different perspective in each stanza. They are ordered in size, becoming larger and covering more of society. Each stanza represents a different moment in human life or aspect of society.
- The domestic
- Agriculture and farming
- Medieval and the renaissance
- Industrializing society
- 21st century
- Exploitation of nature
- Worked to death, the end of women.
Even till the very last moment, women are used for their nurturing role, expected to provide comfort and sustenance to all those which they look after. This never alters, women working ‘twenty-four seven’ until they die.
You can read the full poem Work here.
Form and Structure
Duffy splits Work into nine equal quatrain stanzas, each stanza measuring four lines. Each stanza contains information about how many people women are providing for, beginning with feeding ‘one’ and expanding over the course of the poem to ‘a billion named’. The structure stays the same, but the content of each demands more and more space, reflecting the huge expectations placed on women to provide for those relying on them. The phrase containing the number of people the woman is providing for comes earlier in each stanza, being the last line of stanza two, the second last of stanza three, earlier still in stanza four, and so on until the last stanza begins with ‘the world’. The demands and expectations placed upon women are ever-increasing, Duffy using the structure of her poem to reflect this notion.
One technique that Duffy uses in writing Work is asyndeton. By combining many different tasks through asyndeton, Duffy creates the sense that the woman of the poem has a never-ending list of tasks to complete. One thing comes swiftly after another, leading the woman to work forever, right up until death during the final stanza. Even then, while ‘in a grave, worked, to the bone’, she continues to work, as shown by Duffy’s use of asyndetic listing.
Another technique that Duffy uses in Work is internal rhyme. Internal rhyme allows Duffy to speed up the meter of the poem, connecting moments like ‘corn’ and ‘born’ to propel the poem forward. By increasing the meter of the poem, Duffy suggests a sense of mania, the poet symbolizing the woman’s hectic work life through the quick metrical pace.
Duffy uses Work to discuss the perceived role of women in society. The notion that women must provide care and support to others is the central argument of Duffy’s poem, using the stereotype as a basis which then been extrapolated. Duffy begins with this stereotype before linking to the common phrase ‘Mother Nature’, suggesting that even the all-powerful force, too, has been subjugated into a working role due to her femininity. Duffy uses modern stereotypes of women as mothers and caregivers, combines this then with the overarching presence of Mother Nature, and then finally exposes the consumeristic nature of humanity which has driven people to this point. The seemingly never-ending progress, further signaled by the progressive structure (outlined in Form and Structure above), relates to the current economic climate of globalization, the world becoming more exploitative as more and more people occupy the earth. Human greed, in the form of both human and natural exploitation, and climate change could also be points of discussion within the context of Work.
To feed one, she worked from home.
life was a dream.
The poem begins by focusing on the easy living that the woman has when only supporting ‘one’, herself. The woman’s life is presented through the semantics of a ‘dream’, Duffy using this to represent the tranquil life a person can lead when they are not supporting others. This could be painting a difference between men and women, women traditionally having to take on the responsibilities of caring for children while men are free to live their lives as normal.
The syntactical placement of ‘feed one, she’ places the action of nurturing before that of the self, ‘feed’ before ‘she’. In doing this, Duffy suggests that women are always ready to put caring for others before themselves, using the syntax of her poem to represent this attribute of women.
The first tasks come quickly in this first stanza, Duffy using asyndeton to connect the three: ‘washing, ironing, sewing’, task after task being completed by the woman. Yet, there is still room in this paragraph for other activities, the woman seen as eating, ‘a soup-filled spoon’ and relaxing. This state of blissful rest is something that is lost in the more hectic later stanzas, showing the woman’s descent into total caregiving.
Stanzas Two and Three
To feed two,
was a different kettle.
The second and third stanzas cover agriculture and medieval life, looking at tasks that respectively touch on those topics.
The use of sibilance across ‘sewed seeds’ further speeds up the meter of the poem, the smooth sound similarly propelling Work forward and on to the next task.
Asyndeton is used again in both of these stanzas, ‘watered, threshed, scythed… harder, second job in the alehouse, food int he larder, food on the table’, to present the never-ending task list that the woman completes. Duffy, although only focusing on one woman, is actually taking snapshots of women throughout time and around the world, different women all contributing to the endless stream of tasks completed by women.
The harsh internal rhyme between ‘harder’ and ‘larder’ suggests that in order to produce ‘food on the table’, the women must continuously work longer and harder hours. There is an ever-increasing demand, shown by the expanding number, ‘feed four… feeding ten’, that must be fulfilled by the tireless woman. Duffy is displaying how women are overworked as providers and caregivers, the role of nurturing the many falling to them.
Stanzas Four and Five
was factory gates
trebled. To feed more, more.
These stanzas focus on the process of industrialization and urbanization, both using their respective semantics within words such as ‘oil, metal, noise, machines’ and ‘high-rise flats. Cities grew’. Time is passing, but the demand on women is not letting up. Asyndeton is again used to display this idea, task after task being assigned to the woman of the poem.
Between these stanzas, the number of people she is caring for moves from ‘Fifty’ to ‘a thousand more’, women providing for ever-increasing numbers.
The use of a caesura between ‘To feed more, more’ creates a slight metrical break. This can be understood as a momentary pause, the woman drawing in a breath before carrying on with her task list. The repetition of ‘more’ further this suggestion, the break being only momentary before yet ‘more’ is added to the equation.
Stanzas Six, Seven, Eight
she dug underground, tunnelled,
a 90-hour week. Her offspring swelled. She fed
The poem reaches the 21st century, Duffy presenting growing transport links and iconic technological features of the modern age. Humankind still supporting more and more people, they turn to Mother Nature, harvesting ‘fish, felled trees’ in order to provide. The woman of the poem is now ‘mother to millions’, simultaneously representing Mother Nature and every woman.
Humanity begins to destroy the world, Duffy commenting on the raging capitalism which drives people to ruin the environment for material gain. The cow industry ‘grazed beef’, deforestation in ‘felled trees’, and overfishing in ‘hoovered fish’ compound a sense of total destruction. The extreme speed of ‘hoovered’ suggests the demise of humanity, using technology to pillage the seas.
the world, wept rain, scattered the teeth in her head
Even in the woman’s death, Duffy presents the idea that she continues to work. Now ‘in a grave’ she still ‘worked, to the bone’, asyndeton presenting even this as a task that must be completed.
The final line of the poem, ‘twenty-four seven’ is emblematic of the total devotion of women’s lives to supporting others, women put in roles of service throughout their whole lives. The whole day is encompassed by working, not even death serving as an escape. Duffy demonstrates how women are treated in society, using the experience of every woman to represent the historical mistreatment and overworked nature of women.