Carol Ann 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. Her poetry tends to deal with difficult subject matters and is often written in first person in the form of a dramatic monologue, usually aimed directly at the reader as is the case with Valentine.
Valentine Form and Tone
This poem, which can be read in full here, is written in free verse with no rhyming pattern. In fact 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. Like most of Duffy’s poems it is written in first person. 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. I think this device acts as a mirror for the ups and downs of a relationship. Duffy is renowned for using the form of the poetry to help emphasise the poems point and she does that here.
In this first stanza it is one of only two times in the poem that Duffy uses alliteration. I think this is to symbolise the “cuteness” associated with these items traditionally used as valentines’ gifts.
From very early in the poem you can see that this poem probably isn’t going to go quite the way you might have expected. The narrator tells their partner that they are giving them an onion and then continues to describe said onion by likening it to the moon rapped in brown paper. This in itself is an interesting metaphor as the moon is considered a symbol of beauty and of femininity but it’s covered in brown paper, which is used for rapping presents but you certainly wouldn’t associate it with rapping for a valentines present. I think this is to symbolise the humble nature of the gift but also simultaneously represent the brown skin of a 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 you have to peel the skin from an onion to avoid tears.
The first line of this stanza is very clever as it leaves a lot of ambiguity about what the narrator is actually 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. But then the next line, which is enjambment makes it seem like the narrator was talking about the onion all along. 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.
I think this line stands in a stanza on its own purely for emphasis. To highlight it’s importance and to show that it is indeed the truth.
“Cute card” is the second example of alliteration in Valentine. Again this line stands in isolation to highlight the importance of dismissing these materialistic things.
This stanza is full of confidence. The narrator is not to be doubted here. The slightl troublesome undertones appear just briefly as the narrator talks of its “fierce kiss” and how it is “possessive” It is suggesting that, like the onion, love can be “fierce” 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. There are comparisons and paradoxes at work here too. The fierce kiss is an oxymoron as is the “possesive and faithful” these are used, I feel, to show the highs and lows of being in love. 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. I think this is trying to say that that real love is enduring. And as you can see the matrimonial theme runs into the next stanza.
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. This is then 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 oxymoron’s 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 I have just read Duffy’s “Human Interest” a poem about a man that stabs his wife. You almost feel that this poem could head in that direction as well!
As you can see 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 we become unsure what is comparison and what is being talked about, love or the onion, I think 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. I think it is also trying to show that when it comes to love that sentiment and hard work trumps love based around meaningless gifts. It is a gift of Duffy’s that she gives away so little in her poems and always leaves you wanting more.