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Relevant BackgroundSummaryThemesTones
ImagerySound Effects

Valentine
Carol Ann Duffy [1955]

Relevant Background

  • Carol Ann Duffy was born in Glasgow. She grew up in a working class family that believed in social change and the politics of protest
  • One of her schoolteachers encouraged her to write poetry. So she published her first poems at sixteen
  • Duffy attended university in Liverpool
  • Then she lived in London for 15 years and now lives near Manchester
  • Carol Ann Duffy works as a lecturer in poetry
  • Duffy likes to challenge normal views with new ideas and approaches

Summary

Carol Ann Duffy wrote this poem in seven stanzas. Three of the stanzas consist of a single line.

In this poem, Carol Ann Duffy states her dislike for the normal stuff you get on Saint Valentine’s Day. On one level, Duffy finds fault with Valentine's Day. On a deeper level, she wants to modernise the symbols we use for love. She also wants us to speak more honestly about love in relationships.

A ‘Red rose’, a ‘satin heart’ and a ‘cute card’ are the usual lovers’ gifts on Valentine’s Day. Duffy is very harsh on these clichéd [well-worn] symbols of Valentine's Day. In the poem Duffy suggests these normal cards, red roses and kissograms lack any real meaning:
‘Not a red rose or a satin heart’,
‘Not a cute card or a kissogram’.

Duffy seems to be a tough a character and gives her lover an onion instead of a rose:
'I give you an onion'.

Duffy looks at the ways an onion is suitable for showing love. She tells her lover what an onion will do for him. Duffy uses the onion as symbol. The onion represents light, discovery and tears. The onion represents the tough side of love. Duffy thinks an onion stands for the truth about love. Therefore the poem takes a deep look at love. It is not just about Saint Valentine's Day. It looks at what love is made up of.

Duffy explores what makes a relationship meaningful. She argues that you have to be honest to make a relationship work:
‘I am trying to be truthful’.

The first stanza contains a dramatic statement in one line. In this opening line, the word ‘not’ shows that Duffy rejects normal romantic stuff:
‘Not a red rose or a satin heart’.

Duffy does not want to treat love in the usual lovey-dovey tone of the Valentine cards.

In the second stanza, Duffy explains how an onion works as a love gift. The brown skin of the onion hides the white vegetable that’s inside. This brown skin is the wrapping paper of the gift, the onion. Duffy compares her gift, the onion, to the moon wrapped in brown paper. This picture of the moon represents the whole onion, just after it has been peeled. The brown wrapping paper around the moon is the brown skin of the onion. The round, white moon is there under the brown paper, and we know that when the paper is removed we will see the moon's light:
‘It is a moon wrapped in brown paper.
It promises light’.
What does ‘light’ mean?
The moon’s ‘light’ represents love. Moonlight often provides a romantic setting. ‘Light’ means the truth as well.
The peeling of the onion is like two people taking off each other’s clothes before they make love:
‘like the careful undressing of love’.
The different layers of the onion are like the layers of someone’s personality. You gradually discover these layers in a love relationship. The onion represents discovery.

In the third stanza, Duffy shows that love is more complex than lovey-dovey romance. In line 6, she announces her gift to her lover:
'Here'.
She is obviously handing the onion to the other person to hold and peal.
It is then that we see another aspect of love: ‘tears’.
At some stage in the peeling or the unwrapping of the onion, the eye sheds tears. The reason for these tears is physical.
‘Tears’ and ‘grief’ are part of real life love.
The reason for these tears is emotional.
Not only will the onion make your eyes water, the pain caused by a loved one similarly brings tears. Photos of happy moments are usually shared between lovers. Duffy imagines that in real life there are moments of hurt or sorrow in a relationship. She thinks lovers should honestly admit to these too:
‘wobbling photo of grief’.
The word ‘wobbling’ is a joke. The word mocks the way tears blur your vision.
A ‘satin heart’ does not reveal the tearful side of love. A ‘satin heart’ is a fake symbol of love. An ‘onion’ is a more truthful symbol.

In the single line fourth stanza, Duffy states the purpose of her unusual gift:
‘I am trying to be truthful’.

In the single line fifth stanza, Duffy rejects the ‘cute’ symbols used on Valentine’s Day:
‘Not a cute card or kissogram’.
Duffy does not approve of commercial tokens of love.

In the sixth stanza, Duffy uses the language of a wedding as she offers her onion gift: ‘I give you an onion’.
That sentence sounds like ‘I give you this ring’.
She uses words like ‘faithful’ and ‘for as long as we are’ to refer to the length of time the relationship will last.
Duffy states that the taste and scent of an onion are like the passion of love.
An onion is a good symbol for passion because its taste remains with you:
‘ stay on you lips’.
An onion is not sweet like a ‘red rose’ but it is savoury. Its taste lingers.
When a relationship fails, bitter feelings remain. The comparison with an onion works well. The taste of an onion remains on a person’s lips. The memory of a kiss can stay with one forever.
How is a passionate kiss ‘fierce’? Perhaps Duffy means that people feel hurt and guilt long after a relationship ends.
Duffy doesn’t like pretence. She suggests that love affairs should last only for the time that two people are interested in each other:
‘Possessive and faithful as we are, for as long as we are’.
‘For as long as we are’ suggests a relationship should only last as long as the lovers feel possessive. When they lose that intense interest in each other, the relationship should end.

In the last stanza, Duffy demands that her lover take her gift:
‘Take it’.
She tells him that they might marry. She suggests that the bright white core of the onion is like a wedding ring:
‘Its platinum loops shrink to a wedding ring’.
She imagines a ring made out of the white valuable metal, platinum.
But Duffy seems to mock at and sneer at marriage. The word ‘shrink’ means reduce. Perhaps Duffy feels that marriage can deaden love and passion. Marriage is ‘lethal’ in her opinion.
While Duffy insists that her lover take her onion, she says marriage or the ring is just an option:
‘if you like’.
This idea fits in with the idea of the fifth stanza that people should only stay together for as long as they are passionate.
Duffy thinks that marriage is like a ‘knife’, sharp and cutting. It is possible that she is bitter about marriage due to the way she has seen men behave. Her words at the end of the poem suggest that her lover will be ‘lethal’ or deadly to her if he marries her. The gentle picture of peeling away the layers has changed to the brutal picture of cutting up the onion with a knife. ‘The careful undressing of love’ has changed to ‘cling to your knife’. The poet is clearly mocking the fact that relationships hurt deeply if they last longer than the passion.
In Duffy’s view, neither love nor marriage is ‘cute’.
Sometimes people never recover from a broken relationship. They will continue to feel heartache, pain and bitterness:
‘Its scent will cling to your fingertips, cling to your knife.’
The repetition of the word ‘cling’ shows the way feelings can take a grip on people. The word ‘knife’ links marriage to a wound. Duffy may have been hurt in previous relationships.
The final image about scent clinging has another meaning. The word is a reference to body scent. Body scents are very strong and physical. Scents linger after lovemaking. These scents will remain in memory after the relationship ends. The smell of an onion stays on your fingers for good while. Again, the onion proves to be a good way of getting the poet’s message across. The final word 'knife' is a further reminder of the capacity [power] of love to hurt.


Themes

The poet shows you have to be honest to make a relationship work:
‘I am trying to be truthful’.

In this poem Carol Ann Duffy refuses to look at relationships as simply romantic:
‘Not a cute card or kissogram’.

The poet suggests that marriage is a negative experience:
‘Lethal’.

The poet portrays her various personality traits:
She is distrustful about romance.
‘Not a red rose or a satin heart’.

Her emotions are complex because she believes in gifts, despite her rejection of satin hearts:
‘It is a moon wrapped in brown paper’.

She is direct, blunt and honest:
‘I am trying to be truthful’

She is passionate:
‘fierce kiss will stay on your lips’.

She has been marked by hurt and pain:
‘wobbling photo of grief’.

She is cautious about love:
‘for as long as we are’.

She is tender:
‘the careful undressing of love’.

She is harsh:
‘shrink to a wedding-ring’.

She is bitter:
‘cling to your knife’.

The poet views love as healthy so long as it avoids both tacky romance and marriage.


Tones

Sometimes the tone is cynical and distrustful:
‘for as long as we are’
‘cling to your knife’.

Sometimes the tone is disapproving:
‘Not a red rose or a satin heart’.

Sometimes the tone is tender:
‘the careful undressing of love’.

Sometimes the tone is direct, blunt and honest:
‘I am trying to be truthful’

Sometimes the tone is humorous and weird:
‘I give you an onion’.

Sometimes the tone is passionate:
‘fierce kiss will stay on your lips’.

Sometimes the tone is cautious:
‘for as long as we are’.

Sometimes the tone is angry or negative:
‘shrink to a wedding-ring’.

Sometimes the tone is bitter:
‘cling to your knife’.


Imagery

The central image is the onion itself.
This image is a metaphor, a comparison image.
Because the metaphor of the onion is used throughout the poem, it is called an extended metaphor. The four phrases that relate directly to an onion are as follows:
‘I give you an onion.
It will blind you with tears
Its … loops
Its scent will cling to your fingers,
cling to your knife’.

Four metaphors indirectly refer to the onion.
These other images or metaphors are connected to the onion metaphor.
Because these other images relate to the onion, they can be called subsidiary metaphors.
‘It is a moon wrapped in brown paper…
It will make your reflection
a wobbling photo of grief…
Its fierce kiss will stay on your lips…
Its platinum loops shrink to a wedding ring’.
For an explanation of the first image of the moon read the summary again.
For an explanation of the second image of tears that blur eyesight read the summary again.
The third image of the fierce kiss compares the scent of an onion to a passionate kiss. This is an example of personification.
[Personification means to treat a thought or a thing as a living being]
In the fourth image, Duffy compares the layers of an orange to the white metal, platinum.
[If you wish to, you can refer to the comparison of love to an onion as an analogy. An analogy is a parallel image. The ‘onion’ in this poem is an image which forms an analogy for the poet’s view of a love relationship. Without this analogy or comparison, we would know a lot less about Duffy’s attitude to romance and relationships. The comparison or analogy is an image for the poet’s distrust of romance and marriage.]

The poet lists four images that are typical of Valentine's Day:
‘red rose… satin heart …cute card…kissogram’


Sound effects

Alliteration [the repetition of first letters]:
‘I’m trying to be truthful’.
The repetition of the ‘t’ sound strengthens the feeling of honesty.
Note the three ‘k’ sounds in
‘cute card or kissogram’.
Find more.

Consonance [the repetition of a consonant sound]:
Note the nine ‘n’ sounds in the last stanza:
‘scent will cling to your fingers’
The ‘n’ sound is found twice in ‘onion’ and its use in the last stanza is a constant reminder of the onion as a new Valentine symbol or metaphor.

Sibilance [repetition of ‘s’ sounds]:
‘Its fierce kiss will stay on your lips,
possessive’.
The ‘s’ sound imitates the sound of a kiss and is an example of onomatopoeia. Onomatopoeia is word sound that imitates meaning.

Rhyming
'Valentine' is a lyric with no rhyming pattern.

Internal Rhyme [a word or sound rhyming within a line]
Note the four ‘in’ sounds repeated in this line:
‘Its platinum loops shrink to a wedding ring’.


Cross Rhyme [a word or sound rhyming across two or more lines]:
Note the repetition of ‘cling’ in the last two lines.


Rhythm
The rhythm has a natural feeling with the run on lines and simple conversational words. The poem feels like a lover’s speech naturally addressed to the other lover.

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