A Short Analysis of Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘The Love Poem’
A reading and gloss of Duffy’s poem
‘The Love Poem’ appeared in Carol Ann Duffy’s 2005 collection Rapture. It’s a love poem about love poetry, which uses other poets’ words to create a collage. You can read ‘The Love Poem’ here; in this post we’re going to track down the poems that Duffy alludes to in her poem and offer some notes towards an analysis of ‘The Love Poem’ itself.
In summary, ‘The Love Poem’ is a poem about the difficulty of writing a love poem. The context of the poem is important: the whole of Rapture is about a love affair. It’s like a modern-day sonnet sequence, only the poems are not sonnets but written in a whole range of different forms and styles, including free verse. But Rapture harks back to such sonnet sequences of the Renaissance as Shakespeare’s Sonnets and Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella. ‘The Love Poem’ shows that Duffy is aware of this rich tradition of love-poem sequences in English literature: it is a poem that feels the weight of these former masters – Shakespeare, Sidney, Donne, Shelley, Barrett Browning – and finds it difficult to write a love poem that won’t sound like a bad pastiche or copy of these literary greats. ‘I love you’, as Jacques Derrida was fond of pointing out, is always a quotation.
Before we proceed any further with an analysis of ‘The Love Poem’, here are the sources for the poems which Duffy quotes from. The first quotation, ‘my mistress’ eyes’, is from William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130, which begins ‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’; ‘let me count the ways’ is from another love poem, Sonnet 43 by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways’); ‘come live with me’ appears in a number of Renaissance love poems, including Christopher Marlowe’s ‘The Passionate Shepherd to His Love’ and ‘The Bait’ by John Donne.
Then ‘one hour with thee’ is from Sir Walter Scott’s ‘An Hour with Thee’; ‘dear heart, how like you this?’ are from Sir Thomas Wyatt’s ‘They Flee From Me’; ‘look in thy heart and write’ are the closing words of the first sonnet, beginning ‘Loving in Truth’, in Sir Philip Sidney’s sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella. The line ‘there is a garden in her face’ is from a poem by Thomas Campion, ‘O my America! my new-found land’ is from another John Donne poem, ‘To His Mistress Going to Bed’. And ‘behold, thou art fair’ is from the Song of Solomon in the Bible, while ‘the desire of the moth for the star’ is a phrase in Percy Shelley’s poem ‘One Word is Too Often Profaned’.
What is Duffy trying to say? One way to interpret ‘The Love Poem’ and its use of previous poets’ words is to say that the affair being described in the poem – and in the whole of Rapture – is over (as the final poem in the volume, simply called ‘Over’, will make clear). Duffy’s reference to ‘an epitaph’ in ‘The Love Poem’ hints at this: she is trying to memorialise or enshrine her love affair in words that will last, like those of the poets she quotes. (The opening words of the poem, ‘Till love exhausts itself’, also hints at the end of the affair.)
But Duffy’s poetic choices here might be seen as significant too. As well as being some of the ‘greatest hits’ from English love poetry, these poems that she references tell their own story. For instance, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 (‘My mistress’ eyes’) is also about responding to, and rejecting, previous poetic conceits and images, in favour of depicting the woman as she really is, rather than by comparing her to some high-minded ideal – just as Duffy’s own poem is faced with the same problem of writing her way past previous poets’ words (and, given that Duffy is homosexual, her poem shares a dual link with Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130, which was written about a woman but is placed in a sequence containing poems with clear homoerotic meaning). Similarly, Sir Philip Sidney’s ‘Loving in Truth’, from which Carol Ann Duffy takes the phrase ‘look in thy heart and write’, is all about the struggle to write a love poem – or sequence of love poems – that will convey how Sidney truly feels. If Sidney felt this problem over four hundred years ago, how much steeper is the hill that a modern-day poet must climb. And as the (unofficial) title of Shelley’s poem makes clear, the word ‘love’ has been used to many times that it has been ‘profaned’.
‘The Love Poem’ might be compared with another Carol Ann Duffy poem, ‘Syntax’, which is also part of Rapture, the collection in which ‘The Love Poem’ appears. The two poems might be analysed in conjunction with each other, since both of them are about the struggle of the poet to convey her love in words that will ring true and resonate, not sound like so many stock clichés.
Image: Carol Ann Duffy at Humber Mouth 2009 (picture: walnut whippet), via Wikimedia Commons.