A reading of a modern sonnet
‘Prayer’ is one of Carol Ann Duffy’s most popular and widely-studied poems, and packs an impressive emotional punch in just fourteen lines. But how does Duffy create such a powerful poem out of some very ordinary things – practising piano scales, or the BBC Shipping Forecast? We’re going to offer some notes towards an analysis of ‘Prayer’, which can be read here.
In summary, ‘Prayer’ locates the mystical or numinous experiences and feelings to be found in our everyday lives, especially at times when we feel despair or emptiness: the musical sound of the wind through the trees, someone practising musical scales on a piano, or the name of a lost child. A man hearing the sound of a train chugging across the landscape is suddenly reminded, unexpectedly, of his childhood, and his Latin lessons (the repetition of Latin vocabulary lessons, such as learning how to conjugate the verb, often has its own rhythm: e.g. in the famous example of ‘love’, amo, amas, amat). The suggestion is that, although such moments fall short of actual religious experience (Latin is associated with Christianity thanks to the Latin mass, but the memory here is of learning the language, not necessarily in the context of Catholicism), they verge on the spiritual even though they are grounded in more secular and everyday routines and situations.
‘Prayer’ is a Shakespearean sonnet (also known as an English sonnet), as we can tell from its iambic pentameter rhythm and its rhyme scheme: ababcdcdefefgg. However, note the a rhyme and the g rhyme are, in fact, the same: prayer/stare/prayer/Finisterre (with ‘Finisterre’ not simply rhyming with, but repeating, ‘stare’). ‘Finisterre’ rhymes with ‘prayer’, the word that not only ends the previous line also provides the poem with its title, as well as the final word of the poem’s opening line. In other words, that rhyming couplet takes us back to the previous line of the poem but also the very beginning of the poem. This is significant not least because the word Duffy chooses to end the poem – Finisterre – is literally about ends: ‘Finisterre’ means ‘the ends of the earth’. But in a sense, as T. S. Eliot had it in ‘East Coker’, ‘In my end is my beginning’. Prayers are repeated calls, things we return to, things we iterate and reiterate, just as the Shipping Forecast is repeated at regular intervals every night on BBC radio.
Why ‘Finisterre’ and the Shipping Forecast? Many people of a certain generation will recognise the names of the Shipping Forecast areas which Duffy mentions in that final line. But even those who recognise them as such would probably have difficulty pinpointing them on a map. We know them as names, names associated with the Shipping Forecast and the radio’s daily routine – like a nightly prayer – of pronouncing these mysterious shibboleths: North Utsire, South Utsire, Dogger, German Bight, and so on. But the specific regions they denote are unknown to most who hear the names. Like a Latin mass in the pre-Reformation age, the names have a mysterious sound – impenetrable yet, we trust, filled with their own significance. This is why it’s so apt that Duffy chooses to end her poem with ‘Finisterre’, given its Latin origin. Like the man recalling his Latin lessons at school, the name is half-remembered, veiling its own meaning, yet carrying a powerful sense of importance and familiarity, despite – perhaps even because of – its enigmatic qualities.
Mind you, the name ‘Finisterre’ is now out of date: Finisterre ceased to exist under that name in 2002, when it was renamed after the Captain of Charles Darwin’s ship HMS Beagle, Robert FitzRoy, in honour of his role as founder of the MET Office. (Curiously, given the subject of Duffy’s poem, FitzRoy was a very strong Christian who opposed his shipmate Darwin’s theory of natural selection, and later spoke out against evolution. No ‘secular’ prayers for him.)
We wonder too whether Duffy had in mind, in that final couplet, the contrast of outside/inside which Philip Larkin had so memorably captured in ‘Talking in Bed’: ‘Outside, the wind’s incomplete unrest …’ he wrote, moving away from the two lovers isolated in bed together and panning outwards to consider the wider world beyond this scene. Duffy turns this on its head, moving from the world outside to the comforting sound of the radio indoors.
‘Prayer’ is one of Carol Ann Duffy’s most moving poems, and a great way into her work. There’s much to analyse and discuss in terms of her use of the sonnet form, her exploration of ‘faith’ and prayer in an increasingly non-religious age, and her choice of motifs and symbols – many of which focus on ideas of memory and remembrance.
Image: Carol Ann Duffy at Humber Mouth 2009 (picture: walnut whippet), via Wikimedia Commons.