‘Small Female Skull’

cropped-cropped-image1.jpegCarol Ann Duffy situates her poem in an ordinary place: the toilet! This sets up a paradox for the internal monologue of the speaker as she turns the female skull around in her hands trying to recognise herself in it.

The very process of balancing the skull and exploring its messages generates the poem itself- as in Keats’ ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’.  The process of creation and the fragility of life are presented.

The intimacy of this connection with the ‘small female skull’  is palpable. The verb ‘balance’ acts as a tender, anchor , suggestive of the precariousness of the skull’s situation in the speaker’s hand as well as the transience of life. For the poem seems to be unsurprisingly about mortality and the way we need to take greater care of ourselves.

As in so much of Duffy’s work, the idea of the ‘breath’ comes up. We are so often aware of the ‘pulse’ of life in a Duffy poem, a pulse which maintains the rhythm of the poet’s thinking and which changes as the poem approaches its finale. Being out of breath as in Wilfred Owen’s war poetry is synonymous with suffocation and extinction. In some poems of Duffy, the poet draws our attention to breathing reinforcing idea of resurrection.  In Duffy’s poem here, the breath through the holes of the skull are without effect. The hollowness of the skull even a reflection of the hollowness of any avowal of ‘love’. For everything according to the atheist Duffy, yields to the emptiness of this residue of life; namely the skull itself.’Papery bone’ All our ‘weight’ of living through thoughts, aspirations and memories become this… Cheery eh?

After initially externalising a reflective process about mortality, Carol Ann Duffy allows the poem to slip between external and internal focus. The skull far from being ‘without’ becomes the within. Why after all is the speaker seemingly stranded alone on a toilet? What  or who is she  seeking refuge from? And why the reference to the ‘scar’ gained through ‘love’ and ‘treacherous stairs’? Grief has destabilised the speaker perhaps and the stairs may be a metaphor for a fall from love, or alternatively a ‘fall’ from childhood innocence perhaps? For it is quite possible that the stairs are the stairs of life..so that the ‘fall’ is a metaphor and thus the ‘braille’ represents the human urge to make sense of life?

Is life a search of a meaningful dialogue which may never arrive or which remains a conversation finally spoken in a ‘white room’ with death itself? All our grandiose ‘grand words’ become erased, or deemed ‘crazy’ by others, emphasising the essential solitariness of existence.

The final image is one of infinite tenderness to self/other and conveys the infinite fragility of life!! – YOLO



Revisting Duffy – even though we know that we should ‘Never go back’ (see what I did there…)

cropped-cropped-image1.jpegWhat’s the exam like?

1 hour

50 marks

AO1 15 – argument, accuracy, style and use of terminology

AO2 15 – detailed analysis of form, structure, language and how poetic techniques   shape meanings

AO4 20 – analysis of connections between poems – links – comparisons and contrasts

  • “Informed” – candidate’s own knowledge of texts
  • “Personal” – relates to level of candidate’s engagement with texts
  • “Creative” – includes how engaging and well-structured responses are
  • “Concepts” – reflects an overarching awareness of the framework of the subject
  • “Terminology” – here refers to the use of correct/suitable words.
  • “Coherent” – an ability to engage in clear and effective academic discourse which is well organised and adopts an academic style and register.


  • Support observations with brief quotation – learn to integrate key, single-word quotations into sentence structure
  • Plan the response
  • Reflect
  • Read the material thoroughly


  • Spend time on a descriptive introduction or statement of intent
  • Work through the material systematically line by line
  • Copy out large sections of material
  • Assert meaning without support
  • Impose your own agenda on the material – do allow it to speak for itself
  • Attempt to discuss similar work you have encountered in your wider reading or to analyse possible contexts for the material

How to write well:

  • Integrate connections and comparisons – be specific and detailed.
  • Select points across the poems rather than going through them line by line.
  • Support points with short, embedded quotations.
  • No need for biographical information.
  • Write in a formal style – avoid contractions and colloquial language, use a literary vocabulary, avoid use of first person ‘I’.
  • Proof read writing to ensure accuracy.


Write an introduction with a focused argument or main point about both poems.

Be tentative so you acknowledge there are many ways to interpret the poems, e.g. perhaps; this suggests or implies; it could be argued …

Make a clear distinction between speaker/persona and Duffy and ascribe authorial methods, e.g. Duffy presents …

Do not describe events in the poem but focus closely on poetic techniques.

Integrate quotations and points, e.g. In utilising onomatopoeia, ‘fizzy’, Duffy conveys to the reader the visceral excitement that comes with being young as we can almost hear the ripple of excitement in the dance hall.

Use key signpost comparative markers to his AO4, e.g. similarly, conversely etc.

Need an introduction and at least five or six detailed comparative paragraphs as the body of the essay then a short conclusion which reflects on question/connections.

Revision Task:

Re-read ‘Litany’. Analyse how Duffy presents childhood and the past in this poem and at least one other poem in the collection. (50 marks)

Re-read ‘Litany’. Analyse how Duffy presents childhood and the past …

(3 minutes planning)

in this poem and at least one other poem in the collection.

(3 minutes planning)

There are three ways in which you might make connections

  1. Your expression might show the examiner that you are aware of any similarities and differences between the poems as you use ‘signpost’ phrases such as ‘similarly’, ‘differently’, ‘unlike’ .
  2. Find similarities and differences in the ideas and attitudes presented in the poems.
  3. Find similarities and differences in the way the poems have been written.

The best responses, the ones that are most productive are able to explore detail as well as having an ability to compare and contrast the overview.

Making connections through:










Beginnings/endings/progression of ideas or argument

Structure – layout, rhyme, rhythm

Figurative language – metaphor, simile, symbolism, personification, anthropomorphism, pathetic fallacy

Context in ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ – AO3

You will need to do some additional research and then write a paragraph on each of the contextual factors; explaining in your own words, how and why they are relevant to the story. Add your paragraphs to the blog. 

  • Slavery and emancipation
  • Colonial influence/ownership
  • Status of women in England and Caribbean cultures
  • Wealth/social class and English inheritance laws
  • The supernatural (Obeah)
  • Attitudes towards race and colonialism – at the time and now.