Valentine – Duffy. Bring your ‘Mean Time’ tomorrow!

Valentine (notes)
This poem is written in the first person. The speaker appears to be the poet, addressing her lover as “you”. In fact, Carol Ann Duffy wrote Valentine after a radio producer asked her to write an original poem for St. Valentine’s Day.(Valentine was published in 1993, in the collection Mean Time.) But the poem is universal: it could be from any lover to any beloved (for example, there is no indication of the sex of either the “I” or the “you”). The poem, on the surface, is about the giving of an unusual present for St. Valentine’s Day, but really is an exploration of love between two people. This is a good text to write about, because it has a single central image, which is developed throughout the poem: the onion is an extended metaphor for love.
The form of the poem supports its argument (the ideas in it) as Duffy uses single isolated lines to show why she rejects the conventional Valentines: “Not a red rose or a satin heart…Not a cute card or a kissogram.” Why not? Because each has long ceased to be original and has been sent millions of times. The symbolism of roses and hearts is often overlooked, while cards and kissograms may be expensive but mean little. As an artist, Ms. Duffy should be able to think of something more distinctive, and she does.
Duffy in effect lists reasons why the onion is an appropriate symbol of love. First, the conventional romantic symbol of the moon is concealed in it. The moon is supposed to govern women’s passions. The brown skin is like a paper bag, and the shiny pale onion within is like the moon. The “light” which it promises may be both its literal brightness and metaphorical understanding (of love) or enlightenment. The removing of the papery outer layers suggests the “undressing” of those who prepare to make love. There may also be a pun (play on words here) as “dressing” (such as French dressing or salad dressing) is often found with onions in the kitchen.

The onion is like a lover because it makes one cry. The verb “blind” may also suggest the traditional idea of love’s (or Cupid’s) being blind. And the onion reflects a distorted image of anyone who looks at it, as if this reflection were a “wobbling photo” – an image which won’t keep still, as the onion takes time to settle on a surface. The flavour of the onion is persistent, so this taste is like a kiss which lasts, which introduces the idea of faithfulness which will match that of the lovers (“possessive and faithful…for as long as we are”).

Duffy gives the impression that when women cry, for some reason, they often go to the mirror – the lover is blinded with tears and staring in the mirror. Duffy gives the impression that when women cry, for some reason, they often go to the mirror – the lover is blinded with tears and staring in the mirror.The onion is a series of concentric rings, each smaller than the other until one finds a ring the size of a wedding ring (“platinum”, because of the colour). But note the phrase “if you like”: the lover is given the choice. Thus the poem, like a traditional Valentine, contains a proposal of marriage. There is also a hint of a threat in the suggestion that the onion is lethal, as its scent clings “to your knife”. The poet shows how the knife which cuts the onion is marked with its scent, as if ready to punish any betrayal.

Note the form of this poem: Duffy writes colloquially (as if speaking) so single words or phrases work as sentences: “Here…Take it…Lethal”. The ends of lines mark pauses, and most of them have a punctuation mark to show this. The stanza breaks mark longer pauses, so that we see how the poem is to be read aloud. The poem appeals to the senses especially of sight (striking visual images of light, shape and colour), touch (the “fierce kiss”) and smell (the “scent” clinging “to your fingers” and “knife”). The poem uses conventional Valentines as a starting point, before showing how the onion is much more true to the nature of love. The poem seems at first to be rather comical (an onion as a Valentine is surely bizarre) but in fact is a very serious analysis of love.

Structure: Duffy uses structure to show that her speaker/persona who offers the gift of an onion as a representation of their love for their partner, becomes increasingly frustrated by their lover’s rejection of the gift and eventually adopts a threatening attitude.’ Duffy has used FREE VERSE in this poem – there is no obvious rhyme scheme or rhythm.


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