‘Valentine’ by Carol Ann Duffy is a humorous poem, which explores the concept of love, likening it to an onion. The poem has an unusual structure to match its unusual subject matter, and uses a variety of literary techniques. Duffy was born in Glasgow and is the first female Poet Laureate in the UK, having had a wide range of success throughout her career.
This poem is part of the Relationships Poetry Anthology for the Edexcel English Literature GCSE .
Duffy is the UK’s first female poet laureate, which is a poet of some note, appointed by The Crown (King or Queen of the UK) to help represent poetry and literature. There aren’t any specific requirements of this roll, but they normally write poems about significant national events, such as Prince William’s wedding in ‘Rings’ and the 2010 Volcanic Ash Cloud in ‘Silver Lining’.
Her work often reflects everyday life and challenges, drawing on inspiration from throughout her life, and often incorporates feminist ideas into her works. Like Robert Browning (‘My Last Duchess’), she is an expert at writing monologues, particularly from the perspective of people with unusual ideas or beliefs.
Glossary of Terms from the Poem
- Satin: High quality, smooth material (usually silk).
- Kissogram: A type of humorous novelty greeting in which a message is delivered to an individual, accompanied by a kiss.
- Fierce: Strong and aggressive.
- Possessive: To take ownership of something.
- Platinum: A precious metal.
“Not a red rose or a satin heart.”
The opening line of the poem is relatively short, helping to draw the reader’s attention. Even more emphasis is placed on the line though its isolation in a separate stanza, with this separation from the rest of the poem helping to make the line look almost as important as the title. The use of cliché love tokens such as a “red rose” and “satin heart” helps to communicate that this poem is likely to be on the subject of love (supporting assumptions from the title), however some readers may begin to question whether the use of these clichés is to make a satirical point.
“It is a moon wrapped in brown paper”
The metaphorical likening of the “onion” to a “moon” is notable due to its various connotations, such as mystery and darkness, in addition to illumination and romance. This helps to evoke various ideas in a reader’s imagination without actively having to describe all of them, particularly ideas such as romantic evenings. Describing it being “wrapped in brown paper” adds an element of intrigue and mystery, as if it is wrapped up like a present.
“It will blind you with tears // like a lover.”
To “blind” someone has many negative connotations, with imagery of violence and injury creating a contrast to the ideas of love explored in the previous stanza, although the reader’s surprise is likely to reduce when it becomes clear that the description is relating to “tears”. The rhythm of the line indicates that it will be end-stopped, however enjambment occurs instead, making the following line “like a lover” even more memorable, with Duffy highlighting the negative yet inevitable aspect of relationships.
“Its fierce kiss will stay on your lips,”
Some readers may be surprised by this line, as it marks an unexpected shift into a more passionate description of love, as up until now the poem has focused on intimacy and emotions. Interestingly there is an example of sibilance from the ‘s’ sounds in “fierce kiss” and “stay”. This technique is typically associated with danger and the hissing of a snake, so some readers may consider whether Duffy is alluding to negative ideas associated with romance such as infidelity.
“Its platinum loops shrink to a wedding ring // if you like.”
Wedding rings are significant symbols of love and commitment, with Duffy using descriptions in this final stanza to explore ideas related to long term love and marriage. Describing the “onion” as “platinum” helps to signify its importance, as platinum is a rare and precious metal commonly used in jewellery. The conversational “if you like” at the end of the phrase helps to make a serious concept more approachable, with some readers may see as an element of bathos.
Themes in ‘Valentine’
- Relationships: ‘Valentine’ is part of the Relationships anthology. This poem explores many aspects of relationships, from a “Valentine” as alluded to in the title, to love, anger and upset, truth, passion and commitment. The broad mix of ideas helps to make the poem relatable to a wide audience.
- Love and Intimacy: As the poem progresses, ideas related to love and intimacy are explored in more depth. Initially they begin as clichés, but gradually become more developed with a focus on emotions and feelings.
- Protection: An interesting aspect of the poem is the line “I am trying to be truthful” which indicates that rather than protecting someone from the truth through lies, the narrator is instead seeking to protect their lover by being truthful with them.
Quick Focus Questions
- Normal: What do you think is the funniest phrase from the poem – and why?
- Hard: How might the unusual structure of the poem be likened to love or a relationship?
- Challenge: The word “Valentine” does not appear in the actual text of the poem, only the title. Why might Duffy have chosen this?
While ‘Valentine’ is a humorous and arguably satirical poem, it still explores lots of significant ideas related to love and intimacy and how it can impact a relationship. Like ‘i wanna be yours’, from the same anthology, the humour helps the poem to be memorable for a reader, however the subject matter can be likened more to ‘1st Date – She’ and ‘1st Date – He’ through the focus on ideas related to dating.