Saturday, January 26, 2019

Carol Ann Duffy - Havisham (Overview - Part 1)
A paragon of betrayal, vengeance, self-pity and idiosyncrasy, Miss Havisham is Dickens's most memorable and intriguing character. She was the woman who stayed fossilized in my mind the moment I finished reading the chapter in which Dickens first described her. She mesmerized me in the guise of Martita Hunt in the legendary 1946 film adaptation of Great Expectations starring iconic Sir John Mills, Finlay Currie, as well as a young Jean Simmons and Sir Alec Guinness.

Being thus prejudicially inclined, it was with immense joy that I discovered that a poem had been written to recapture the sound of a shattering heart. Miss Havisham lived on in her agony, yet this time round her thoughts were open to further interpretation not limited to details set down by Dickens's 19th century novel. 

Carol Ann Duffy's 1993 poem does Miss Havisham justice, indeed. So much so, in fact, that I've spent hours drawing up my overview which at 3 A-4 sized sheets of paper is nowhere near completion. 

You can find the poem here.

This first post gives a brief biography, discusses the poem's structure (meter and rhymes), the sounds present in the poem and analyzes the persona of Miss Havisham (what is known about her from Great Expectations and how Duffy treats her case).

 Carol Ann Duffy - Havisham


  • born 1955, Glasgow, Scotland
  • oldest daughter, four younger brothers
  • family moved to England when she was 6
  • she started writing poetry as a school girl; one of her teachers sent her poems to a publisher when Duffy was 15
  • at 16 she went to live with Liverpool poet Adrian Henri (23 years her senior) for 11 years, time during which she says he was never faithful
  • studied Philosophy, wrote plays, pamphlets, poems
  • is now Poet Laureate of the UK, professor of contemporary poetry at Manchester Metropolitan University
  • has one daughter (biological father is poet Peter Benson) during her relationship with poet Jackie Kay

Structure (meter / rhyme scheme)

  • 4 stanzas, 4 verses each
  • enjambment (overlapping, one sentence continues in the next stanza) is present from stanzas 2 to 3 and stanzas 3 to 4
  • mid-stanza enjambment (one sentence continues in the next verse) present in every stanza
  • mid-verse caesuras (breaks / pauses) present in every stanza
    • for example: the full stops in stanza 1, lines 1 + 2
  • similar stanza and verse length: approximately 10-12 syllables present in each verse (what starts in iambic hexameter, degenerates into spasmodic instances of iambs, dactyls, spondees that reflect Miss Havisham’s mental state)
    • stanza 1
      • verse 1 = 12 syllables (iambic hexameter)
      • verse 2 = 8 syllables
      • verse 3 = 9 syllables
      • verse 4 = 11 syllables
    • stanza 2
      • verse 1 = 10 syllables
      • verse 2 = 10 syllables
      • verse 3 = 12 syllables
      • verse 4 = 12 syllables
    • stanza 3
      • verse 1 = 10 syllables
      • verse 2 = 11 syllables
      • verse 3 = 10 syllables
      • verse 4 = 11 syllables
    • stanza 4
      • verse 1 = 12 syllables
      • verse 2 = 11 syllables
      • verse 3 = 12 syllables
      • verse 4 = 12 syllables
  • overwhelming number of one-syllable words throughout the poem give it a disjointed feel (no mellifluousness is achieved when each stress falls on the one syllable afforded to each word)
  • no perfect rhymes are present though a variety of general rhymes are:
    • oblique rhyme: “cake” – “breaks” in stanza 4
    • slant rhyme: “dress” – “this” in stanza 2
    • mind rhyme: “I stink and remember” instead of I “think” and remember
    • off-rhymes are coupled between stanzas:
      • stanza 1, line 3 (“eyes”) is close in sound to stanza 2, line 1 (“days”)
      • stanza 2, line 3 (“wardrobe”) with stanza 3, line 1 (“words”)
      • stanza 3, line 4 (“bite”) with stanza 4, line 1 (“white”)
      • assonance in stanza 3, line 4 (“awake”) with stanza 4, line 1 (“hate” and “veil”) or “veil” with “male” in line 3 of that stanza
    • the effect created by these rhymes is an off-kilter state of mind


  • consonants: plethora of
    • plosives / stops (voiced and voiceless): the consonants p, b, d, t
    • fricatives: f, th, h
    • sibilants: s, sh
  • vowels: no preference shown, though short “a” sounds evoke the pain Miss Havisham feels
    • “ha” sounds are especially predominant in stanza 1 (sweetheart, haven’t, hard, hands)
    • diphthongs predominant in stanza 2 (whole, days, Nooooo, yellowing, open, wardrobe)
    • diphthongs and long vowels are also scattered around the poem to stress Miss Havisham’s pain even more (prayed, cawing, wall, sounds, mouth, nights, over, fluent, ear, down, awake, hate, behind, white, veil, balloon, face, cake, male, slow, honeymoon, breaks)
  • coupled to the pain the vowel sounds allude to, the overall atmosphere evoked by the plosives, fricatives and sibilants is a mixture of
    • aggressiveness: air being withheld in the mouth then released to create the plosives
    • weariness / exhaustion: the breathlessness evoked by the fricatives and sibilants
    • insidiousness: the hissing sound of the sibilants


  • Miss Havisham
    • is one of the most memorable characters created by Charles Dickens who appears in his 19th century novel Great Expectations
    • she was the daughter of a wealthy brewer who remarried and had a son with his 2nd wife
    • her half-brother colluded with a knave to swindle Miss Havisham out of her fortune
    • Miss Havisham falls in love and becomes engaged
    • she is jilted by her fiancé who leaves her on their wedding day (it is intimated she found out as she was dressing for the wedding, which is why she has never taken her wedding dress off and is seen by Pip wearing one shoe only)
    • she orders the clocks in the house be stopped at 20 minutes to 9 and all things left as they are (the wedding cake as well)
    • she completely withdraws from society, never leaving her house, living with drawn curtains amid dust and cobwebs
    • since that devastating experience (both in terms of how publicly humiliated and how privately betrayed she felt), she has vowed to take revenge on men (by adopting Estella, raising her to be admired and loved by men but training her to break their hearts)
  • in this poem, Miss Havisham
    • is stripped of her honorific: she is neither married nor unmarried, she is just a family name
      • ever since the day she was left at the altar, her identity / individuality has disintegrated
      • she is neither male nor female
      • she only holds a family name which shows her connection to society as being purely formal (something you’d find in a register entry)
        • her family name was the reason why she felt so humiliated upon being jilted: society gossip was sure to have been rampant when she was left a fortune; if she had been left the brewery, being a woman she would have had to prove herself businessworthy in the midst of so many other men; the pressure of many eyes on her makes her failure in personal matters even more unbearable given the attitude of men towards women at the time (believing them flippant, whimsical, incompetent, hysterical)
        • her family name was connected to (social) wealth which lay at the heart of her relationships with men (her father left her the greatest part of his fortune; her brother envied her after she became an heiress; her fiancé was only interested in her money)
        • all this has left a carcass of a name attached to her with no embellishment whatsoever 
      • Dickens never gave her a first name; neither does Duffy
    • refers to herself through the use of “I” and “her”: shows her disassociation from herself, her psychosis
    • commingles love and hatred: she cannot rid herself of him (her longing of him) nor of the degenerate self she sees in the mirror
    • her experience is sensory: all the senses are recruited to express the full agony she feels
      • sight: “I’ve dark green pebbles for eyes”, “the dress yellowing”, “the slewed mirror, full-length, her, myself”
      • sound: “curses that are sounds not words”, “cawing”, “Bang”
      • touch: “ropes on the back of my hands” “trembling if I open the wardrobe”
      • smell: “I stink”
      • taste: “ my fluent tongue in its mouth in its ear”
  • her thoughts & feelings:
    • longing:
      • her nocturnal fantasies of the “lost body over” her
      • her preference for a dead body over the loveless existence she leads
    • revenge / murder: thoughts of strangling him
    • social humiliation:
      • she calls herself a spinster, which is the category society would place her in (someone who’s happy being single doesn’t care what others say about their marital status)
    • shame at what she’s become:
      • ponders whether she is to blame for her present state (“who” at the end of stanza 2 may be a relative pronoun as well as a question word)
    • ageing:
      • she realizes she is growing old and her life is slipping away which is why she has murderous thoughts – Compeyson (her fiancé, her beloved sweetheart bastard) has irremediably broken her heart and cursed her to live and die unloving and unloved
      • this is why the poem ends with “Don’t think it’s only the heart that b-b-b-breaks.”
      • she is aware she has lost her mind, and now sees she is losing time: she confounds images of youth and innocence with sexuality (white veil, red balloon bursting)
      • the back of her hands are like "ropes" (as the veins pop out -- the older you get, the thinner the skin becomes, making veins visible)
      • her eyes have lost all sentiment and become stones

Read more literary analyses by clicking on the picture below. 

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