Havisham – Carol Ann Duffy

This poem was composed in 1998 and is a response to Charles Dickens’ character ‘Miss Havisham’ from the novel ‘Great Expectations.. so before I go on to some poem analysis, I will first post some of the background information I have picked up from this character!

Miss Havisham was in love with a man named Compeyson, who which her cousin had warned her to keep away from as he was only out to swindle her of her riches, but she was too much in love to listen. When it came to her wedding day she received a letter informing she had been defrauded by her fiancé and ‘left at the altar.’ Humiliated and heartbroken, from that day on she never removed her wedding dress only wearing one shoe leaving the wedding breakfast and cake uneaten on the table and allowing only a few people to see her. She even had all of the clocks in her mansion stopped at twenty minutes to nine – the exact time when she had received the letter.

Havisham is Miss Havisham’s story in her own words. She reflects on her feelings for the man who left her, and the effect it has had on her. It explores how she could have come to be the woman she is. The poem provides another insight into Miss Havisham, which gives the reader some empathy into her situation. It is also about obsessive love gone wrong.

This poem is written as a dramatic monologue. Duffy writing in first person as if she was taking on the role of Miss Havisham, “Not a day since then I haven’t wished him dead”, this enables the audience to understand her true thoughts ad if she was speaking to them directly. It has no regular rhyme pattern or line length written in free verse containing enjambment, suggesting to me an ongoing tone of conversation. It is, however, arranged in four stanzas of equal length, suggesting some control in its speaker, undermining the madness the character is known for, which is the focus of the poem.

The first sentence in the poem is simply 3 nouns in a row creating a sense of anger, also with the oxymoron of the 3 nouns “beloved sweetheart bastard”, and again used later in the poem “love’s hate” these portray the ambivalence and restless uncertainty of the character, while a sexual fantasy reveals both the unrequited love and the passion that remains within Havisham following the wedding, a devastation from which her heart has never recovered. 

From our knowledge and understanding of the character from the opening paragraph of my blog, we know that when Duffy talks of the dress, we know it is a wedding dress, just as we understand that the bastard of the first line is the man who left her at the altar, without having to be told. The effects of this are physical as well as mental: Duffy uses the images of “dark green pebbles” and “ropes on the back of my hands” as metaphors to show how Havisham has hardened over the years. There is violence in this metaphor too, as they are ropes Havisham could strangle with. This violence is also later picked up towards the end of the poem, In the midst of her dream she suddenly bite awake, taking implied revenge despite the sexual connotations of the dream. Also the “red balloon bursting” and “stabbed at a wedding cake” again add to this sense of violence.

Another technique used by Duffy to add to this sense of violence is the onomatopoeia in the word “bang” of the balloon bursting and stabbing of the wedding cake. Similarly, the repetition of the letter ‘b’ in “Don’t think it’s only the heart that b-b-b-breaks” to create the effect of stammering on the last word of the poem is powerful, suggesting both the length of time her heart has been broken and the possibility of a stabbing, violent action towards the bridegroom.

From the past I have remembered my English teacher to see the title of any poem just like a ‘floating line’, meaning it is just as important – in this case, it is significant for the title to be ‘Havisham’ dropping the word ‘miss’ from her name because although being left at the altar caused her problems, losing the label ‘miss’  makes an assertion that she is her own person. It also provides a small distance from the Dickens novel and enables the poem to opera seperately.


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