Use this page to find resources for Carol Ann Duffy's poem 'Originally'. The BBC Bitesize section in National 5 is very useful.



Choose a poem which explores an important theme. Explain briefly what the theme is and go on to show how the poet helps the reader to appreciate the theme.

 A poem which deals with an important theme is “Originally” by Carol Ann Duffy. In this poem Duffy explores the themes of growing up, loneliness and isolation and helps her readers to appreciate these themes through her use of mood, imagery and contrast.

 Carol Ann Duffy effectively draws us straight into the theme of isolation through her choice of first person narrative for the poem. The first verse of the poem is her account as an adult of her family moving her and her brothers from Glasgow into a new community. The poem starts with: “We came from our own country.” The use of the word “we” makes it clear that she is sharing a personal experience and this has the immediate effect of drawing the reader in as if we are having a personal conversation with her. In effect Carol Ann Duffy’s poem is a dramatic monologue, a drama with one main character doing the speaking. This adds to the idea of isolation – there is only one character speaking to an audience of one reader.

 At this stage in the poem the poet belongs to a small family group who can fit into a car described as: “a red room which fell through the fields.” This very small setting involving just enough people to fit into a car adds to the sense of isolation. While the poet seeks to create a happy mood at the start of the poem through her use of rhyme: “fell through the fields” and “the turn of the wheels” as well as reference to the “mother singing” all is not happy. The word choice of “fell” through the fields gives a sense of something unpleasant and uncontrollable happening. The brothers are “bawling Home, Home” and the poet describes herself as a silent isolated figure: “I stared at the eyes of a blind toy, holding its paw.” The poet clearly sees herself as an isolated person in the car in need of comfort and expresses that need through comforting the toy.

 At this stage of the poem the reader feels a lot of sympathy towards the poet – this is evoked through the image of the “blind toy.” The poet uses a number of techniques to show that this is a move that she did not want. There is the use of personification in describing the journey: “the miles rushed back to the city” which expresses her own desire to go back, and the clever use of a list which takes us back to the place she has just left: “the city, the street, the house, the vacant rooms where we didn’t live any more.” These techniques all effectively help the reader to appreciate the sense of loss and isolation the poet felt during the car journey.

 In the second verse of the poem the poet helps us to see that this kind of isolation though unpleasant is a necessary part of the growing up experience – “Originally” is  therefore a ‘rites of passage’ poem. This is expressed in the metaphor: “All childhood is an emigration.” This metaphor is extended in the next few lines when she contrasts slow ‘emigrations’ where you gradually realise that you are different and isolated from others in your new community: “leaving you standing, resigned, up an avenue where no one you know stays.” The word choice of “no one you know” as well as the use of assonance in that phrase effectively draws attention to the poet’s sense of loneliness. The poet then considers “sudden” emigrations where you quickly realise that you are different: “Your accent wrong.”

 Carol Ann Duffy uses a simile to explain her emotional reaction to this change: “My parents’ anxiety stirred like a loose tooth in my head.” This simile compares her parents’ anxiety to the unpleasant experience of having a loose tooth in your mouth. It effectively gives a picture of something which worries you, and which you keep on going back to, until in some way it is fixed. At this stage, when the poet is still looking back to the time when she is a child, the poet’s solution is to go back: “I want our own country, I said.” Here the metaphor of country is used not only to describe the place that she has left, but also the language. In her “new country” her accent is wrong and “big boys … (are) shouting words you don’t understand.” This effectively helps the reader to appreciate some of the root causes of isolation – change in place, change of accent and change of language.

 In the third verse Carol Ann Duffy now gives her adult reflection on the whole experience. As an adult she realises that going back was no solution. Instead time itself, growing up, brings about natural changes: “But then you forget, or don’t recall, or change.” This is a contrast to the attitudes expressed earlier in the poem, when the poet rebelled against the change, felt frightened by change and wanted to go back to the familiar. This contrast is used to show that the poet has grown up and has adapted to her feelings of isolation.

 She is not, however, completely comfortable with her change. She talks about her brothers becoming like the other boys in her neighbourhood and now only: “feel a skelf of shame.” The colloquial word “skelf” is an indication that she has taken on board the new language of her neighbourhood and the juxtaposed word “shame” shows that she is not entirely happy with it. She uses the simile: “I remember my tongue shedding its skin like a snake” to bring out the idea that this change of language is evil, it is like the snake in the Garden of Eden, an evil presence which spoiled her childhood’s “perfect world.” The simile also expresses how easily this change was made, and how like a snake shedding its skin how the old has to be let go of so that the new can grow.

 Finally, at the end of the poem the poet has dealt with her sense of isolation by becoming like those around her: “my voice in the classroom sounding just like the rest.” She uses enjambement to show that this process has taken time:

                        “… Do I only think

I lost a river, culture, speech, sense of first space

and the right place?”

 and to make clear from these lines that she sees that coming out from isolation to acceptance in this community has been paid for through loss – the loss of her cultural identity and original accent. While this has been a price worth paying it still leaves her unsure and a little unhappy. This is brought out through the use of questions and her final conclusion in the poem including the word choice “hesitate”:


                        “Now, Where do you come from?

Strangers ask. Originally? And I hesitate.”

 In conclusion, Carol Ann Duffy has successfully explored the theme of loneliness and isolation in her poem “Originally.” In particular I think that her choice of the dramatic monologue successfully brought out her loneliness in going through this experience and helped me to appreciate her treatment of the issue of being taken out of one community and being forced to adapt to another.

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