Carol Ann Duffy: Hour
Carol Ann Duffy is the first female Poet Laureate (2009), and probably the best known female poet working in Britain today. She was born in 1955 in Glasgow. Duffy is well known for poems that give a voice to the dispossessed (people excluded from society); she encourages the reader to put themselves in the shoes of people they might normally dismiss. Her poetry often engages with the grittier and more disturbing side of life, using black humor like a weapon to make social and political points. Hour was published in the collection Rapture (2005) which explores the highs and lows of a romantic relationship.
Hour is about the feelings that arise from spending time with a loved one. The poem suggests that to be with a loved one, even for just an hour, is precious and valuable. It also presents the traditional idea of time as an obstacle to lovers.
Hour follows the structure of a Shakespearean sonnet [sonnet: A 14-line poem, usually written in iambic pentameter. Most sonnets conform to one of the following rhyme schemes: A-B-A-B C-D-C-D E-F-E-F G-G (English sonnet); or A-B-B-A A-B-B-A C-D-E C-D-E (Italian sonnet). ]: it has fourteen lines and a predictable rhyme scheme (a-b-a-b-c-d-c-d-e-f-e-f-g-g). Sonnets often use a final rhyming couplet [rhyming couplet: a pair of lines of poetry that rhyme and have the same length and metric pattern. ] to offer a 'turn' in the meaning; however, Duffy only offers a partial turn, which is confirmation of the idea that love will always triumph by finding unlikely sources of value.
Hour has many references to money and riches, contrasting the concept of material wealth and possessions against love and time spent with a loved one. Line three puns on the word "spend", and is typical of the way in which the poem investigates the themes of love and money: We find an hour together, spend it not on flowers. Or wine, but the whole of the summer sky and a grass ditch. The traditional territory of lovers ("Flowers" and "wine") is replaced by alternatives: for example, "a grass ditch" is an improbable romantic location. There is simplicity and perfection to "the whole of the summer sky", an image rich in meaning, a visual feast for a loving couple lying down together and looking up. They enjoy the "Midas light". (Midas was the mythical king whose touch turned things to gold.) As the poem's title suggests, time is an important consideration for the lovers. "For thousands of seconds we kiss" is a striking phrase, offering the idea of excess - "thousands" - with the limitation of available time, measured in seconds. This precise measurement indicates how precious time is to the speaker, a "treasure" to be carefully counted. The pleasure and riches that the couple gather in an hour allow them to feel as if they are frozen in time: "Time slows, for here…we are millionaires, backhanding the night". The hour spent together in the golden light gives them senses of power, making them feel as if they can bribe the darkness to hold back, giving the lovers immense joy and wealth. There is a contrast between images traditionally seen as romantic (or associated with wealth) and the ordinary: "Flowers" and "grass ditch" compare to a "jewel" and "cuckoo spit" (insect eggs left on long grass); "sunlight" contrasts with a "chandelier"; "gold" contrasts with "straw". These contrasts emphasize the romance of the lovers' time together. Traditional ideas are shown to be unimportant compared to the personal experience of the two characters. Hour also makes frequent references to images of light in contrast to the night and the darkness of inevitable separation. These include: "Bright", "summer sky", "Midas light", "shining hour", "candle", "chandelier or spotlight". Duffy uses light to suggest a positive, warm, optimistic liaison. Rather than dwelling on the darkness of separation the lovers make the most of the time they have together. In the final stanza there is a single-word sentence "Now.” It is simple, like the lovers' situation, and yet has a strong sense of being complete; nothing more is needed. It celebrates the moment rather than dwelling on the future or the past.
Attitudes, themes and ideas
The traditional battle of love versus time is boldly presented in the poem: "Time hates love". The poem questions the assumption that time will triumph, forcing a separation. Instead "love spins gold, gold, gold from straw". Duffy alludes to the fairytale character Rumpelstiltskin, able to transform straw into gold. This reference adds a magical feel to the closing lines. It is an image that sums up the key theme: love can find riches in anything - "straw" or even "a grass ditch". The poem is about enjoying the intimacy of a moment in time rather than thinking about the world beyond. The simple nature of the experience is a reminder that material possessions cannot replace something as magical and powerful as time spent with a loved one. The opening words "Love's time's beggar" echo another poem in the 'Relationships' section of the AQA Anthology, Shakespeare's Sonnet 116 ("Love's not Time's fool"), which also explores the relationship between love and the passage of time.
Sonnet 116, To His Coy Mistress, In Paris With You; Like Hour, Sonnet 116 makes reference to the idea of the battle between love and time, as does To His Coy Mistress. To His Coy Mistress is about the value of being in the present and enjoying the moment, rather than thinking ahead - the same key theme as Hour. Like Hour, In Paris with You also rejects traditional ideas associated with love.
Compare the attitudes to love presented in Hour and Sonnet 116.
Answer-Points you could make:
Hour presents love as a powerful force, able to transform the ordinary into something rich and magical. Sonnet 116 presents love as similarly powerful but presents love as resistant to change instead of having the power to transform. Sonnet 116 describes love as enduring, unchanged until the "edge of doom". In Hour time is compressed, and yet the poem suggests love is forever resourceful, able to find riches in a short amount of time. In Hour the love of the couple is described in terms of valuable objects like "treasure" and "gold". In Sonnet 116 we are told that love's "worth's unknown", as if it is something too important to give a fixed value.