Carol Ann Duffy is a contemporary British poet and playwright whose poems are known for embodying experiences from our daily lives, expressing the wide range of emotions that accompany them. She picks out carefully chosen moments and instances from various stages of one’s life- from childhood to youth to adulthood- and discovers within them powerful sentiments such as love, loss and nostalgia. “The ‘Darling’ Letters” is one of her beautiful short poems that speaks about the nature of love and relationships and how it undergoes a transition with the passage of time.
Through the medium of love letters exchanged by lovers, she explores how their relationship changes from being full of passion and enthusiasm in the beginning to being tinged with sadness and melancholy as the initial love fizzles out, ultimately leading to separation. Though this change is difficult to accept at first, causing much grief and heartache; eventually, as one looks back at those papers which held so much meaning for them at some point in their life, he/ she reaches the stage of acceptance of the past, and the bygones no longer hold the same significance they did earlier. In due course, the devotion in those words changes first to recriminations and finally to a resignation as one makes peace with one’s past.
The Darling Letters | Summary
The Darling Letters | Summary Stanza 1
Some keep them in shoeboxes away from the light,
sore memories blinking out as the lid lifts,
their own recklessness written all over them. My own…
Private jokes, no longer comprehended, pull their punchlines,
fall flat in the gaps between the endearments. What
are you wearing?
The poet begins the poem by pointing out people from all over the world have the habit of preserving the love letters of their past, storing them in shoe boxes which are then hidden in some far-off, secluded corner of their homes, such as the attic, where they hardly see any light, their existence almost being forgotten unless one seeks them out. Whenever this lid is lifted, the plethora of memories, often the painful ones, associated with these letters gushes out reminding one of their impetuous past affairs, most of which reeked of recklessness and lapse in judgment. Probably, when they were young, these lovers, blinded by youthful passion, fail to see the reality and end up being fully consumed by the intensity of their emotions, unaware of the world around them. The poetess finds herself to be no different from the others. She too, as when the memories of her past resurface, is full of embarrassment and awkwardness as she discovers that she is no longer able to comprehend the jokes which she once shared with her loved one. Instead of making her laugh, these punch lines, rendered immortal in these letters, now appear as mere means of filling the spaces between their terms of endearment. As she goes through these once familiar lines, it seems to her that the present and past are two different persons, and she is confronted by a version of herself that is long lost. Left behind, caged in those letters, is a mere shadow of her.
The Darling Letters | Summary Stanza 2
Don’t ever change.
They start with Darling; end in recriminations,
absence, sense of loss. Even now, the fist’s bud flowers
into trembling, the fingers trace each line and see
the future then. Always… Nobody burns them,
the Darling letters, stiff in their cardboard coffins.
Continuing with her ponderings, she observes that most of these letters contain the phrase “Don’t ever change” which serves to highlight her silliness because change is the only constant of life, however much one wishes to deny it. Looking again at these words reminds her of the foolishness she displayed in her youth, believing those feelings to be permanent and everlasting, ignorant of the realities of life.
These letters, which, at the beginning appeared to be full of love and romance, often end up becoming statements of accusations and complaints as the relationship comes to an end. What were once a declaration of undying love, now turn into reminders of a love long lost, bringing with them a sense of loss and absence. Wondering as to why people preserve these letters for years, even though the relationship has ended since long, the poet comes to the conclusion that it was maybe because they still harbour some hope of reconciliation which keeps them from throwing these letters. As they read across the lines, they envision the future which they had dreamt of when these letters were written and even now they want to hold on to those promises of a happy tomorrow. With the help of the letters, the lovers can still imagine the future which they used to believe in and probably that is why everyone treasures them- to go back down the memory lane and reminisce with pleasure, the happy dreams they once shared. And thus, these love letters keep lying in those cardboard boxes, providing the lovers a gateway to their past.
The Darling Letters | Summary Stanza 3
Babykins… We all had strange names
which make us blush, as though we’d murdered
someone under an alias, long ago. I’ll die
without you. Die. Once in a while, alone,
we take them out to read again, the heart thudding
like a spade on buried bones.
Moving on further, Carol Ann Duffy says that everyone, including her, has had their share of such romantic encounters in their youth. The feeling of embarrassment, when these lovers come across the sweet, silly nicknames by which they used to address each other, is universal. She says even after years have passed since the relationship, these terms of endearment hold the power to make her blush, just like all others. It might also be that these names evoke memories of what they now consider to be their dirty past. The stupidity displayed by them in the past when they indulged in these unthinking fancies and frivolous love affairs haunts them as they read those names on the letters. Amused and abashed upon seeing the declarations of love in those letters and the promises of not being able to survive even a moment without one’s beloved, the poet is mortified by her own silliness and naivety. Be that as it may, the temptation to go through those letters time and again still resides in our hearts and regardless of the time that has lapsed, these love letters still manage to make one’s heart beat faster within their chest and evokes in them the same giddiness and pleasure that it did in the past. It seems to the author that we continue to hold on to these letters, as well as the memories and emotions associated with them, because as we get older and experience the harsh realities of life, it becomes more and more difficult for us to feel these emotions as intensely and fully as we were able to back then.
The Darling Letters | Analysis
Composed in three sestets, the poem takes the reader on the journey of the transition of a love letter from a source of joy to a source of melancholy. The poem is written in free verse and reads almost like fragmented thoughts that come across the poet’s mind as she probes into the reason behind treasuring these love letters of the past. The major themes explored in the poem are that of the changing nature of love as one passes from youth to adulthood and the sense of longing for the intense passion of youth that is found in their hearts. Relationships and their nature, particularly romantic ones, form the crux of this verse.
The love letter is used as a symbol to convey the transformation that a relationship undergoes as time passes. Duffy has peppered the piece with a vast variety of literary devices such as enjambment, alliteration and caesura. Along with this, personification has been employed in the second line where memories are described as blinking and simile has been used in the very last line of the poem. The liberal use of alliteration and enjambment adds beauty to the poem. Overall, the poem expresses a universal feeling and manages to strike a chord with the readers.