2008 Higher tier poets answer to question 23

A) Compare how female speakers are presented in ‘Havisham’ by Duffy and one poem from the pre 1914 poetry bank

And then

B) Compare how male speakers are presented in Sonnet 130 and one poem by Simon Armitage.


In ‘Havisham’ the poet presents the speaker as bitter and full of hatred for the lover who jilted her at the altar, as she says: ‘not a day since then I haven’t wished him dead.’

In fact the horror of what happened to her has so twisted her mind that she no longer even recognises herself in, ‘the slewed mirror… her myself, who did this / to me?’ But the way the poet has stretched this sad moment of realisation over two stanzas underlines her semi-madness, just like the poet’s use of the word ‘slewed’ meaning twisted.

By contrast in ‘The Laboratory’ we are presented with a mind that is gleeful in its vindictiveness. The real life character of Marie Madeleine D’Aubray Brinvilliers is seen here as deliberately seeking out an alchemist and getting him to make a poison for her to use on her rivals ‘Pauline’ and ‘Elise.’

She takes an almost childlike delight in watching the potion being made and asks questions like ‘that in the mortar – you call it a gum?’ or ‘and yonder soft phial, the exquisite blue… is that poison too?’

But the poets’ use of violent words in both poems – like ‘grind… moisten… mash’ and ‘pound… brand…burn up’ with their harsh alliteration in the Laboratory and ‘ban! …stabbed…strangle…’ in Havisham really reveal the depths of these women’s madness.

Both women feel they have sufficient reason for their feelings of hatred and their desire for revenge. But Miss Havisham, Charles Dickens’ character, is probably the one we empathise with more as it is evident that she still loves her ex as she reveals in the oxymoron ‘love’s / hate.’ This is again stretched across two stanzas and shows how deeply she feels torn between the two emotions.

Whereas the character in Browning’s poem shows no remorse and dwells in detail upon the damage the poison is going to inflict on her rivals, ‘and Elise with her head / and her breast and her arms and her hands should drop dead!’


In Sonnet 130 by Shakespeare we are given a picture of a man who seems to be quite critical of his mistress in his description of her for example her hair like ‘black wires’ her ‘breasts are dun’ and worst of all her ‘breath reeks’ and so we might think that here is a rude and mean man. However he redeems himself in his comment that his love for her is as ‘rare’ as any of those women his fellow poets rave about as if they were goddesses. And when we realise that he is actually mocking his fellow poets whose habit of always writing in ridiculously glowing terms about their women we can possibly forgive him completely.


By contrast Simon Armitage’s character in Mother Any Distance seems a caring and compassionate young man. Here we are shown a man who is moving out of his mother’s house but who is keen not to hurt her feelings. He knows it’s time to go, to make his way on his own ‘to fall or fly’ as he puts it and yet he is grateful that his mother has always and will always be there for him his: ‘Anchor. Kite.’ These two powerful metaphors perfectly illustrating the idea of freedom with safety.

Armitage even shapes his poem in the same way as a sonnet, albeit not a perfect one like Sonnet 130, which follows all the conventions and yet whose content seems rather at odds with that form. Here his sonnet is a stretched one of 15 lines as if to symbolise the stretching of the bonds between mother and son – almost to ‘breaking point’ but not quite.


612 words


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