Duffy and Lochhead both write about the theme of periods of history/ the past. Compare and contrast two poems dealing with these themes. Duffy’s ‘Litany’ and Lochhead’s ‘1953’ are both set in the 1950s therefore both deal with this period in history. ‘Litany’ is spoken from the perspective of a young girl who sits with her mother and her superficial ‘friends’ as they subtly attempt to outdo one another and uphold artificially perfect lifestyles. The child attempts to make their meetings more interesting by using explicit language and has to wash her mouth out with soup as punishment. ‘1953’ is a dramatic monologue, also told from the perspective of a young child who is admiring her parents as they work hard to create a perfect living space for her family.
A litany is a religious prayer which is recited routinely. The title of Duffy’s poem therefore has religious connotations attached which are ironic. The poem is structured into four quatrain stanzas which accurately reflect the controlled, strict nature of a litany. Enjambment is employed allowing the final sentence from the second stanza to be carried on in the first line of the third. This is to symbolise the meaning contained in these lines, ‘an embarrassing word, broken/ to bits’; the sentence is broken as are the words. ‘1953’ is formed from three stanzas of unequal length which reflects the free verse style of the poem and its ode-like nature.
In ‘1953’, the child speaker admires her parents; ‘you… put the effort in… You set paths straight/ with slabs it took to men to lift.’ She speaks of her parents’ deeds in terms of nature, her father made, ‘gardens [happen]/ where earth had been one raw wound’ and her mother, ‘ran rivers of curtain material through the eye of a needle’; this suggests that she sees her parents as being stronger and more powerful than nature itself. Her parents’ hard work to create a new life is due to the period is history when this poem is set; after the Second World War, people had more money and craved a chance for a new beginning. In contrast, in ‘Litany’, the speaker uses derogatory terms when speaking of her mother and her friends, referring them as ‘stiff-haired wives’, this show the women’s need for perfection and how the speaker sees through their artificial, ‘red smiles’ and sees the truth; ‘Their terrible marriages’ and their false pride.
The women’s need for perfection and to appear perfect to their friends, show the social expectations of women from this period in history; it demonstrates that woman did not work and therefore had no other duties but to uphold the superficial standards of the household. These women are trying to be part of the upper class; the posh ladies of the 1960s. Again, the child is subtly mocking her mother and her friends by comparing a simple catalogue to the Bible, ‘Their soundtrack was a litany- candlewick/ bedspread three piece suite display cabinet’ showing the full extent of their obsession and commitment to their artificial style of living.
Similarly, in ‘1953’ the mothers worked hard to create a beautiful living space, ‘Mums were stippling walls/ or treadling Singers.’, however, unlike those in ‘Litany’, the mothers here are doing it for their family; to make the most out of a modest new start following the end of the Second World War as during this point in the past things were changing for the better; the poem begins in ‘spring’ which symbolises a new beginning, and the men worked with, ‘brand new spades’ as there was more money in the economy and because during the war all metal was melted to form into weapons, the men had to purchase new equipment.
However, ‘1953’ does speak about the negative side to this period in history following the war, showing that everything perfect has fractures. In the final stanza, the speaker looks out her window early in the morning to see, the undertaker coming up the path , carrying a pint of milk’. This shows that the undertaker has now had to take on additional work to supplement his income as not as many people are dying; the undertaker is now also a milkman. This is also shown in ‘Litany’ as the superficial perfection created by the speaker’s mother, the illusion of, ‘stiff-haired women’ from the excessive use of hairspray with, ‘their red smiles’ is ruined by the speaker herself, again in the final stanza. The child who so innocently sits by her mother’s knee reading, suddenly exclaims the explicatory, ‘fuck off’, language which to these women was unimaginable from a young girl in this social class during this period in history thus making her a social saboteur.
The tone in ‘1953’ is one of adoration as the speaker’s parents turn, ‘emptiness’ into ‘possibilities’ whereas in stark contrast, the tone throughout ‘Litany’ is cynical and clever as the child identifies the women’s downfalls, the ‘tiny lady’ that ‘ran up Mrs. Barr’s American Tan leg’ and their lack of education, ‘leukaemia, which no one knew how to spell’. These two poems accurately reflect the sharp division in social classes during this period of history and also the divisions in the role of men and women during this time as well, and shows how the behaviour of one generation can be perceived by another.