To what extent do you agree that in her poetry Duffy explores ‘a sense of alienation and a turning away from the past’? You should base your answer on a close examination of three or more appropriate poems of your choice. ‘The Virgin Punishing the Infant’ portrays the extent of corruption in society, and a vindictive nature so strong that it does not falter, even with regards to Jesus Christ. This poem contains various biblical references and the use of key figures in Christianity.
The voice of this poem is a townsperson, overlooking the infancy of Jesus Christ, whose alienation is displayed immediately, with reference to his superiority- ‘he spoke early. Not the goo goo goo of infancy, but I Am God’. Joseph, in recognition of his unfortunate position in the situation isolates himself, ‘carving himself a silent Pinocchio’. Duffy is portraying Joseph as an insignificant character, alienated through his being devoid of a profound connection to Jesus Christ. The alienation brought about through the presence of Jesus Christ involves all in his direct contact- ‘the village gossiped in the sun’.
As the mother of Jesus Christ, Mary is alienated by all, with even her cries to Gabriel ignored. Unlike other children ‘the child was solitary’. This may have been as a direct result of his isolation. ‘After he walked, our normal children crawled’- for the first time, Jesus Christ is here described as a direct deviant of what is considered to be normal. The poem ends powerfully with the child being condemned for their ‘abnormality’ and punished for telling the truth. This is a parallel to the treatment of the narrator of ‘Litany’. In response to the child’s declaration, they are both physically and mentally tortured.
The townspeople are portrayed as deviants of moral and ethical conduct, therefore alienating themselves from etiquette of society through their behaviour. The sacrilegious undertones of this poem alienate the teachings of Christianity. Blasphemy is conveyed in Duffy’s idle description of Joseph’s character, false designation of events and mocking of the Immaculate Conception. Duffy’s style of writing instigates questioning of the morality behind the Immaculate Conception. Christianity would undoubtedly oppose the consideration of such concepts.
Similarly to ‘The Virgin Punishing the Infant’, ‘Prayer’ also deals with concepts controversial to the teachings of religion. Duffy’s distancing prayer from religion conflicts with many religious beliefs, and therefore causes alienation. Duffy expresses the belief that prayer does not have to be direct, and explores prayer in a diverse range of forms. This clashes with religious beliefs of prayer as a set approach. Whereas religion tends to categorise prayer as a connection to God, Duffy causes further alienation in categorising prayer more as a comfort than a holy connection.
Duffy’s detachment of God from prayer directly creates sacrilegious connotations. Duffy effectively alienates the role of God and the views of religion throughout ‘Prayer’. Through the use of examples where prayer is used in Duffy’s poem, it is apparent that Duffy recognises that we live in a capitalist society where we only apply ourselves to a task for personal benefit. Yet Duffy does not condemn this characteristic of the modern day world, which conflicts with the religious views that prayer should be regular and constant regardless of circumstance.
Duffy characterises prayer as unique to the individual and a universal experience. Duffy dwells on the idea of prayer as a personal consolation rather than simply a process. Although Duffy shares with religion the view that prayer may be salvation, overall, Duffy alienates the religious definition of prayer through her altered approach. ‘In Mrs Tilscher’s Class’ deals with the themes of growth and change, as brought about through the journey of its characters from childhood into adolescence. The poem is voiced through a pupil of Mrs Tilscher’s class.
We come to identify this voice as representative of the class. Warmth is detected early on in the poem with regards to the classroom. The classroom is depicted as a safe, nurturing, and comfortable environment, so highly esteemed as to be deemed a worthy comparison to a sweet shop. The children’s very apparent esteem for school life causes us to question the motive for their sudden desire to escape towards the end of the poem. This eagerness to abandon their shelter could only be explained through the obvious emotional confliction that is associated with the transition into adolescence.
The four stanzas of this poem portray the passage of time, and therefore mark various periods of growth for the children. Each stanza contains eight lines except the last, which perhaps deviates with symbolic intent to mark the children’s want to escape and abandon all past routines and start afresh. The third stanza illustrates development in the children in terms of their knowledge and understanding. The experiences that arise in this stanza act as the catalyst that sparks their want to discard the past.
‘The inky tadpoles changed from commas into exclamation marks’- Here, the children can identify with the tadpoles, as they too are experiencing metamorphosis. The association of the tadpoles with sex suggests that the children are for the first time being alerted of sex and have developed a consciousness of their bodies. ‘A rough boy told you how you were born’- This represents the children’s first encounter with harsh reality, and the fact that most lessons in life are learned the hard way.
The relevance of these experiences is that for the first time, the children are given a glimpse into the adult world. This first taste of growth and maturity fuels a want for the full experience. With their first exposure into adulthood the children are clearly altered. A charged, stimulating atmosphere is created through use of descriptive in the fourth stanza. ‘Untidy, hot, fractious under the heavy sexy sky’- The children are shown to be developing an understanding of new concepts. The scope of their feelings is no longer childish.
The children are portrayed as overwhelmed emotionally, which leads to the thunderstorm finale. The thunderstorm may be symbolic of the children’s betrayal of their classroom, or simply an example of how life will follow with the loss of their shelter. When the children are ‘impatient to be grown’ they have ultimately disclaimed their shelter and are therefore exposed to the harsh adult world in all vulnerability. The fact that the children ‘ran through the gates’ with no evidence of looking back acts as final confirmation of their turning away from the past.
A sense of alienation may also be detected in ‘Mrs Tilscher’s Class’ through the children’s isolation in their experience of transition into adolescence. Emotionally they are alone in their journey into adulthood, and physically, they feel a want to alienate themselves from the world that they already know. Through examination of Duffy’s poetry therefore, it is apparent that although she does explore both ‘a sense of alienation and a turning away from the past’, but the theme of alienation is more principally a focus.