Prayer – Carol Ann Duffy
Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer
utters itself. So, a woman will lift
her head from the sieve of her hands and stare
at the minims sung by a tree, a sudden gift.
Some nights, although we are faithless, the truth
enters our hearts, that small familiar pain;
then a man will stand stock-still, hearing his youth
in the distant Latin chanting of a train.
Pray for us now. Grade 1 piano scales
console the lodger looking out across
a Midlands town. Then dusk, and someone calls
a child’s name as though they named their loss.
Darkness outside. Inside, the radio’s prayer –
Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.
A woman’s role in society and in any relationship has always been seen in certain ways. Those ways have been determined by the nature of the society she has lived in at the time. Thus, a male dominated, patriarchal society of the Victorian era had women subjugated and submissive. Idioms like ‘know you place’ were paramount.
Then came the twentieth century and the rise in modernity and the movement we have known as the Feminist movement. Carol Ann Duffy belongs firmly in that camp of thought about life, about love, about relationships and about expectations.
In this poem, this view is shared in the language that she uses. The collective “we” in line 1 refers to womanhood, all of woman kind, who have been dominated by male authority their whole lives. “Some days,” she says, there are times when life for a woman can still be a problem to live, even though we are supposed to live in a politically correct world where gender stereotypes fail to exist and where women must work harder to get on in life. “Some days,” she says, there is no time even for prayer because the expectations on them are too great. Duffy has always been the one poet I can think of who has subverted the male/female stereotypes and written with style and verve.
“Although we cannot pray,” she claims, “a prayer utters itself” and as this happens, “a woman will lift her head from the sieve of her hands,” staring out into nothingness, at the trees and wondering just when this lifestyle will cease. The metaphor there is a fantastic one; “the sieve of her hands,” comparing how the shape of her hands represents the shape of a sieve, or colander used for cooking purposes and draining vegetables. The image is one of face in hands, or what the modern world calls a “face palm,” that moment when you look down and wonder what is happening around you.
Duffy states that the woman stares out “at the minims sung by a tree,” again a pictorial image being painted in the mind by the writer, of how the leaves, dancing in the breeze, make movement and sound as they go about their normal lifestyle. But is not the woman and the leaves on the tree being compared here? Is the work that a woman does in the home being categorized as pointless and unrewarding? Or is the writer saying the entire opposite? Either way, she sees a moment like this as a “gift” presumably from whatever we define as our “God,” because she has mentioned prayer already, but this is a “sudden gift,” a sudden thing from the Divine that lights up any drab day. Is this then, a love sonnet to God in the same guise as Donne’s “Batter My Heart” poem? Both seem to emphasise the provision from either God or whatever may be in control of this life of ours.
Up until now, this has been looking at daytime thoughts, but now Duffy turns to the night time. In the day time, we can miss what is happening to us and miss the “sudden gift” proffered on us, but in the night time, “although we are faithless,” we can see the truth of life in all its abundance. Just what is Duffy saying here? At these times, perhaps when we are not expecting it, “the truth enters our hearts,” making us see through the error of our choices, our convictions, our very decision making. Suddenly, with truth revealed, we can see more clearly and make the right choices in life and in faith. From someone who has professed no real faith in God, this is an illuminating poem indeed.
She is saying that when we feel that small, “familiar pain,” we too can move on, knowing that we are alive to all things around us, that we are able to see what the truth is about love, about faith, about life. This is a pragmatic love, or pragma love, symbolised by rational thinking and reasoning. This is the moment when we as men or women can “stand stock-still,” thinking things through, working out our problems pragmatically and where a man, in her poem, is seen “hearing his youth in the distant Latin chanting of a train.” The obvious link to the Latin Mass in the Catholic Church is there for all to see but I still see the image of the train and hear the sound that it makes.
What a beautiful image that really is.
The sound of the train in motion is used to portray life from a young man’s perspective; the to and fro of life as we travel on our journeys. And as we do so, the poet urges us on to prayer, saying, “pray for us now.” There is an urgency in this request, a sense that perhaps, time is running out, that as much as “grade 1 piano scales console the lodger” as he looks out into where he lives, the “dusk” is calling us onwards as “someone calls a child’s name as though they named their loss.”
It is interesting, to me, how she uses night and day as well as a sense of what we have and what we lose in life. This now, is night time, which could reflect the later years of a person’s life and how darkness outside can be a sense of personification meant to represent that darkness in the life of us all as we pray in our given situations. “Darkness outside” followed by the word, “inside” is an obvious oxymoron, but so is life itself. Life, with all its twists and turns, takes us to places where we would maybe not wish to go. Life takes us on a journey of discovery, to a place where we can see the light and the dark at the same time and as the darkness and light merge in their glorious oxymoronic splendour, we sense that there is something else coming from this poet at the end.
The final two lines of the sonnet follow the usual style of a sonnet in terms of structure, but the mention of the “radio’s prayer” is lost on the younger reader or maybe even, the international student, unless they know that the words, “Rockall. Malin. Dogger” and “Finisterre” are fishing weather forecast areas in the oceans around the UK and Duffy is using them to represent something or even someone else.
What I would now urge you to do is look at the rhyme scheme and write it out. Then check where the stresses are and how many in each line. Check how the iambic pentameter of this sonnet, in the Shakespearean sense of the word, works. Look at prayer, stare and Finisterre and see how they rhyme, how the style and structure is quite rigid and how the man, or woman, or indeed anyone in the poem, is able to see dark and light in the life they lead.
For another take on this, please refer to: