The Dolphins by Dame Carol Ann Duffy
About the author .. Dame Carol Ann Duffy (born, 1955) is a highly acclaimed poet of Scottish descent. She teaches Contemporary Poetry in Manchester Metropolitan University. She has prodigious literary talent that began to flourish quite early in her life. Prizes, Honours and awards came to her as she began her writing career. She is crowned the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, an honour bestowed on her for her lifelong dedication and illustruous contribution to English poetry. In matters of personal freedom and choice, she chose the non-conformist path making many frown on the liberty she too with morality, as understood in the conventional way. Her unconventional personal life has been marked by multiple love affairs, and birth of Ella, her only child. Ella’s biological father is Peter Benson, with whom she had a brief romantic relationship during the time she was living with, Jackey Kay, her lover for fifteen years.
Among Duffy’s countless great works are Beauty and the Best (poem), Take my Husband (play), Stopping for Death (poetry), The World’s Wife, (poetry), Rapture (poetry), and many many more.
The poem The Dolphin gives the readers a glimpse of her liberal mind, unfettered sense of personal freedom, and universal love that includes the love for animals. She felt pained to see the suffering caused to entrapped animals. In many ways, she was the crusader for freedom, empathy, and universal love. The Dolphin reflects these sentiments of her in good measure.
The poem ..
First stanza … World is what you swim in … constant flowing guilt.
Meaning .. The first stanza is the lament of a deracinated dolphin, caged in an aquarium. [It was born and reared in the wild ocean waters, but was trapped by poachers and brought to the aquarium for entertaining humans.] A trainer with a hoop in hand, stands controlling its movements, so that the visitors are amused. The speaker is the hapless dolphin who swims and dances, but not in her natural rythm, nor according to its natural instincts. The trainer sets the pace. The dolphin bemoans its loss of freedom, but soon realizes that deliverance from the bondage is out of question. It is enslaved for life. Even if it escapes to the outside world, it will die because it can’t breathe. No aquatic animal survives in dry land. The dolphin resents the way it has to surrender to the commands of its trainer. It seethes in indignation, but is powerless to do anything. The depressing thought hurts the dolphin endlessly.
Second stanza .. We have found no truth …………………………………..and above it is the man.
Meaning .. The dolphin continues to pour out its woes. Quite understandably, the dolphin finds the aquarium’s water alien and hostile. It’s clueless as to why it has to endure such pain and unease. It reminisces about its earlier days when it could ram freely in the vast expanse of the ocean’s waters. It was its natural sanctuary. Now, it is held captive in the narrow cramped pool of the aquarium. It wonders how and why such misfortune befell it. Now, the monotony of swimming in the same water for days on end pricks it relentlessly. Looking up, it sees the man towering over it. There is no respite.
Third stanza .. And now we are no longer ………………… till the man has disappeared
Meaning .. There are a group of dolphins in the aquarium, each condemned to life-long captivity. The dolphin speaks about its fellow creatures with remarkable empathy and sensitivity. Resigned to its fate as a show animal, the dolphin wryly says that the pool is not going to get deeper likethe ocean, its original habitat. So, for the rest of the life, it has to live in the shallow water of the pool. It knows that its companion must be feeling the same frustration. Its silver skin has begun to fade due to the artificil environment. It can’t regain its lustre. The task in hand is, however, to obey the commands of the trainer, and balance the coloured balls for the entertainment of others. The whole group has to fall in line and do likewise.
Fourth and last stanza .. The moon has disappeared ……………………….mind knows who will die here
Meaning .. The night is drawing to an end. The moon has disappered. The dolphin swims around the same confined pool along with its companions. Boredom aggravates the agony, but there is no freedom from the confinement. Life has become insipid, monotonous, and deeply hurtful. The dolphin knows its friends are enduring the same pain. It understands their predicament, but can only show solidarity, with no remedy. Inured to such humdrum existence, the dolphins’ hearts have turned stone. The training routine is repetitive. The dolphins are asked to swim down till they touch the pool’s floor and again swim up to do stunts with a plastic ball. The routine goes on and on, because the trainer standing guard wants it. It is so boring. The dolphins know, they will be here in the pol till their last braeth. What a dumb way to die!
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS ..
Q1.. What is the theme of the poem? Answer .. The poem suffuses with the lament and indignation of an incarcerated dolphin. The dolphin is the sibling of the seas. It is a ace swimmer, and a totally harmless towards the humans. Sadly its playfulness and friendly attitude towards the humans prove to be its bane. When captured and kept in small congested containers, it suffers unimaginably.
The moan and the anguish of a creature imprisoned for the rest of its life comes out clearly from this poem. The dolphin suffers as miserably as a human being who has been robbed of their freedom and thrown into a jail. In many ways, the poem expresses the pain and peril of a captive. It shows what toll captivity takes of a living being when its freedom is lost, and it has to obey the commands of its captors. Sadly, during the dark periods of history, when ship loads o slaves were uprooted from Africa, and forcibly relocated in America and Europe, generations of black human beings suffered the same pain and frustration the dolphin suffers in this poem. The apartheid system in South Africa is another such shameful saga of history.
The poem Dolphin might appear too simple and innocuous, but it surely stirs the soul. It makes us to reflect, look within, and judge our attitude towards the animal world and fellow humans. Interpreted intelligently, the poem can be the guide to our conscience, and the loadstar of our collective attitude to other creatures with whom we share this earth. Bereft of empathy, and compassion, we all become beasts. The dolphin, through its anguish, stops us from being beasts. So, let’s read this poem again and again.
Q2. .. ‘The Dolphins by Duffy is a protest against the exploitation of wildlife’. Discuss.
Answer .. The captured dolphins speak collectively about their cruel incarceration, the cramped aquarium, the dawn-to-dusk drill, and the total loss of hope about deliverance from such wretchedness. It is a lament, whose pathos rings loud in our hearts. No human being with an iota of compassion can bear to hear out the wail of the imprisoned dolphins without feeling a turmoil in their conscience.
The dolphins protest. The protest may not lead to their release into the wild again, but the protest shakes the foundation of our collective sensitiveness to its very foundation. The protest is powerful, poignant, and nerve-wracking. It touches our heart. By penning this poem, and speaking through the mouths of the dolphins, Duffy has succeeded in arousing our conscience to the sin we all commit in participating in this game rooted in cruelty and torture. We all begin to see our guilt in perpetuating exploitation of wildlife.
More questions and answers will be posted soon.