Because of all of its enjambments, this poem sounds incredibly choppy and jerky. (For more on enjambments, check out "Form and Meter.") The poem sounds like it's being forced out of Miss Havisham in spurts – like she's a flat tire sputtering out of control. The "b-b-b-breaks" of the final line is like the tire breathing its last sad breath before it leaves you stuck in the middle of a busy road. It's a harsh and sad poem, just as Miss Havisham is a harsh and sad woman.
Reading this poem aloud to yourself, you might notice something: "Havisham" has loads of repeated sounds. We've discussed slant rhymes in "Form and Meter," but let's take a look at some other examples:
Alliteration, or the repetition of consonants at the beginning of words:
Consonance, or the repetition of consonants in the middle of words:
Assonance, or the repetition of vowel sounds:
Phew. That is an awful lot of repetition. And the more you read the poem, the harder it is to ignore. But why do you think Duffy included so much of it? What's the effect of this repetition? For one thing, it makes Miss Havisham seem a bit loonier than she already seemed, as if she's repeating sounds that she can't quite get out of her addled brain. And for another, it adds to the choppiness of the poem; these sounds, like the enjambments we discussed in "Form and Meter," pop up in unexpected places. It's as if we never know what's coming. At any moment, Miss Havisham could really lose her grip on reality, but for now, we're grateful we can make sense of her ramblings.
Well, the poem is spoken by Miss Havisham and is about Miss Havisham, so the title seems pretty cut-and-dried to us.
But when you consider the fact that this character is always referred to as Miss Havisham in the novel Great Expectations, the title takes on an interesting new twist. Why leave out the Miss? The missing "Miss" has at least two intriguing effects. First, it takes Miss Havisham's gender out of the picture. When we read the title, we can't be sure this is the Havisham we're familiar with.
Second, by leaving it out, Duffy is, in a weird way, drawing attention to the fact that Havisham is her maiden name. She hasn't taken on her husband's name because she never actually married the guy. So here she is, an old spinster, stuck with the name she's had since birth. It's a constant reminder of her sad, sad life.
And finally, it makes her seem big and important. It sort of puts her on par with characters like Hamlet (whose play, after all, isn't called Prince Hamlet), or Othello (whose play is called Othello, not General Othello). She's a secondary character in Great Expectations, but in "Havisham," Miss H takes center stage.
The setting of "Havisham" isn't specified in the poem itself, but since Miss Havisham rarely (if ever) leaves her house, we're going to go ahead and assume that it takes place there. In the novel, Miss H lives in a crumbling, dilapidated mansion called Satis House, which was beautiful before it fell into its disrepair because of Miss Havisham's neglect. As you read the poem, imagine you're in this decrepit mansion – surrounded by stopped clocks, a rotting wedding cake, and a host of mice. That should set the mood perfectly.
The Miss Havisham we see in Duffy's poem is slightly different from the one in the novel. The character in the novel seems bitter and unhappy, that's for sure; but there's an angriness and passion in this poem that we don't see in the novel. In Duffy's poem, Miss Havisham puts it all out there – her pain, her longing, even her erotic fantasies (and those definitely do not exist in the book!). Duffy brings out an imagined, hidden side of Miss Havisham. It's not pretty, but it adds depth to her character, and it stokes our pity for her even more than in the novel.
This poem assumes that you've read Dickens' novel Great Expectations and that you already know all about Miss Havisham. Other than that, the toughest part of the poem is its syntax, or sentence structure, which at times can be hard to follow.
Of course, if you haven't read the novel, you might be confused about some of the details and might not know how to tie everything together. But once you catch up on some of the novel's basic plot points (which we've handily provided in "In a Nutshell"), you should be good to go. Don't be intimidated by Miss Havisham. She doesn't want to strangle you, after all (though if you bear a resemblance to her former fiancé, we suggest you tread lightly in her presence).
Carol Ann Duffy loves to provide new points of view on old stories. Her collection The World's Wife features a bunch of dramatic monologues from the point of view of historical and fictional women. In "Anne Hathaway," she writes in the voice of Shakespeare's wife. In "Mrs. Darwin," she speaks of Darwin's theory of evolution from his wife's point of view. Duffy loves to get in the minds of women who have been neglected by history (literary and otherwise) and give them a chance to speak for themselves. "Havisham" is one of her first poems to do so, and we think that she's been pretty darn successful so far.
Miss Havisham, Drama Queen
"Havisham" is a dramatic monologue, which means that it's spoken by a fictional character – Miss Havisham – who is very much not the poet Carol Ann Duffy. Dramatic monologues like this one focus on the unique perspective of the speaker, as if she were a character in a play. So when you read "Havisham," you might imagine the speaker standing onstage, with the set dressed as her creepy bedroom, spilling her guts out to the audience.
When you first look at the poem, you'd be forgiven for assuming it has a strict form and meter. The poem is organized into four stanzas, each with four lines that are pretty much equal in length, so it looks quite regular. Plus, the first line is in what we call iambic hexameter, which is a scary way of saying that it has twelve syllables, each alternating between unstressed and stressed:
Beloved sweetheart bastard. Not a day since then
If we group these syllables into groups of two – an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one – we get six groups, or feet. A foot that has an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one is called an iamb. Because there are six feet, or iambs, we call it hexameter. Boom: iambic hexameter.
But here's the thing. That's the only line in the poem that has such a strict meter. For the rest of the poem, despite the similar lengths of lines, it's essentially a free-for-all. Duffy gets us all set in a rhythm and jerks us out of it – kind of like how Miss Havisham was all set to get married and the suddenly, she's all alone.
Because it has no consistent meter, it's not much of a surprise that there's no consistent rhyme scheme, either. But there are a lot of slant rhymes, or near rhymes. The words sound similar, but the rhymes aren't quite perfect – the vowels are just a little bit off. Some slant rhymes in the poem are "dress" (end of line 6) and "this" (end of line 8) or "Puce" and "curses" (in line 9). Take a closer look and you'll find slant rhymes all over this poem, and not just at the line breaks.
And what of those line breaks? They're crazy, right? When a line breaks off abruptly in the middle of a sentence, only to be continued in the next line or stanza, we call this enjambment. And this poem is plumb full of enjambments. While many poets end their lines with a natural pause – signaled by the end of a sentence or phrase, or by some kind of punctuation mark – Duffy's line endings in "Havisham" are all over the place.
They seem unnatural, maybe even forced, often occurring right in the middle of a phrase. Sometimes enjambment can make a poem seem like it's flowing along smoothly, but here the enjambments feel choppy and artificial. Miss Havisham keeps stopping and starting her speech, making her sound as if she's not quite in control of her words.
It's also important to note that sometimes enjambments enhance the meaning of the poem, in addition to its sound. Check out our entry for lines 6-9 in our summary of the poem to see an example of this.
There's a lot of attention paid to the body in "Havisham," and all of the bodies in the poem are in a state of decay. Miss Havisham isn't getting any younger, obviously, and she hasn't changed her clothes in decades. The body isn't a source of pleasure here; it's a sign of deterioration, pain, and misery. Fun stuff.
This poem is filled with wedding paraphernalia (accessories). Miss Havisham's aborted wedding is the focal point of her life. Even decades after her jilting, she still wanders around her decrepit house in her wedding dress. If clothes make the (wo)man, Miss H is a pretty sad woman indeed.
While the sex in this poem isn't too explicit, Miss Havisham's erotic fantasies and desires definitely push this into the PG-13 range. A male corpse for a long slow honeymoon? We can all agree that that's too much for the kiddies. Keep the little ones away from this poem!