Study Guide

Havisham Summary

By Carol Ann Duffy

Havisham Summary

Our speaker starts out with a punch: she tells us about her "beloved sweetheart bastard," the fiancé who stole all her money and jilted her on the morning of their wedding day. She says she's prayed for his death every day since he left her. Ouch. Still wearing her wedding dress decades later, she tells us that she reeks (yep, she flat out stinks) and can't forget the past. She has spent entire days in bed. When she looks in the mirror, she asks herself who's at fault for her terrible life.

Next surprise? Our lady says that she sometimes has erotic dreams about her lost fiancé, but she always wakes up with a start. She equates love with hate and imagines a red balloon bursting in her face. She lets us know that she's stabbed a wedding cake (TMI!) and she asks for a male corpse to keep her company. Yeah. Finally, she finishes by saying that the heart isn't the only thing that breaks after a doomed love affair.

  • Stanza 1

    Lines 1-2

    Beloved sweetheart bastard. Not a day since then
    I haven't wished him dead,

    • We can guess from the title that this poem is spoken by Miss Havisham, a lonely and kind-of-nuts spinster character from Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. Because the poem is being spoken by a character, we can think of it as a dramatic monologue, in which the poet will delve into this character's mind and speak in her voice.
    • Familiarity with the book helps us understand that Miss Havisham is referring to her former fiancé in these lines. He dumped her on the morning of their wedding day and swindled her out of all her money. The poem, however, doesn't give us these details. So Duffy is taking a bit of a leap here in assuming that her readers will know enough about Great Expectations to be familiar with Miss Havisham and her sad circumstances.
    • First, our woman scorned grabs our attention with a violent sentence fragment, which sets up a choppy, stilted feel in the poem. In the fragment, she calls her former fiancé her "beloved sweetheart bastard."
    • This phrase is an oxymoron – a figure of speech that combines opposite terms. (Think jumbo shrimp, or open secret.) Oxymorons are often used to express ambivalent, contradictory, and conflicting ideas and feelings. It's pretty clear that Miss Havisham has these kinds of feelings about this man, who is both a sweetheart and a bastard.
    • Miss Havisham then says that she's wished for her fiancé's death every day since he dumped her. Don't hold back Miss H. – tell us how you really feel!

    Lines 2-4

    […] Prayed for it
    so hard I've dark green pebbles for eyes,
    ropes on the back of my hands I could strangle with.

    • As it turns out, Miss Havisham has not only wished for her fiancé's death; she's prayed for it. And she's prayed for it hard.
    • She says her eyes are green pebbles, which is a metaphor, because her eyes aren't actually green pebbles. So why the comparison? Well, we often think of green as the color of jealousy and greed, and sometimes even the color of sickness. And pebbles are hard and small. Her fiancé's betrayal has left her jealous and hardened. She's probably not seeing too straight, either.
    • She also imagines that she has ropes on the back of her hands. You know how when people get old you can sometimes see the veins on their hands bulging out of their skin? This is what Miss Havisham is talking about. But she doesn't just notice that her veins look like ropes; she says she could use them to strangle someone. These metaphorical ropes are very, very real to her. Watch out, world – Miss Havisham is not a happy lady. She's already prayed for her former fiancé's death; now she's talking about murder weapons. Yikes!
    • You'll notice that by now, the poem has taken on a distinctly sinister tone. Miss Havisham is not a happy camper, and her imagery and metaphors are tools she can use to express this discontent.
    • Finally, check out these sounds in line 3: "hard" and "dark." A repetition of similar vowel sounds like this is called assonance, and it's just about everywhere in this poem. In fact, we'll just come right out and tell you that sound (and repeated sounds – like assonance – in particular) is really important in this poem. Keep your ears open, and be sure to check out our "Sound Check" section to get the most out of the music.
  • Stanza 2

    Lines 5-6

    Spinster. I stink and remember. Whole days
    in bed cawing Nooooo at the wall;[…]

    • Miss Havisham boldly calls herself a "spinster" here, which is a mean-spirited word for an unmarried older woman. Is this how Miss Havisham sees herself? Is this how others see her? Is this how she expects others to see her? Probably yes to all three.
    • Then she says that she stinks. Well, she hasn't taken off her wedding dress for a few decades, so yeah – we can imagine.
    • She also says that she remembers. Remembers what? Probably everything. She's been stewing for decades, recalling every bit of unhappiness that she has had to endure because of her fiancé's actions.
    • Miss Havisham then says that she has spent days "cawing" the word "no" at the wall. A "caw" is a harsh cry that a bird might make, like a crow. So she's metaphorically comparing herself to a lowly animal here. And what is she saying "no" to? Might she be reliving the moment when she discovered her fiancé's betrayal? Or is she bemoaning her current state of affairs? Sadly, no one is listening; she's just shouting at the wall.
    • There are a few other things to notice here. First, there's the repeated "er" sounds of "Spinster. I stink and remember," and the repeated "aw" sounds of caw and wall. Because these sounds are a kind of rhyme that appears in the middle of the line, we call them internal rhymes. Combined with her short sentences and sinister tone, they make the poem feel a bit claustrophobic, don't you think? As if we're trapped in Miss Havisham's terrifying mind, where the same sounds and thoughts are repeated over and over again.
    • And finally, this second stanza starts with yet another sentence fragment: "Spinster." This monologue seems more and more like a stream of consciousness, in which we, the readers, get a glimpse into Miss Havisham's deepest thoughts, no matter how disorganized or dark.

    Lines 6-8

    […] the dress
    yellowing, trembling if I open the wardrobe;
    the slewed mirror, full-length, her, myself, who did this

    • Miss Havisham references her wedding dress here, which has yellowed over the many years that she's been wearing it. That sounds simple enough, but then everything goes a bit wonky, and the sentence becomes harder to understand.
    • Who's doing the trembling, here? Is it the dress, which is yellowing, too? Or is she trembling, as she opens the wardrobe? Or perhaps the reflection of the dress as Miss Havisham looks at herself in the mirror on the wardrobe door is trembling, because the door itself is wobbly. It's a little tough to figure out, huh? Why do you think Duffy has made this line so tricky? Could it be meant to reflect the turmoil going on inside Miss Havisham's messy mind?
    • She then imagines herself looking in the mirror. She sees herself first as a "her," as if she doesn't recognize herself and what she's become. The mirror is "slewed," or turned and warped, like a funhouse mirror. But it's also full-length, giving Miss Havisham a clear view of her entire body – old, yellowing, and wasting away.
    • Then, suddenly, the "her" changes to "myself." Miss Havisham faces facts – she's the one in the mirror.
    • Then comes one of our favorite parts of the poem. At the end of the line, we get "who did this." Did what, exactly, we can't be sure, but it sure seems like Miss Havisham is blaming someone for her lot in life. But check this out – she's staring at herself. And because these words follow "myself," and there's no question mark after them, we might take it to mean she's blaming herself, as if she's saying "I am who did this." It's an awesome stanza break that leaves us hanging for a moment in the blank space on the page.
    • Sound-wise, we'd like to call your attention to line 8, with its repeated "l" sounds. When a poet repeats consonant sounds in the middle of words like this, we call it consonance. See if you can spot other examples in the poem.
  • Stanza 3

    Line 9

    to me? Puce curses that are sounds not words.

    • Ah, but if you thought Miss Havisham was going to take some responsibility for her current state of affairs, you were sorely mistaken.
    • Just after the pause of the stanza break, where we briefly toyed with this idea, she asks, "to me?" Suddenly we're sure Miss Havisham believes she's not at fault. Someone has done something to her. She doesn't take the blame for the shape of her life.
    • Breaks like this in poetry are called enjambments. Enjambments occur when a poet breaks up a sentence or phrase in a strange place rather than at the end of a sentence or a punctuation mark.
    • Often, those enjambments give the poem new, unexpected layers of meaning. In case you haven't noticed, this poem is heavily enjambed. Duffy breaks her lines at strange places, often right in the middle of a phrase. While sometimes enjambments can make a poem more fluid, in "Havisham" they make the poem sound choppy. It's like nothing connects together properly – everything is a bit out of joint.
    • And just to prove that point, Miss Havisham next makes a very strange statement: "Puce curses that are sounds not words." Huh? Part of the reason this line is so confusing that it's yet another pesky fragment. What's puce, and who's doing the cursing, and why are those curses sounds not words?
    • We can definitely answer that first question: puce is a color, a brownish red. But that only brings up more questions like, why are these curses a brownish red color? Is she cursing her fiancé? Does she feel as if she's been cursed? And it's interesting that the curses aren't words – just sounds, like her extended "Nooooo," and her cawing noises. So really, we're asking: what's going on here?
    • Plus, check out the awesome sounds Duffy uses here. First, there are the repeated "u" sounds: "to" and "puce." These are closely related to the sounds in "curses" and "words." Duffy is using both internal rhyme (which refers to repeating the same sounds within a single line of a poem) and slant rhyme (which refers to using similar, related sounds that are just short of rhyming), all in one line. She's really cramming a lot of stuff in this compact little poem. It's enough to make Shmoop wish we had Duffy around to pack our suitcase for our next trip.

    Lines 10-12

    Some nights better, the lost body over me,
    my fluent tongue in its mouth in its ear
    then down till I suddenly bite awake. Love's

    • Here things in the poem start to change a bit. Before, Miss Havisham was incredibly bitter and angry. Now things seem to change; she tells us that some of her nights are better.
    • What we love about the first half of line 10 is how sparse it is. She could have said, "There are some nights that are better." But she doesn't. She says something much shorter, as if she can't quite find the energy to form a complete thought.
    • And why, exactly, are her nights better? Well, let's be blunt: it sounds like she's having some erotic dreams about the fiancé. She imagines his body on top of her, and we know it's the fiancé's because she refers to it as "lost." She just can't get this dude out of her mind.
    • It's interesting that she refers to her former fiancé as a "body," not a person. She mentions sticking her tongue in "its mouth" and "its ear," as opposed to "his mouth" and "his ear." She depersonalizes him; in this moment, he's just a body to her. And then, after the ear and mouth, she heads downward, and, well, you get the idea. Too much information, Miss H!
    • But this fantasy ends quickly, and Miss Havisham bites herself awake. Does she bite the imaginary body? Does she bite her own tongue as she awakens? Or has something bitten her? It's ambiguous, and though it's a sensual gesture, it's not exactly a happy follow up to the kissing, that's for sure.
    • Finally, we get a lingering word on the last line of the stanza: "Love's." We'll just have to stay tuned for Stanza 4, where we'll find out just what she's talking about. Miss H, must you always leave us hanging?
  • Stanza 4

    Lines 13-14

    hate behind a white veil; a red balloon bursting
    in my face. Bang. I stabbed at a wedding-cake.

    • We've got another intense enjambment here. The word "Love's" is left lingering in our minds from the stanza before. And after another pause, we arrive at line 13, which completes the statement.
    • Miss Havisham tells us that love is the same thing as hate – it's just hate veiled. Or is she? If we read "Love's" as a contraction of "Love is," then the line makes sense this way. But what if we read "Love's" as a possessive? Then the sentence would mean that the hate that belongs to love is behind a white veil.
    • The first way to read this makes sense for what we know about Miss Havisham so far – that she's scorned, spiteful, and very very bitter. So when you pull back that metaphorical veil of her wedding dress, you're going to find nothing but hate underneath that image of love.
    • But reading it the other way makes sense, too. Our Miss H is still having dreams of her lost fiancé, so there's still some feeling there, underneath all that bitterness (or perhaps it's causing the bitterness). So even though we might assume love cannot possess hate, in her case, it does, because she both loves and hates her lost fiancé, all from beneath her white veil.
    • This is what we might call a paradox, or a contradictory statement that, when you look a little closer, turns out to be true. Phew! That's a lot of analysis on one little word, but it just goes to show: Duffy is a master packer.
    • Then she makes another metaphor: love is a red balloon that bursts in her face. It's like all her lovely dreams were floating in a shiny red balloon, and then: POP. (Or, according to the poem: Bang.) The balloon bursts, and the truth about her fiancé comes out. So does the truth about love itself: love is no different from hate. In a way, this moment can represent a loss of innocence. We associate balloons with childhood fun. And when they pop, the fun is gone and all that's left is reality. Ugh.
    • Next, Miss Havisham tells us that she stabbed at a wedding cake. Is she still being metaphorical? Not necessarily – we know from the novel that her wedding cake has been sitting out on the table, slowly decaying for decades (ew!). Maybe she has taken out some of her anger on it with an occasional stab of the knife. Anything's possible in this creepy world.
    • Oh, and if she's got a sharp knife in her hand, is it possible she's the one who popped the balloon? We can't be sure, but the possibility, again, is undeniable.
    • Any way you read it, we can all take away the idea that Miss Havisham's dreams are deflated and decayed. She no longer believes in love.
    • And finally, before we move on to the last lines of this awesome poem, check out the alliteration she's using here: "balloon bursting" and "Bang." Those repeated "b" sounds pack a big punch – you have to close your mouth entirely, and then let out a big burst of air to say them. They slow the lines down, and give them a violent feeling.

    Lines 15-16

    Give me a male corpse for a long slow honeymoon.
    Don't think it's only the heart that b-b-b-breaks.
    • Just when we thought things couldn't get any bleaker or more morbid, they do. Miss Havisham says she wants a male corpse to chill with for a long and slow honeymoon. Okay, this is straight up gross. Given her fantasies from the third stanza, what is she planning to do with this corpse? And why does it have to be a corpse? Maybe we don't actually want to know. 
    • We think she might be being hyperbolic here, i.e. exaggerating. Or maybe she's being ironic – saying one thing but meaning another. Is she just trying to gross us out? Or does she really want a corpse for some perverted honeymoon? All of the possibilities are plausible, and her tone is difficult to pin down.
    • In the last line, we finally get some good old-fashioned pathos. Pathos is a fancy Greek term for an emotional appeal to an audience. It's that moment where a character in a poem or play looks at the audience and practically screams: pity me, pretty please!
    • And do we pity Miss Havisham? We've been pretty consistently horrified by her for the whole poem, but we can't help but pity her in this last line. She's old, alone, a little demented, and falling apart – not just emotionally, but physically. Her broken heart has led to a broken and decrepit body, life, and mind. 
    • The final word of the poem, the "b-b-b-breaks" is breaking down itself. It's like a flat tire sputtering as it loses air. Miss Havisham seems to sputter and sob out this final pathos-inspiring word of the poem. She's utterly devastated, and despite the fact that we've been somewhat repelled by her throughout the poem, even our hearts break a little at this final line. Poor ol' Miss H. 
    • In these last lines, see if you can spot any of the sounds we've been talking about previously – assonance, consonance, slant rhyme, and internal rhyme. Did you catch any?