Synopsis of The Dolphins by Carol Ann Duffy

About the Poet Carol Ann Duffy

Carol Ann Duffy is the first Scottish-Irish female poet, born on 23rd December 1955. Duffy is one of the most significant names in contemporary British poetry. Her work is read and enjoyed by critics, academicians and lay readers. The themes focused are about life, gender issues, contemporary culture, oppression, controversial language, etc. Duffy is also an acclaimed playwright. Her selected works are Standing Female Nude (1985), Selling Manhattan (1987), Meantime (1993). Duffy is the recipient of Dylan Thomas Award (1989). Forward Prize (1993), Poet Laureate (2009) and many more.

Theme of Poem The Dolphins

Duffy writes from the perspective of a dolphin, a dramatic monologue. The mood of this entire poem revolves around the depressing state of the dolphins that are devoid of hope and freedom, and are confined within the barricades of a man-made environment. The structure of the poem is organized in four stanzas of six rhymeless lines each. This poem incorporates many themes like lack of freedom and oppression. It also broaches ideas to do with animal welfare and treatment of animals.

Summary of the Poem The Dolphins

This poem is written under the purpose of telling us that although dolphins are man's friends, man is dominating these dolphins, controlling them and restricting their freedom, just like how friends betray you and control what you do. In this poem, a depressing tone is used, evident from "There is no hope" and "our mind knows we will die here" and it shows how the dolphins are very certain that they will have a bleak future. "We are not free" and "we cannot breathe for long emphasizes that they have no freedom as their movements are restricted.

This poem is written in the dolphin's perspective to show how the dolphins feel. Duffy's use of literary devices and language contribute to the development of the main ideas of the poem. The dolphin begins by speaking in the second person. The use of the second person voice helps to establish a closeness creating a sense of familiarity and affinity between the reader and the creature. However, all that it says beyond the third line of the poem is in the first person plural. This is striking because it leaps into the world of dolphins who are forced to speak from their perspective about the effects of imprisonment by humans. The dolphin narrates its plight by remembering its previous free life in the ocean; it speaks about the experience of being confined to an aquarium with others of its kind where it is expected to perform tricks in the aquatic equivalent of a circus and where its freedom is limited.

Critical Analysis of the Poem The Dolphins

The poem The Dolphin covers themes regarding oppression, lack of freedom domination and confinement. It also broaches ideas to do with animal welfare and treatment towards animals. The form is consistent and structured in four stanzas of six lines each. It does not rhyme. The poem begins with the second person to create a sense of familiarity between the reader and the dolphin.

In the first stanza, the dolphins realize that they are in a world in which they swim and dance, that evokes a sort of positive sense associated with joy. The use of images such as 'swim' and 'dance', are often words perceived to be associated with freedom. But this is contrasted by the fact that the dolphins 'world' is in a pool and not the ocean and the dolphins realize that within this world, they are not free. Next, the "constant flowing guilt” refers to the necessity in an artificially created aquatic habitat of having water pumped through the pool. Duffy presents it metaphorically as 'guilt' because the system is effectively an admission that the situation is unnatural and otherwise unsustainable. In the second stanza,

"We have found no truth...... tremble on our flesh", the use of imagery in this context tells that dolphins use their skin to have an understanding that they are translating fear. The repetition of 'space' is used to show the monotonous life they are in. This shows that although space was what they desire, now, space is limited and their movements are restricted. In the third stanza, "We see our silver skin flash.....else", here the use of simile "silver skin flash by like memory”, shows how the dolphins keep thinking about the times when they were in the sea and when the natural sunlight reflects off their skin, giving it a silvery appearance. The emotional tone is set to commiserate or feel that cathartic sadness of the dolphin. In the last stanza, the coloured ball and the moon are in juxtaposition so we see the unnatural world of the aquarium and up against the natural world being the ocean. In the last stanza, "a plastic toy" shows the contrast between the majestic state of the dolphins in the natural sea and its current state where it is given an artificial plastic toy, also auditory imagery is used in 'single note' where it represents the whistleblowing and music of loss' shows that there is sadness and emptiness in the music played. By the end of 'The Dolphins', the 'we' realize that their existence is for the mere entertainment of men of the human world. They are no longer 'blessed'.

The mood of this entire poem revolves around the depressing state of the dolphins that are devoid of hope and freedom, and are confined within the barricades of a man-made environment.

Also, in the first stanza and the last stanza the phrase "a man" is repeated. This is to give an effect that the domination of dolphins is a cycle of suffering for the dolphins.


our element - water;
this world - the pool;
hoops - large rings for animals to jump through:
tremble on our flesh - sensations felt by our sensitive body;
the other - the other dolphin in the pool;
silver skin flash - the body shines silvery in the sunlight;
the whistle blows - suggestive of the human control over the dolphins.
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