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Carol Ann Duffy’s poem “The Dolphins” is written from the perspective of dolphins who have been trained to perform for humans in a waterpark and who apparently miss the freedom they once enjoyed in the ocean. The poem thus speaks to any person who has ever felt confined by circumstances, but the poem can also be taken at face value as a reflection on the ways animals are often mistreated, sometimes even with no intent to mistreat them, by humans.
The style of the poem is basically simple and straightforward, although sometimes the phrasing is suggestive rather than explicit, and sometimes the phrasing plays with clichés, as in line 2: “We are in our element but we are not free.” The phrase “in our element” is a well-worn cliché, but Duffy breathes new life into it by playing on the idea of water as one of the natural elements. The dolphins are surrounded by water, but they are also confined within a tank. Yet the freedom of the dolphins is limited not only by the physical tank but by the tricks they have been trained to perform.
Typical of the poem’s combination of simplicity and ambiguity is the following passage:
The other has my shape. The other's movement
forms my thoughts. And also mine. There is a man
and there are hoops. There is a constant flowing guilt. (4-6)
Here the language is for the most part very plain and straightforward. The words used are common words. The sentences (and fragments) are short. Yet it isn’t clear, at first, who or what is meant by “The other.” Presumably “other” refers to another dolphin, since “man” refers to the human trainer. The dolphin thinks and acts in accordance with the movements of another dolphin; it takes its cues from its partner. The idea of jumping through hoops is another cliché made literal here – a cliché with which many people will once again be able to identify. Following all this fundamental clarity, however, comes the statement that “There is a constant flowing guilt” (6). The words are simple, but the meaning is not. Who is (or feels) guilty? The dolphins? The humans? The humans have reason to feel guilt, but the mere fact that they confine and train the dolphins suggests that they do not. The dolphins, on the other hand, have no reason to feel guilty. Thus Duffy’s poem, here and elsewhere, combines clarity with elements of mystery, or at least initial ambiguity.
A similar kind of juxtaposition of clarity and ambiguity occurs in lines 7-8:
We have found no truth in these waters,
no explanations tremble on our flesh.
The meaning of the first line is relatively straightforward; the meaning of the second line is not. Duffy writes, then, in a way that seems designed to interest us while also momentarily confusing us and provoking our thought.
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