Valentine by Carol Ann Duffy and Sonnet 43 by Elizabeth Barrett Browning are two poems in the WJEC GCSE poetry anthology. They’re incredibly different, but both speak about the author’s intense love for their partners – and there are some fantastic points about both language and structure you can discuss for each.

Oh yes, and there’s a lot of onions…

Because Carol Ann Duffy is a modern poet and Elizabeth Barrett Browning is a Victorian poet, you can also bring-in lots of interesting background on context and the style each poet uses. They make a fantastic comparison for your final GCSE exams.

So, what’s the best way to approach the similarities and differences and write a Grade 9 essay?

First things first, it’s essential to remind yourself of each poem.

Here’s a reading of Valentine by Carol Ann Duffy:

And here’s a reading of Sonnet 43 by Elizabeth Barrett Browning:

You can also find loads of revision resources with plenty of tips on language, structure and context analysis online, but this one (from Central Lancaster High School) is one of the best I’ve come across.

Once you’ve done a bit of revision, it’s time to start writing a plan for your essay.

  • The introduction should demonstrate how the poems are similar (relating to the exam question), but also how you’re aware of the key differences between them.
  • As a rule of thumb, aim for three main paragraphs – each with a separate point. I’ve created two paragraphs below as an example. See what you think and have a go at adding your own paragraph. For more guidance on PEEZAP paragraphs (the ideal structure!), check out my previous post.
  • Finally, the conclusion should mirror your introduction (so do check back, before writing it!) and summarise the main arguments you’ve made in each paragraph.

Ready? Let’s go. Here’s a sample exam question.

Read this poem from your anthology:

Sonnets from the Portuguese 43: How do I love thee? Let me count the ways

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Choose one other poem from the anthology in which the poet also writes about love. Compare the way the poet presents love in your chosen poem with the way Elizabeth Barrett Browning presents love in Sonnet 43.

In both Sonnet 43 by Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Valentine by Carol Anne Duffy, both poems deal with the theme of romantic love. While Duffy shows the darker side of love (as well as its positive power), Browning presents a completely committed and all-encompassing love. These ideas are reinforced by the structure of each poem, with Valentine presented in an unconventional “free verse” form while Sonnet 43 uses a more traditional sonnet form.

In Valentine, Duffy makes use of concrete images, primarily the extended metaphor of an onion as a symbol for her multi-layered, complex love. She expands this idea with further metaphoric descriptions “I give you an onion / it is a moon wrapped in brown paper”. Just like the onion itself, her love is not as beautiful on the outside (it’s brown exterior) compared to the white, shining moon beneath. Duffy adds to this unusual love with techniques such as enjambment (sentences flowing between lines), reflecting the continuing nature of her love. In a comparable manner, Browning uses multiple comparisons and enjambment throughout the poem, to demonstrate the intense nature of her romantic feelings. She uses more abstract metaphors and religious imagery, suggesting she has even replaced her faith in God with her love for her husband. The semantic field of religion pervades the poem, with strong declarative statements such as “I love thee to the depth and breadth and height my soul can reach” / “I love thee purely, as they turn from praise” / “I love thee with the love I seemed to lose with my lost saints”.

Although the poems differ in their structure, they both make use of listing to build intensity and a strong impression of their love. Carol Ann Duffy repeats refrains such as “not a red rose or a satin heart” and “not a cute card or a kissogram”. Instead of these clichéd gifts, she repeats “I give you an onion” to reflect the unconventional nature of her love. Much of Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry is written from a feminist perspective and reflects late-twentieth century views on diverse types of love. Indeed, lots of modern writers adopted free verse and less traditional poetic forms in this period. This differs to Browning’s more traditional sonnet form (a 14 line poem, written in iambic pentameter) – reflecting more constrained and conventional Victorian views on love and marriage. Browning lists the “ways” she loves her husband however, in response to the initial rhetorical question “How do I love thee?”. The use of asyndetic listing (“breath, smiles, tears”) also highlights the diverse and ongoing ways she loves her husband. Building on this impression, both poems use the device of “anaphora” (repeating phrases and sentence structure from the start of the poem) to foreground their consistent love throughout.

Over to you for paragraph three! What points would you add?

Here are a few ideas….

  • Repeated personal pronouns with “I” and “you” / “thee” in both poems – building rhythm and creating intimacy.
  • Ending of both poems – ambiguous and threatening ending to Valentine / comparing to the more positive, hopeful ending to Sonnet 43. Both alluding to the idea of mortality.
  • Syntactic parallelism / repetition – “cling to your fingers, cling to your knife”. Verb “cling”, suggesting effects of love are everlasting.
  • Browning’s declarative sentence: “I shall love thee better after death” – showing certainty about love being eternal. (Also links to context / religion with the mention of God).
  • Simile – “blind you with tears like a lover” – linking to the possibility of being hurt and the power of love.
  • Carol Ann Duffy’s semantic field of love/marriage, pain/deceit (linked, juxtaposing ideas).
  • Context, Browning wrote the poem to her husband (to be) while they were banned from being together (by her father). Duffy, on the other hand, writes to an ambiguous recipient. It’s also ambiguous whether it’s a male or female speaker, although we might presume it’s the poet.

In conclusion, both poems present a unique and personal view of romantic love. While Duffy uses the extended metaphor of an onion to expresses her unconventional love, Browning uses a more traditional poem form and abstract imagery of religion to express her love for her husband. Overall however, both female writers express the depths of their feelings for their lovers.

Again, how would you add to this conclusion, and what would you improve?

Preparing for your GCSE poetry exams (no matter what exam board you’re sitting) is all about getting as comfortable as possible with each poem. Once you’ve understood the poems, it’s a great idea to pick five key quotes from each that allow you to make some fantastic points, backed up with a bit of terminology and context. Have a go!

Good luck, happy revision – and let me know if you have any questions.

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