Carol Ann Duffy's poem 'Valentine' was first published in her 1993 poetry collection Mean Time. Duffy is a Scottish poet known for writing romantic poems in the form of monologues, which often subvert heteronormative expectations of love and relationships. Like the larger collection of poetry it forms a part of, 'Valentine' is exemplary of this style.

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Table of contents

    Try to make notes on your own copy of 'Valentine' as you read through this – then you will have your own annotated copy!

    Summary of 'Valentine' by Carol Ann Duffy

    'Valentine' explores the notion of romantic love in the context of a relationship. The poem presents love as a complex emotion that can consume a person. In the poem, the narrator takes an unconventional approach when giving a gift on Valentine's day, as, instead of 'a red rose or a satin heart', they gift their partner 'an onion'.

    Written In


    Written By

    Carol Ann Duffy


    Dramatic Monologue / Free Verse


    No set meter

    Rhyme Scheme

    No set rhyme scheme

    Poetic Devices


    End-stopped lines




    Frequently noted imagery

    The onion

    Romantic gifts


    Blunt and direct

    Key themes

    Romantic love




    Love is a complex and powerful emotion, it can promise 'light', but it can also cause hurt or 'grief'.

    Context of 'Valentine'

    Biographical Context

    Carol Ann Duffy is a Scottish poet. She started writing poetry from a young age and was first published by the bookseller Bernard Stone when she was 15. In 1983, Duffy won the National Poetry Competition and, in 2009, she achieved the position of Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, becoming the first woman to receive the position since its creation in 1616.

    Duffy was in a relationship with the poet Jackie Kay for 15 years. As a poet who also happens to be openly lesbian, Duffy often subverts traditional expectations of relationships and romance in her poems. For instance, 'Valentine' not only examines the idea of love in a relationship but also critiques the modern, materialistic approach to Valentine's day.

    To subvert a concept means to flip the concept on its head or to challenge or undermine an idea that has already been established.

    Literary Context

    'Valentine' was initially written after a radio producer asked Carol Ann Duffy to write an original piece on Valentine's Day.

    Valentine can be considered a postmodern poem because it deconstructs and criticises traditional ideas of love. Traditionally, on Valentine's Day, you would expect a 'cute card' or a 'red rose'; however, Duffy presents the gift of 'an onion'. Instead of the heteronormative ideals portrayed in romantic comedies and traditional romance stories, Duffy subverts our expectations, deconstructs heteronormative ideals of love, and presents the multi-faceted nature of love through the object of an onion.

    In the poem, Duffy uses free verse to create an irregular form and structure. This style is comparable to the writing of metaphysical poets, such as John Donne, who approached complicated thoughts on society by presenting ordinary objects and concepts in new and unique ways.

    This style isn't unique to 'Valentine', as it can be found across Duffy's writing. For instance, in her 1999 collection, The World's Wife, Duffy gave female perspectives to various male figures in history.

    'Valentine' Poem Analysis

    Not a red rose or a satin heart.

    I give you an onion.

    It is a moon wrapped in brown paper.

    It promises light

    like the careful undressing of love.


    It will blind you with tears

    like a lover.

    It will make your reflection

    a wobbling photo of grief.

    I am trying to be truthful.

    Not a cute card or a kissogram.

    I give you an onion.

    Its fierce kiss will stay on your lips,

    possessive and faithful

    as we are,

    for as long as we are.

    Take it.

    Its platinum loops shrink to a wedding ring,

    if you like.


    Its scent will cling to your fingers,

    cling to your knife.

    The Title of 'Valentine'

    What do you think of when you hear the noun Valentine? Perhaps something like candle-lit dinners, boxes of chocolates and other romantic clichés.

    The title 'Valentine' has these connotations of traditional romance, indicating that the poem will centre on the topic of love. However, the expectations set by this title are subverted throughout the poem, as Duffy likens the feeling of love to the object of 'an onion'.

    Connotations are the associations or ideas that we connect to words.

    Valentine, Image of a teddy bear made of roses next to an image of a basket of onions. Valentine's expectation vs Reality, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Valentine's day: expectations vs reality.


    This poem is written in the form of a dramatic monologue with a first-person narrator who directly addresses the reader. The use of the first-person pronouns 'I' and 'we', combined with the second person 'you', creates a direct tone between the poem's narrator and its reader.

    A dramatic monologue is a poem written in the form of a speech of an individual character who reveals their thoughts and feelings.

    The poem is also written in free verse (it has no regular stanza lengths or rhyme scheme), creating a fragmented tone as the poem flows in some areas and stops and starts in others. This lack of rhyme scheme, or specified rhythm, makes 'Valentine' stand out from traditional romantic poems such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning's 'Sonnet 43'.


    'Valentine' consists of seven stanzas. The length of these stanzas varies from one single line to six lines. None of the stanzas has a rhyme scheme.

    Stanza One

    The first stanza of the poem is made up of a single, one-sentence line, opening the poem with an abrupt and blunt tone. The opening sentence of 'not a red rose or a satin heart' juxtaposes the connotations of the poem's title, 'Valentine', showing us that this won't be a typical romantic poem.

    To juxtapose means to place two or more things or ideas side by side for the purpose of contrasting them with one another.

    Stanza Two

    The second stanza consists of four lines and builds on how the first line subverts the readers' expectations of the poem from its title. Instead of the usual Valentine's gifts, the narrator has decided to give their partner 'an onion'.

    Stanza Three

    The third stanza consists of five lines, beginning with the monosyllabic (one syllable) line: 'Here'. This stanza focuses on how love can have a negative impact on a person, blinding them 'with tears'.

    Stanza Four and Five

    The next two stanzas are both short sentences on single lines, enforcing the poem's blunt tone.

    In the fifth stanza, the phrase 'not a red rose or a satin heart' in the first stanza is repeated. This time the narrator is not giving a 'cute card or a kissogram' The repetition of the phrase 'not a' highlights how the narrator is intentionally not giving a gift that one would expect to receive on Valentine's Day.

    Stanza Six

    The penultimate stanza is made up of five lines. This stanza uses the metaphor of the onion to portray love as possessive. This stanza uses fewer end-stopped lines (lines ending with a full stop), with only the first and final lines ending with a full stop.

    Stanza Seven

    The final stanza is made up of six lines. Once again, love is portrayed as an emotion that clings to another, consuming them. Lines 1, 3, 4 and 6 are end-stopped, finishing the poem with a blunt tone.

    Poetic Devices


    Duffy occasionally uses enjambment (one line continuing into the other without punctuation breaks) in her poem. For example, in lines four to five in the second stanza, the thought that the onion 'promises light / like the careful undressing of love' is carried across two lines. This use of enjambment compliments her use of free verse by allowing the narrator's thoughts to flow freely.

    End-stopped Lines

    Every stanza in the poem finishes with an end-stopped line (full stops at the end of the line). Duffy uses end-stopped lines to create a direct tone and enforce her ideas throughout the poem.

    Language Devices


    The poem uses one simile (figure of speech where one thing is compared to another):

    It will blind you with tears Like a lover.

    The image of the onion blinding 'you with tears' in this simile suggests that relationships are not always perfect, as they can cause hurt as much as they can bring happiness.


    Duffy uses the metaphor (figure of speech where something is something else) of the onion as a symbol for love throughout the poem:

    I give you an onion. It is a moon wrapped in brown paper.

    We know that the onion is not literally 'a moon wrapped in brown paper.' The use of descriptive language suggests that love has many layers by creating the image that, while the onion may seem dull on the outside, the inside of the onion 'promises light / like the careful undressing of love.'


    Duffy personifies (gives human characteristics to something which isn't human) the onion throughout the poem, adding an element of life to it and its representation of love. A notable example of this is in the final stanza;

    Its platinum loops shrink to a wedding ring,

    if you like.

    Lethal. Its scent will cling to your fingers, cling to your knife.

    The active verbs, 'shrink' and 'cling', portray love as a powerful emotion – it clings to you just as the onion's scent can cling to your knife.

    Valentine, Knife cutting a red onion, StudySmarterFig. 2 - 'Its scent will cling to your fingers, cling to your knife'.

    Imagery and Tone in 'Valentine'


    Duffy uses simplistic imagery to present love in a direct manner rather than complicate the idea of love with complex language.

    Two of the poem's lines use the image of traditionally romantic gifts, including 'a red rose', 'a satin heart', 'a cute card' and 'a kissogram', to juxtapose these traditional symbols of love against the metaphor of the onion.

    This juxtaposition can be linked to the postmodern context of the poem, as it deconstructs the reader's – and society's expectations of romance by presenting it in a new light.

    The onion is a significant image throughout the poem as it is used to represent love. To associate an onion with Valentine's Day at first seems unusual; however, through the metaphor 'it is a moon wrapped in brown paper', we are encouraged to view the onion in a different light. It may appear dull on the outside, but underneath, 'it promises light'.

    The imagery of the onion is used to show how love has many different sides and effects on a person. To quote Shrek: 'onions have layers'.


    The poem has a direct and blunt tone, and it is clear that the poem aims to provide an alternative view on the romantic idea of Valentine's Day.

    Think back to the structure of the poem - how does Duffy's use of free verse impact the tone? The enjambment, short sentences and end-stopped lines cause the poem to stop and start, creating a fragmented structure.

    Would you usually expect a romantic poem to use this tone? What sort of tone do you often expect to find in romantic poems?

    'Valentine' by Carol Ann Duffy: Themes

    Romantic Love in 'Valentine'

    Love is the core theme of 'Valentine'. While Duffy does not present love in a traditional way, she still frames it as a powerful emotion through the use of powerful adjectives such as 'fierce kiss', 'possessive and faithful', and 'lethal'. This use of language shows how the poet views love as a strong, often overwhelming emotion.

    The metaphor of the onion as a representation of romantic love allows Duffy to explore how love can impact a person. Remember how Duffy's style is comparable to the writing of metaphysical poets? Her use of the unconventional object of 'an onion' to represent love is a great example of this. The onion allows Duffy to explore the emotion of love in a variety of ways. While love endures by clinging 'to your fingers', it can also 'blind you with tears'. While, at first, the onion appears to be a strange object to represent love or give to someone on Valentine's, Duffy's use of language highlights how love can hurt us and stay with us at the same time.

    Heartache in 'Valentine'

    There is also uncertainty around love in 'Valentine' in addition to fear of heartache.

    For example, in the third stanza, the narrator states that the onion and love 'will make your reflection / a wobbling photo of grief'.

    A tentative tone appears at points in the poem, created by imperative sentences (a sentence that gives a demand) being followed by more passive sentences. In the final stanza, the poet writes:

    Take it.

    Its platinum loops shrink to a wedding ring,

    if you like.

    The end-stopped line, 'take it', is a blunt, imperative sentence commanding the reader to 'take' the onion. However, the line which follows takes a more timid and passive tone, stating 'if you like'. These contrasting tones cause the narrator to seem uncertain and afraid of getting their heart broken.

    Materialism in 'Valentine'

    As a postmodern poem, Valentine takes a critical approach to materialistic portrayals of love, particularly the act of gift-giving on Valentine's. By subverting the expectation of receiving 'a red rose or a satin heart' and gifting an onion instead, Duffy juxtaposes the reader's traditional expectations of romance with her own ideas and imagery.

    The onion is presented in an honest light: 'it will blind you with tears' and 'its scent will cling to your fingers'. The gift of such an ordinary (and not always positively viewed) object directly opposes the materialistic gifts associated with Valentine's Day.

    'Valentine' - Key Takeaways

    • 'Valentine' is a poem by Carol Ann Duffy first published in her 1993 poetry collection 'Mean Time'.

    • The poem is written in free verse and is in the form of a dramatic monologue in which the narrator directly addresses the reader.

    • The poem explores the notion of romantic love, presenting it as a complex emotion that can consume a person with both joy and grief.

    • 'Valentine' can be considered a postmodern poem as it subverts and deconstructs traditional expectations of romantic love.

    • Duffy uses poetic devices such as enjambment, end-stopped lines, and metaphors in the poem

    • The poem deals with themes of romantic love, heartache, and materialism.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Valentine

    What is the poem 'Valentine' by Carol Ann Duffy about?

    'Valentine' is a dramatic monologue addressed to the reader in which the narrator gives the gift of an onion. The poem deconstructs traditional notions of love and relationships, presenting love as a complex and varied emotion.

    What is the purpose of the poem 'Valentine'?

    The purpose of 'Valentine' is to offer an unconventional interpretation of love and the traditional and materialistic idea of Valentine’s Day.

    How is the theme of love presented in 'Valentine' by Carol Ann Duffy?

    In 'Valentine' by Carol Ann Duffy, the theme of love is presented through the metaphor of ‘an onion’. Like love, an onion has many layers. In the poem, love is presented as multifaceted – it is an emotion that brings joy and grief.

    What is the mood of the poem 'Valentine'?

    'Valentine' has an honest mood. For the majority of the poem, the tone is direct and blunt. However, there are also moments of weakness, intimacy and humour. The overall mood of the poem is an honest and open one.

    What does the onion represent in Valentine?

    In Valentine, Carol Ann Duffy uses the metaphor of an onion to symbolise love. The object is an unexpected gift and symbol of love, subverting and deconstructing traditional expectations of romance.

    What technique is ‘it will blind you with tears like a lover’?

    The lines ‘it will blind you with tears / like a lover’ use personification and simile to relate the onion to a less positive aspect of love, grief.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What is the main tone is the poem written in? 

    Which of these is a structural feature which the poem does not have?

    What type of sentence is 'take it'? 


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    • Checked by StudySmarter Editorial Team
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