Summary of “The Dolphins” by Carol Ann Duffy
About Carol Ann Duffy
Carol Ann Duffy is a Scottish poet and playwright. Carol was born in Glasgow on
December 23, 1955 and attended the Roman Catholic primary and middle schools and Stafford Girls’
High school. She was appointed Britain’s poet laureate in the year 2009. She was the first woman
and the first openly LGBT person to hold that prestigious position. The social issues of violence,
oppression and gender hold a predominant position in her poetry. Her major works include poetry
collections, books for children and plays.
Summary of The Dolphins by Carol Ann Duffy
Summary Stanza 1-
World is what you swim in, or dance, it is simple.
We are in our element but we are not free.
Outside this world you cannot breathe for long.
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.
This poem is a dramatic monologue written from the perspective of a dolphin, which remembers its
previous life of freedom and joy in the ocean and compares it with its present life of confinement
and monotony in an artificial pool. The dolphin, in its dramatic monologue, explains the meaning of
the ‘world’ where they can swim and dance. The dolphins are inside their ‘element’ that is water
but they still feel confined and restricted. The feeling of being shackled overpowers their sense of
imprisonment even though they are in water outside which they cannot breathe. They no longer
experience the freedom that they used to enjoy in the ocean.
The dolphin looks at another dolphin whose restricted movements, shape and thoughts are the
same as him- “The other has my shape. / The other’s movements forms my thoughts”. They are both
distressed at the idea of how others control their lives. The dolphin then goes on to talk about the
man who makes them jump through hoops. “There is a man and there are hoops” suggest how the
dolphin are enslaved and are demanded to perform on orders. The “constant flowing guilt”
mentioned by the dolphin could be the guilt of the trainer who makes them perform tricks against
their will and traps them in a superficial environment away from their natural habitat.
Summary Stanza 2-
We have found no truth in these waters,
no explanations tremble on our flesh.
We were blessed and now we are not blessed.
After travelling such space for days we began
to translate. It was the same space. It is
the same space always and above it is the man.
Even though dolphins are extremely sentient creatures, the artificial pool fails to offer any truth.
Being artificially created, it lacks the true essence of the sea. A dolphin’s skin is extremely sensitive
to the changes in its environment but there is absolutely “no explanation” and no information to
guide them to the sense of this new world.
The deep regret and sheer distress felt by the dolphins at their present condition is explicitly stated
in the line “We were blessed and now we are not blessed”. However they try to adapt to their new
home. They ‘translate’ their mindset into acceptance of their new lives. However, they took ‘days’ to
get used to the idea that they will not be living a carefree and joyful life in the pool like they used to
live in the ocean. There is nothing new happening in their lives. They only tend to find dullness and
monotony in the ‘same space always’. It is the same space, i.e., it is will water that surrounds us but,
in reality, it is still not the same. “Above it is the man” also direct us to the idea that no matter how freely the dolphins had lived once, they are now controlled by man. It denotes the superiority of
Summary Stanza 3-
And now we are no longer blessed, for the world
will not deepen to dream in. The other knows
and out of love reflects me for myself.
We see our silver skin flash by like memory
of somewhere else. There is a coloured ball
we have to balance till the man has disappeared.
In this stanza, the struggles of the dolphin is addressed with a sense of collective voice and mutual
feelings. There is a sense of understanding, companionship and commonness between the dolphins
surviving together in the pool- “The other knows/ and out of love reflects me for myself. They try to
reduce their pain and suffering by collectively dealing with the situation and by being there for each
other. They are willing to find a way to help each other in their misery. The dolphins recollect their
memory of the sea when the natural sunlight reflected off their skin producing a silvery appearance.
But now it just seems like a distant dream of ‘somewhere else’. Recovering from the powerful
nostalgia, the dolphin remembers that it has to go on to balance a coloured ball till the man who
gives the commands goes away. This is a clear indication of the controlling and dominating nature of
Summary Stanza 4-
The moon has disappeared. We circle well-worn grooves
of water on a single note. Music of loss forever
from the other’s heart which turns my own to stone.
There is a plastic toy. There is no hope. We sink
to the limits of this pool until the whistle blows.
There is a man and our mind knows we will die here.
This stanza intensifies the sense of hopelessness and desolation in the lives of the dolphins. The
dolphins live in such a dark and confined world where the moon seems to have disappeared. In their
world, moon has been replaced by the ‘coloured ball’. A sense of monotony and drabness is created
as the dolphin just circles around the movements of water on a ‘single note’. When the dolphin
hears its other companions mourning their loss of freedom, it fills his heart with despair. It turns his
heart to stone. The dolphin is sympathetic towards its companions.
There is no hope left for them. They “sink to the limits of this pool” until the whistle blows and they
have to resume their meaningless task of performing tricks. The use of the word ‘limits’ suggests the
amount of limits and restrictions imposed on them. There is a man to train and control them and
they have somehow come to the conclusion that they are eventually going to die here, in the pool.