The Dolphins by Carol Ann Duffy: Summary

The Dolphins: About the poem

The Dolphins’ by Carol Ann Duffy is a dramatic monologue written from the perspective of dolphins. It tries to enumerate the emotions of a dolphin which was once free, swimming around at its own will, but is now confined to an aquarium or a water-park — a place where it does what its owner or trainer tells it to do. Its master uses it to perform tricks to amuse people in the circus.

The poem shows how dolphins and other animals are suffering in the hands of men. It urges us to look at the world from their perspective. It conveys the poet’s massage against human cruelty towards animals. On a metaphoric level, the poetess may also want to indicate the troubles of humans who think they are caught in the confines of this world.

The Dolphins: Form and language

The poem is simple and straight-forward. The language for most part is plain. But the juxtaposition of simplicity and ambiguity at some places makes an impression on the reader. It is sometimes more suggestive than explicit. Lack of a rhyme scheme and the use of enjambment mark the poem. The poetess uses cliches with a twist. Further, she makes use of repetition to highlight the weariness of the dolphins.

The poem is full of pathos. Confinement of dolphins evokes emotions in the minds of readers.

The Dolphins: Line by Line Analysis

First Stanza

World is what you swim in, or dance, it is simple.

The poem starts with the dolphin speaking in second person, addressing us, the humans. The dolphin goes on to explain its own meaning of the ‘world’, its own expectations about what the world should be like.

Given that they reside in water-bodies, it explains that the world should be a place where one is allowed to swim in or dance. It is an expression identifiable with joy and happiness without any restrictions. It is that simple for them.

We are in our element but we are not free.

From  now onward, the dolphin starts talking in first person (plural). Understandably it is going to tell us its own story of imprisonment.

They are in water in the aquarium doing what they do best (in our element) but they are not free. The poetess plays with the words ‘in our element’, a cliche used to explain what one likes to do, to also mean water, a natural element. Water maybe all around it. But the dolphin is now restricted to the pool and not the expansive ocean it used to dance around in.

Outside this world you cannot breathe for long.

Now, the words of the dolphin carry the tone of desolation. It says that outside its aquatic world, it cannot breathe for long.

The other has my shape.

With this line, the poetess introduces an element of mystery. Who does “other” point to? This essentially effects an initial ambiguity. It may point to the person who is making the dolphin perform tricks. He may know the pose (shape) the dolphin should take to make the act most entertaining. And the animal, without any say moulds itself into the shape.

Or it may point to another dolphin whose movement guides the dolphin’s own movement. It’s like an orchestra where one instrument plays in tandem with others to create a beautiful art-piece.

The other’s movement forms my thoughts.

Here, ‘other’ may point to the other dolphin whose movement not just guides the dolphin’s movement, but also its thoughts. It shows how others are controlling its life, its movements and its thoughts.

And also mine.

Just the way the movement of the other dolphin moulds how it acts, its actions decide the course for the other dolphin.

There is a man and there are hoops.

Now, for the first time the dolphin mentions its tormentor. There is a man who makes the dolphin jump through hoops while it performs. ‘Hoops’ point to the cliche ‘jumping through hoops’ but since the dolphins actually jump through hoops on orders, the cliche is overrun.

There is a constant flowing guilt.

Once again readers find this ambiguous. What is the guilt? Who is feeling the guilt? It’s most possibly the dolphin itself as it can only know its own feelings, not others’. The sense of guilt comes from its inability to always perform the way its master wants. It may also feel guilty as it got caught up in the net of the fisherman when it was careless.

Or it’s possibly the trainer, as some suggest, as he makes the dolphins do things against their will. That’s an unlikely explanation though, as it goes against the motive of the poem.

Second Stanza

We have found no truth in these waters,
no explanations tremble on our flesh.

The dolphins usually are very sentient beings. Even their skin is very sensitive to changes around. They have a well-developed sonar system. In spite of all these abilities, the dolphin grieves and mentions it has found no ‘truth’ in these waters. They don’t find this water good for living, as the ocean is their natural living place. There is nothing so pleasing that could stimulate its skin (flesh) — no explanation which may help them make sense of this new world.

We were blessed and now we are not blessed.

The voice of dolphin resonates with a depressing tone. It says they were blessed when they were freely roaming in the ocean. But they are not anymore ‘blessed’ to be restricted in the man-made confine.

After travelling such space for days we began to translate.

The line signifies how the dolphins are now trying to accept their fate. The dolphins who were used to travelling around in the open waters (space) for days have now started to translate. Here, ‘translate’ points to the fact that the dolphin has to change its mindset to live in this limited water now.

It was the same space. It is
the same space always and above it is the man.

The dolphins may be surrounded by water (same space). It is the same space they have desired. It explains that what looks essentially same is so different in reality. That is, swimming in pool and in ocean are totally different experiences.

‘Above it is the man’ points to superiority of man. It is figurative. How the man controls the dolphins. But, it is literal when we notice that no matter what these dolphins do, the man, their abductor would constantly watch from above.

Third Stanza

The third stanza reiterates the monotony and the problems of the dolphins. But, then it gives voice to the collective of dolphins with ‘we’. They seem to interact and start to feel for each other. They wish to collectively deal with the situation and try to adapt to it while depending on each other. It teaches the nice lesson of compassion, togetherness, and friendship. They find a way to help out each other while caught in this tough world.

And now we are no longer blessed, for the world
will not deepen to dream in.

The dolphin says that they are now accepting the fact that they are no longer with luck. The world (pool) is not going to deepen into an ocean all of a sudden — a place where they used to dream of their happy, free life.

The other knows and out of love reflects me for myself.

This line portrays a wonderful understanding of empathy between these dolphins, something we readers must learn from. The dolphin says that the other dolphin knows its feelings. Despite being in the miserable situation itself, the other dolphin reflects the dolphin for who it is. This is because of the love for each other.

It teaches us, the readers the importance of mutual understanding and the strength it gives us in times of adversity.

We see our silver skin flash by like memory of somewhere else.

The dolphin is too sad with this new life. Even when it sees a silver skin flash by it simply reminds itself of free, huge ocean (somewhere else). Here, ‘silver skin’ means dolphins swimming around in the tank.

The simile paints a visual description of how dolphins are aware of their existence in a collective, their shoal. Not just that, it shows how astutely aware dolphins are of their bodily knowledge.

There is a coloured ball we have to balance till the man has disappeared.

The dolphin simply remembers that they need to balance a coloured ball until their master goes away. This is like one teaches a dog to fetch the ball thrown towards it.
It indicates how commanding and controlling humans are on them.

Fourth Stanza

The moon has disappeared.

The fourth stanza is an embodiment of utmost desolation, confinement and control.
When in ocean, it used to follow or circle around the reflection of moon. That moon is no more with them. It can no more circle the moon.

We circle well-worn grooves of water on a single note.

Now all the dolphin can do is circle around the movements of the water (grooves of water) which induces a sense of music, which plays on a single note.
Duffy uses ‘grooves’ to find a similarity in the water bubbles and the moon.

Music of loss forever from the other’s heart which turns my own to stone.

It intensifies when the dolphin hears the ‘music of loss’ in its companion’s voice (other’s heart). When it hears its companions mourning the loss on continual basis, it feels the loss of freedom and joy. This makes it saddened, turns its heart to stone.

There is a plastic toy. There is no hope.

A plastic toy is there in the tank possibly for the dolphins to play with. This artificial toy cannot provide the joy of playing around in the free ocean. But there is no hope — no hope to go back to their home.

We sink to the limits of this pool until the whistle blows.

The dolphin says they sink to the limits or the boundaries of the pool until the trainer blows his whistle, signalling them to come up and perform the tricks.

The another connotation can relate to the fact that these dolphins have given in to their fate and have sunk to their lowest hope — the hope that someone would come and blow the whistle with a good news for them.

There is a man and our mind knows we will die here.

Yet, they know for sure there is a man. And, that they will die there. They cannot leave the place even if they want to. ‘Our mind’ points to the collective of the dolphins and their collective intelligence to understand what is going on around them — a sense of belonging in an otherwise nonsense world.

Also, the repetition of ‘A man’ from the first stanza in this last stanza emphasises the cycle of suffering the dolphins are going through.

This poem may look like collection of simple words and straight lines. But the emotions it entails and the ambiguity it imposes, forces the readers to take a step back and reflect on the essence of freedom. What essentially freedom means to us? How can compassion and empathy save us? And how can we save others while facing the same adversity? The poem provides an answer to all these.