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Light can take on many different forms, some more prominent than others. This concept is explored through the poem, “The Grammar of Light”, written by Carol Ann Duffy. The title itself is a metaphor as the term ‘light’ is being compared to language and how it can be structured in several different ways. As grammar is the study of how language is structured, Carol Ann Duffy uses the structure of light to emphasize language’s potential and/or its limitations.
Because light is shown through many different aspects in life, it provides the reader a more meaningful understanding of language. How can light/language literally be defined when it could mean nothing at all or everything at the same time? Language is something that cannot be entirely understood but can still be something that one can learn about. With the use of personification, alliteration, and other literary devices, Carol Ann Duffy takes the perceptions of light and stresses this theme, giving the reader a poem that is open to many different interpretations.
Essentially, this shows that language can also be interpreted in many different ways which adds on to the tension of what the potential and meaning of language really is. The poem is arranged into five stanzas, each with its own setting and time of day to unify the whole literary piece into one length of time; a day. It starts from one midnight to the next, taking the reader through a journey that could possibly be compared to the length of one’s lifetime. The first stanza starts its time during the late night.
This is evident because the speaker addresses the way light works in the dark. The first two lines could be understood as two lovers are trying to find each other in the dark but there is enough light from them to ‘bless’ them with a ‘meaningless O’ which could represent a kiss between the two lovers. A kiss itself is meaningless but because the lovers were able to find each other, the light allowed them to “[teach and spell out]” their love. The next three lines illustrate the different forms of light by using comparisons. Light can be either artificial (neon) or natural (the moon).
Light can also be thoughtless as the personified headlights of a car because it is quick or as thoughtful as a moment of seeing your loved one because it ‘pierces’ your heart and stays there for a while. Language does the same thing in a sense that it can be spoken with or without feeling. It can be romantic, deceiving, or empty depending on the way someone perceives it to be. The second stanza shifts to the time of morning. The first line, “And so many mornings to learn”, establishes the fact that there are so many days in our life to learn about the nature of language.
The speaker of the poem indicates that some mornings will be dull and grey because of last night’s rain. Using the word ‘wrung’ in line three gives a harsh sounding effect when spoken due to the ‘wr’ and ‘ng’ ending which further implicates the connotations of a grey morning. Carol Ann Duffy uses the technique of personification in the line, “The way a wasteground weeps glass tears”, to pinpoint the way light can travel. The shards of broken glass reflect light in so many different directions that it may look as if it’s weeping.
Merging with the third stanza, the speaker indicates that some mornings can also be ‘fluent’ and not as sharp and broken as glass or as dull as a grey sky. The beautiful image of nature and how trees can be in sync with one another through the actions of telepathy shows the smooth and graceful ways light can expose us to such beauty. Light can also allow a person to take three separate ideas and harmonize them together and make one image; a waiter holding a platter with coins in his pocket and a large tower behind him with a bell ready to tell the time.
These two stanzas show how language can sometimes either be very rough and unpleasant some days but can also be very eloquent and graceful some other days. The language that an individual speak cannot always be smooth as they want it to be. In the fourth stanza, another shift occurs from a time of day to the time of evening. The reoccurring use of personification happens again in the first line, “even a saucer of rain… speaks to the eye”, highlights the power of light/language.
Even in the dark, one is able to see a small puddle of rain due to light reflecting off its surface. The next few lines also have similar meanings to the first line. A little bit of light can be seen through a cloud of smoke. The ‘muted lamps’ has a feeling of restriction because light cannot be fully exposed onto the street. It is muffled and it adds on to the perplexed feelings of the individual in the poem. The last line is another reoccurring personification with a touch of alliteration as the ‘sh’ sound can really make some readers stutter.
In actuality, stars cannot really stutter but in the night sky, the amount of stars is exceedingly endless that could make an individual stutter as they try to count them one by one. Language, in a way, mimics these ideas because sometimes, a person can express themselves in way where there are double meanings in their statements or phrases. There could be an underlying meaning that only some are able to see which is evident through the little bits of light shown through the images given in the fourth stanza.
The last line of the stanza that depicts the stuttering of stars show that the understanding of language can never really be reached to a level of clear articulation. Finally, in the last stanza, the time is again, shifted from the time of evening to the time of midnight, ending the timeframe of one entire day. This stanza can also be a representation of the end of someone’s life. The tone of the poem is very calming with the use of alliteration in the words, ‘slurs’, ‘soft’, and ‘shadow’ .
Usually, the use of the letter, ‘s’, is understood to be a very harsh sound when spoken aloud but in these words, the ‘s’ is very smooth and could further emphasize the ending of a lifetime. Everything now is a blur as only a tiny amount of light allows a person to make sense of their surroundings. “The flare of another match” could possibly indicate that it is the start of someone else’s life since this candle is “[slurring] its soft wax” until it dies out. The language spoken by the person is held within them and dies with them. In this stanza, language can be interpreted as very calming, even in the times of death.
Because everything is not as clear in this stanza, and the candle ‘slurs’, language cannot really be given a clear and straightforward definition. Throughout one’s whole lifetime, language can still not be exactly defined and this adds on to the tension of what language can really mean. Throughout the entire poem, there are six repetitions of the words, “the way”; once in every stanza for the first four stanzas and twice in the last stanza. In the poem, light itself is not important. It’s the ways of how light is expressed. Comparing that to language, language itself is not important.
But the way one speaks, interprets, articulates, and modifies their words is important because it helps a person learn the potential of language and also its limitations. Everyone has their own unique way of expressing themselves, and like this poem, language can be interpreted in so many different ways. Surely, there are many ways to interpret this poem as well. Carol Ann Duffy uses the idea of light to allow readers to answer the question themselves; what is language? It could come to a resolved impression to be something that has many definitions or none at all, depending on the way one likes to think of it.