The theme of romance is prominent throughout Duffy’s writing. Perhaps it is most openly addressed in “Anne Hathaway”, the elegy written in the persona of William Shakespeare’s wife. Duffy uses a tone of magic in the opening line, where she uses a metaphor to compare the marital bed of Shakespeare and Hathaway to “a spinning world// of forests, castles, torchlight, clifftops, seas”. The long list is of traditionally romantic places, but the list is even more appropriate as each setting is also the setting of a Shakespeare play. By comparing the bed to these many romantic settings, Duffy conveys the sense of wonder and excitement Hathaway’s love for her husband created.
The poem continues by strongly linking the ideas of writing and creativity with sex. For example, Duffy describes sex between the two as “my body a softer rhyme// to his, now echo, assonance”. “rhyme”, “echo” and “assonance” are all terms associated with writing, but Duffy uses them to express sexual love. In these instances, she uses ideas which are associated in pairs, with both parts relying on one another for completion.
However, Duffy is keen to reject traditional ideas of romance in her poem, “Valentine”. This is somewhat ironic, considering the romantic title she gives her poem. The opening line of the verse reveals her intention not to use a clichéd or unoriginal idea of romance. She states, “Not a red rose or a satin heart”. A “rose” or a “heart” are common symbols of love, used frequently. But Duffy makes clear that she is not seeking a common sort of romance – she wants something unique and original. Following this idea, her valentine gift is “an onion”. The object is unexpected, and on the surface, laughable. But Duffy explains why she is offering this unusual gift: “It promises light// like the careful undressing of love”. The “careful undressing” is suggestive of both a sexual encounter, but also of the gradual revealing of the layers of an onion, or metaphorically, the layers of a person as she gets to know them better.
Consistent with Duffy’s varied presentation of romance, “Havisham” shows the damage done by a romance unfulfilled. The bitterness of the protagonist, Mrs Havisham from Dickens’s “Great Expectations” is fuelled by the disappointment of her marriage that never was. She begins the poem with the outwardly romantic, “beloved sweetheart” but immediately turns the phrase into an oxymoron by adding the bitter, plosive “bastard”. Within the three words we have the set-up for the whole poem: she loves him, and she also hates him. Later, romance is again subverted when traditional symbols of love (“white veil”, “wedding cake”, “honeymoon”) have become so drenched in bitterness that each one becomes a reminder that the marriage has not occurred, and that Havisham’s life has been ruined as a result.
In “Mrs Midas”, Duffy again addresses the idea of a disappointed romance. The protagonist’s husband has selfishly wished for the touch of gold, but in doing this he has doomed their relationship. She laments the loss in the short non-sentence, “Separate beds”. This is a symbol for a loveless or passionless marriage, and this is what Mrs Midas has been reduced to. The sense of loss is even stronger when she explains that in the past “we were passionate”. Finally, the poem is ended with a melancholy line, filled with regret, that the thing which Midas thought would be so wonderful, has become the thing he cannot use with his wife, and that she misses most: “his hands, his warm hands on my skin, his touch.”