Themes – The Roles Forbidden to Women in Society

We see the speaker, who we can assume to be Duffy, detail how she replaces various roles in society, roles that are substantially important and also held by men. By forcing herself into these roles, we as readers are somewhat urged to question the motivation. By urging us to inquire, Duffy has allowed us into her shoes as a critical woman. We see these roles which are obviously and well-known to be held by men instead being held by a woman and it is deliberately obvious. It is the fact that it is obvious which is noteworthy.

Duffy may look back at history and see such substitutions where men take the seat of a woman and see that as equally blatant, but, to society, a society that is dominated by and catered to men, it is merely commonplace. Instead, we see how Duffy’s substitution often assists the events, such as providing a drummer for The Beatles or winning the 1966 World Cup. This has been done to prove that women are just as capable as men and, as such, the ludicrous nature of omitting them at all from history is developed.

Themes – The Added Burden of Womanhood 

Throughout the poem, there is a constant semantic field of menstruation or general womanhood. We see this presented in the very first line, with relation to her ‘breasts’. Later on, in the same stanza, we see references to tampons, the liberating nature of them, and period blood itself. Already, we are firmly reminded of the fact that this particular person is a woman, distinct from her male counterparts in a number of ways. To argue off the main point, the caesura that surrounds the inclusion of the tampon clearly highlights it. One could argue that the primary reason is to purposefully isolate it, just as how the female player may feel separated from her male teammates. 

However, back to the semantic field as a whole. To begin, we can say that the constant reference to such facts of female life indicates that it is a dominating factor in said lives. Not only do they carry the burden of being alive, they must also deal with the pain that is menstruation. This persistent harking-back to such facts drags the poem and somewhat stunts it, not entirely breaking the flow but making the smooth transitions feel a bit more noticeable. It emphasises the fact that women must deal with a lot in order to even function as opposed to men who arguably have a less heavy weight to hold. 

Symbol – The Egg

We see, in the second stanza, the rugby ball transform into an egg. It is rather obvious that such an egg is supposed to symbolise womanhood, the sexual cell that such a sex harbours. Not only does the egg represent the very biological thing which differentiates males and females in a reproductive sense, but it also ‘gives birth’ to the ideas of child-rearing. An egg is, effectively, the symbol of birth. However, to read into the symbol’s worth and point within the poem, we need to pay attention to what action is being done to the egg. Instead of your typical caring and nurturing relationship with the egg, we see her treat is as a rugger ball, which it is. One is made to wonder why such a symbol, that is quite delicate by nature, is being plonked into the middle of rugger paddock. Perhaps it is the resounding concept within the poem of stereotypes being broken. We see a woman, often a figure of daintiness, amidst a crowd of chaps with broken teeth and raised adrenalines. Therefore, this egg, which is delicate, is being lugged about, completely the opposite to what one would expect. 

Devices -Semantic Field 

A semantic field in common cases is extremely useful in imbuing a whole poem with a particular idea, like a tint to glass. It is no different here. We see the primary semantic field orbit the idea of femininity, especially the burden and weight of menstruation. Words such as ‘egg’, ‘blood’, and ‘breasts’ are all most clearly tied with women, puberty, and menstruation. By painting the whole poem in such a field of words, Duffy is reminding us that such things are constantly present in a woman’s life, like an obsessive hobgoblin. Furthermore, the persistent reminders of such a truth appear to also emphasise the role of a woman. It is, arguably, the over-abundance of such terms and words that works like a weapon, placing women and womanhood directly in the readers face as if to make up for the years of such women being overlooked and downright ignored. 

Devices – Enjambment 

Duffy primarily employs enjambment within Sub to create a sense of fast-paced flow, to match the situations she finds herself in. We see this very idea meet it’s potential apex in the second stanza, when the speaker describes her actions on the rugby field. The retelling of her technique is practically seamless and swift, which could reflect her adeptness in the game and her proficiency. The utilisation of game terminology, as well, adds to this sense of knowledgeability and experience with the game. By doing this, Duffy may be driving to present how women are just as capable of competing as men are and that, for too long, men have seen themselves as the only possible sportsman or candidates for greatness. 


Sub is a poem in which Carol Ann Duffy moves through different male success stories in which Duffy becomes a ‘sub’ for a key successful male from history or a member of a successful male team. She begins by exploring key sporting triumphs before progressing to partaking in The Beatles, the moon landing, and more. Alongside her achievements in all of these fields, there is always an underlying reference to the feminine body, and how their bodies restrict women and how she has to hide it (e.g. being pregnant).

This can be directly referenced through quotes such as ‘my breasts’ or discussing fertility through periods and birth. Duffy suggests that a woman who achieves in life or sport has an uphill struggle and a disadvantage due to the female body, fighting through notions of woman’s place in order to thrive in society. Duffy only mentions masculine aspects of history, to clearly show how women have been excluded from these moments. This being due to male dominance and the expectation thrust upon females leading to them being widely ignored within society.

The main stock of Sub is supplied almost entirely within the title. ‘Sub’ is often short for ‘substitute’, something that acts in place of something else. Duffy places herself throughout the poem in the places of men, just like how many men have replaced the position of women in history. Duffy goes on to expound how women have been actively excluded and barred from these influential and important parts of history, implying that women are seen as lower than men, another potential reading into the title. Sub could also mean that which is under, such as in ‘subhuman’ or ‘substandard’

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