-The Cord-


Summary –

The Cord explains how innate and close knit the relationship is between a child and their parent, in this case being between Duffy and her daughter, Ella. Duffy uses the image of a cord but subverts it to make it seem less grisly and gruesome and more beautiful, with signs and notions of hope and light replacing that of the more dark facts of childbirth. 

We see the poem ultimately adhere to a cyclical structure that further consolidates the theme of an eternal bond between mother and daughter. The thorough fairy tale imagery appears to also defy that more gritty reality, instead taking the eyes of a youthful Ella, seeing wonder and mystique in something often sterilised. 

Themes – The Immortal Bond between Mother and Daughter

Within the poem, we see how the series of events takes on a chronological form. We travel from childbirth until the present day, where Ella should be around seven years old (at time of publication). To begin, we see how the cord is first buried in this rather fantastical scene of a Great Forest. If we assume that the cord represents that connection between a mother and their child, we can argue that this severance and burial is akin to the severance of a relationship between mother and daughter. 

The use of the impersonal pronoun ‘They’ describes the nurses and the doctors in a literal sense, but it may be used to hint at the effects of society. This society has tried to cut that bond between the mother and the daughter. By then going on to state that Ella had grown an interest in this cord, what it was made of, who made it, and where it is, Duffy shows that, despite the efforts of society to harm and tarnish that relationship, they still forge on in their eternal bond. 

This idea of an immortal connection can be found in the last stanza as well. To firstly realise that the concept shows up in the final stanza would do enough to convince one of this eternal idea. However, focusing on the language and the scene, we see how we have a reference to the guiding mother and the cry of a baby. This combines to form that same image of a newborn child below the starry eyes of their mother. It is the cyclical form of the poem that emphasises the eternal nature of the bond. 

Themes- The Fantasy of the World 

Duffy uses multiple instances of phrases and language that indicate a fairytale or mythical tone. The ‘Great Forest’ which is a common motif in fairy tales, especially those of the Grimm Brothers. The ‘Golden spinning wheel’ of the ‘princess’ also features in multiple fairytales, such as ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ or even the more obscure ‘East of the Sun and West of the Moon’. 

This drenching of the poem in fantastical imagery and descriptions could be used to indicate the imagination and innocence of Ella, who, instead of looking at the umbilical cord in clinical eyes, views it as this great object of legend. 

Symbols – The Golden Spinning Wheel 

The most famous example of a spinning wheel in fairytale must come from that of the tale to Rumpelstiltskin, who is a pesky sprite that has the ability to spin gold from straw if one accepts his demands, the tale originally being that a firstborn must be given in return. To begin, such a symbol may represent the impossibility of childbirth, as this cord is very much like turning straw into gold. 

This implies that Ella, who is asking whether it was produced as such, views the cord in a highly positive light. This implies that, despite the efforts of society to separate mother and child, the removal of such a cord only sparked that intense childlike imagination, it made the bond even stronger. It links to the frequent idea that childbirth is a miracle, creating life from nothing practically, like spinning gold from straw. 

Symbols- The Great Forest 

Forests in fairytales are often used as places of danger and superstition, where all sorts of nasty sorts roam. By claiming that the cord was buried in the ‘Great Forest’, Duffy implies that it is forever lost and searching for the cord is not only hopeless, but dangerous. One can say that the Great Forest is therefore a symbol of the outer world, the growing realm which Ella must enter at some point. 

It makes the world feel confusing and deserving of wariness. However, one could also claim that the image of a forest is something positive, making us think of fairies (the more modern and generally friendly kind, not the downright impish original ones) and toadstools. This image is inviting and comforting as opposed to the more typical fairytale motif of forests being the dens of villainy. 

Devices – Metaphor/Imagery 

The poem seems to adopt an extended metaphor of fairytale and myth, with the cord, instead of being this rather strange biological feature, being associated with images of mystical gold and silver spun by a ‘princess’. Such a metaphor places the poem in the odd spot of being both fantastical and realistic. All that is said is perhaps true if boiled down to the facts. The metaphor is, instead, more likely employed to mirror that relationship a mother has with her child, especially a younger child. 

This reads very much like an interaction between Duffy and Ella, where she instead chooses to use imaginative imagery to comfort Ella and make her interested. Thus, one can debate that the use of metaphor exists to echo that relationship between parent and child. 

Devices- Cyclical Structure

It isn’t obvious within the poem, but the chronology of events does slightly bend come the later stanzas. We are comfortable in knowing that, as the poem progresses, we are watching Ella grow as well. Each stanza could take on a new year in this child’s time. However, when we are informed of the ‘stars’, which appear to be her mother’s eyes, and the owl’s shriek, which sounds like a ‘baby’s cry’, we can argue that we are transported back to the beginning.

 If viewed altogether, we see a mother’s pair of eyes looking down upon something which makes a sound like a baby, obviously included to seem like a mother looking upon her newborn. This creates that sense of a cycle, which then makes the poem feel somewhat infinite, like a snake swallowing its own tail. 


The poem focuses on the umbilical cord (The cord that connects the developing foetus with the placenta while the foetus is in the uterus). The poem begins by focusing on the moment in which they ‘cut the cord’, severing the physical link between the poet and her daughter. As the child grows, she remains curious about this ‘cord’, wondering if it was a real thing or just something Duffy made up. 

She listens to the story of it being buried in the forest, which intrigues her and leads to her eventually venturing out into the ‘Great Forest’. This could represent the child moving out of her mother’s home into the real world. Duffy’s daughter can always rely on the connection between mother and daughter remaining strong wherever the daughter goes.

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