The Dolphins Notes ISC Class 11 and Class 12

About the Poet

A brilliant poet and playwright, Dame and Carol Ann Duffy was born on 23 December 1955. She is the first Scottish woman poet to become Britain’s Poet Laureate in May 2009. She holds a prestigious position in the English literary circles. At present she is Professor of Contemporary Poetry at Manchester Metropolitan University.

She is famous for works in which she has taken up such controversial issues as gender discrimination, oppression and violence. She is one of the widely read feminist writers.

She has been acclaimed and honoured by various bodies – government and non-government – and literary associations. In 2009 she was awarded an honorary Ph.D. degree by Heriot – Watt University.

Her collections of poems are : Standing Female Nude (1985), Selling Manhattan (1987), Mean Time (1993) and Rapture (2005). Standing Female Nude won a Scottish Arts Council Award, Mean Time Whitebread Poetry Award, and Rapture T.S.Eliot Prize. The Royal Society of Literature honoured her with its Fellowship in 1999.

About the Poem

‘The Dolphins’ is one of the most popular poems of Carol Ann Duffy. Its major theme is the ill-effects of oppressive imprisonment on animals like dolphins. It gives voice to one of the two imprisoned dolphins in a water pool in a water park or an aquarium. As such it is a monologue.

The poem presents the viewpoint of this trapped, helpless mammal. The dolphin tells us about the dolphin’s happy free life in the ocean and their experience in the limited space of the water tank. It hints at man’s complete control and dominance. As dolphins have to move in a limited space they lead only a monotonous life. The dolphin, the, recalls the time when they were in the sea. The sunlight that reflects off their skin there gives it a silvery appearance. In the water park, the dolphins are given an artificial plastic toy to play with. There is not other music than the single note of a whistle. The moon has been replaced by man-made source of light. Nothing is natural here. Dolphins have only a bleak future. They are sure to die here.

Thus, the poem is a kind of protest against man’s attitude towards other creatures. In the desire to show his superiority, man treats helpless creatures in an inhuman way. He never cares to think how the trapped creatures feel and suffer. We are haunted by the prophecy made by the entrapped dolphin:

There is a plastic toy. There is no hope. We sink
There is a man and our mind knows we will die here.


Imprisoned Life : One of the two dolphins imprisoned in a water pool admits that they are in water which is their natural element. They can swim and dance in it. This – a water pool in a water park – is their new world. Outside this world, it is true, the dolphins are sure to die. And yet  they are not happy here because they are not free. The speaker-dolphin, aware of the presence of the other dolphin in the pool, knows that its companion shares its shape as also its thoughts. It is also aware of the presence of the man who makes them cross the hoops. They are far away from their natural habitat. Strangely, the dolphins feel guilty – ‘There is a constant flowing guilt’. The ‘flowing guilt’ is a metaphor for water that is pumped into the pool periodically every day. It underlines the nature of the dolphins’ unnatural habitat. Though the dolphins have nothing to feel guilty, they are made to feel so to convey the enormity of the guilt of man whom the dolphins consider to be their friend.

Painful Memories : The dolphins are intelligent creatures with their highly developed sonars. Even then they have no explanation about their present world. They have nothing to makes sense of the world. Truth defies them. They were once blessed in the expansive waters of the ocean. Now confined to the pool they are no longer blessed. It is ironic that their mental incapacity, in fact, stresses their ability to fathom new experiences. The man ‘above the pool’ is suggestive of his position of superior status. It is he who forces the dolphins to perform by jumping through hoops or after a coloured ball. The dolphins feel salve-like in the limited space where they are fed up with the monotonous routine of their life.

Awareness of the Companion-Dolphin : The dolphin-speaker is well aware of the presence of the other dolphin in the pool and knows that they have common feelings about their new world in the pool. The mental agony of confinement is vivid in the thought of the dolphin – ‘the world will not deepen to dream in’. The dolphins understand each other and define themselves in terms of each other. They share the same sense of loss of former freedom. They are reminded of the time when their bodies looked silvery in the sunlit sea. Their real world is now ‘somewhere else’. Here in this pool they have to balance the plastic coloured ball at the will of ‘man’ (their trainer) . His presence or absence underlines the human control over the dolphins.

Utter Hopelessness : Nothing in the new world is natural , as the dolphin-speaker notes. The moon on their natural habitat has been replaced with a ball. A record is played repeatedly. Its ‘single note’ is repetitive and boring. There is no music in the real sense. The reality of ‘the plastic ball’ indicates the absence, of the moon, and the artificiality of the present world. The present predicament and the impending doom are enough to reduce the dolphin’s heart to stone. It has sympathy for the others in the new world. There is not hope for the dolphins. They are controlled by the human whistles. One day they are sure to die there.

Stanza by Stanza Explanation

Stanza 1

‘World is what ……… flowing guilt.’

It is quite simple. The world is that in which you can swim in or dance. We (dolphins) are in four element (water), but we are not free as we used to be. Outside this world you cannot live for long, it is true.

The other dolphin (in the pool) has the same shape and appearance, and her movements reveal that our thoughts are similar. Outside the pool is a man (our trainer) and there are hoops (which we have to cross). And there is a constant flow of guilt (water) in the pool.

Stanza 2

‘We have …….. the man.’

In the world (these waters) we have found no truth. We have failed to find any reason of our being here (in an artificial habitat). The only thing that we can understand is that once we are blessed (when we were in our natural habitat) and that now we are no more blessed. We have very limited space to move about. We have to travel the same space again and again and we always find the man ‘above’ us – the man who controls us.

Stanza 3

‘And now we ………… have disappeared.’

We are no more blessed as the new, artificial world is quite shallow for us to dream in as we used to dream earlier in our natural habitat (ocean). The other dolphin shares my feelings. We recall how our bodies would receive a silvery appearance in the moonlight in the sea. That is now  a thing of the past. In our new world there is no moon but a colour ball which we balance till our controller (the man) is not gone.

Stanza 4

‘The moon has ………… die here.’

The moon has disappeared. We circle the same limited space again and again. The routine is boring and there is no real music. This has turned my heart to stone. What we see is not the moon but the plastic ball to play with. There is no hope of any escape. We go down the depths of the pool and remain there until the whistle blows to call us out. There is a man who controls our life. We know well that we are fated to die here.


Exploitation and Abuse of Wildlife : The Dolphin’s underlines the idea that man in his avarice or pride fails to realize how animals are badly affected when they are constrained or imprisoned. Animals suffer as much from the loss of freedom as man. Confined in the limited space of a water pool in a water park the speaker-dolphin express its sense of loss of freedom vividly. We are moved by the way it seems to ask what for it has been removed from its natural habitat. We being to share its feelings, though we can never exactly know the anguish of an entrapped or encaged animal. The dolphin in the poem, representing all dolphins in its position, makes it clear that they long for freedom :

World is what you swim in, or dance, it is simple.
We are in our element but we are not free.

The dolphin, in a hopeless mood, mentions of man in spite. It knows that dolphins like it have bleak future. They are at man’s mercy. They will continue to move in their limited space and entertain the human visitors, and one day they will die:

There is a plastic toy. There is no hope. We sink
to the limits of this pool until the whistle blows.
There is a man and our mind knows we will die

Man vs Nature : Another theme of ‘The Dolphins’ is the contrast between man-made world and the world of nature. The man-made world can only be artificial, limited and joyless. On the other hand, the world of nature is real, joyful and limitless. They live there happily. When they are removed from their natural habitats, they remain unhappy and yearn for their freedom. This is how the captive dolphin expresses its anguish in its new man-man world.

We are blessed and now are not blessed.

A dolphin is known to receive a lot of information through its skin. It has a highly developed sonar. And yet in the new man-made world it is unable to make any sense of its existence. There is no explanation as to why it is there. It does not find any truth in the new world. The only thing the dolphins can understand is that once they were blessed and the now they are not blessed. The limited space in the pool which they have to travel again and again and has become monotonous. The expression ‘about it is the main’ reveals the superiority and the culpability of humans in the abduction and control of the dolphins.

Literary Devices used in the Poem

Metaphors : A metaphor is a sort of comparison. It shows how one things is defined with another in respect of some quality or characteristic. These metaphors occur in the poem:

‘constant flowing guilt’ a metaphor for the water pumped through the tank , or for the sensitivity on the part of the dolphins who are ware of abuse.

‘no truth in these waters’ – a metaphor to show that the confined pool lacks the interest of the open sea; it is simply boring, the truth of which is being kept from the dolphins.

Simile : In a simile one things is compared to another by using either ‘like’ or ‘as………as’; as:

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

The memory of the dolphins having silvery skin is as momentary as that of the open ocean of their days of freedom.

Caesura : When there is a decisive pause in one single line of the poem it is known as caesura. Caesura has been used liberally by the poet in ‘The Dolphins’ to convey the pathos of the situation effectively; as,

  • The other has my shape. The other’s movement
    forms my thoughts. And also mine. There is a man
  • The moon has disappeared. We circle well-worn 
    of water on a single note.

Assonance : It is the repetition of identical or similar vowels in a sequence of nearby words; as:

  • World is what you swim in, or dance, it is simple.               (short ‘i’)
  • to translate. It was the same space . It is                                (long ‘a’)

Critical Appreciation

Poem of Contemporary Value : ‘The Dolphins’ is a poem of protest against the abuse of wildlife. The concern for the wildlife and the conservation of species are serious issues of our times. ‘The Dolphin’ is one among the many poems that draws our attention that we need to change our mindset. We should not imprison animals in zoos, parks and aquariums. The poet voices its concern about the loss of freedom for animals like dolphins quite effectively in ‘The Dolphins’. She gives her voice to one of the captive dolphins in a water pool in a water park.

The plight of the dolphin in the limited space in the pool, its sense of loss of freedom and its feelings of desperation, ennui and hopelessness make the readers aware of the human apathy towards and wildlife, and about the need to take essential steps to prevent cruelty towards animals.

Message : The poem does not aim at giving any direct message to the readers . It only records the experience of the dolphins in an artificial atmosphere where they are forced to do some tricks for human entertainment under the threating presence of their keeper. If there is any message, it is for us to derive. We are exhorted implicitly to do something against the needless confinement of innocent creatures. Let us allow animals to enjoy their freedom in their natural environs.

Title : The title of the poem ‘The Dolphins’ is quite appropriate. The whole poem is about the dolphins  entrapped in a pool of water park. It is written from the perspective of a dolphin who becomes a spokesperson for its kind in voicing its anguish over the loss of its freedom. On the larger scale, her voice is the voice of all such animals and birds entrapped by man for entertainment purpose. Throughout the poem, the focus in on the dolphin’s plight and the hopelessness of their situation.

Typical Modern Poem : The poem, written in colloquial style, seems to be simple. But a close reading of the poem shows that some of its lines are quite ambiguous. Like any modern poem, this poem is also open to many interpretations.

For instance, the line – ‘There is a constant flowing guilt’ – is quite ambiguous. Who is guilty, the dolphins or the humans? The dolphins have no reason to feel guilty, while the humans have the reason to feel so, but ironically they do not.

There is ambiguity in these lines, too.

The other has my shape. The other’s movement 
forms my thoughts. And also mine.

At first, it is not clear who or what is meant by ‘The other’. We can only guess that the ‘other’ refers to another dolphin in the pool.