The Dolphins by Carol Ann Duffy is a dramatic monologue uttered by a dolphin in an aquarium. We hear only the words of the dolphin. In very simple terms, the dolphin expresses its painful confinement which in turn symbolizes human condition and suffering. The poem pivots around the concept of freedom. Having made a general statement that the world is for everyone to enjoy (swim in or dance), the dolphin makes a personal statement.
We are in our element but we are not free.
The dolphin knows that it cannot survive in the outside world, on land, which is its first and major limitation. The dolphin is able to see its own reflection on the water surface from below and it takes it to be another dolphin. Because it is only a reflection, the other’s movements are also controlled by the dolphin which thinks that its own movements are also controlled by the other one in turn.
There is a man and there are hoops.
All this is in a pool of guilt, overflowing from the human mind and it flows continuously.
The water is not real, it is an artificial pool. There is no thrill of discovery or new experience. Unlike the ocean the dolphin is familiar with, the pool is limiting and unchanging. It was a blessing to live in the ocean, life in the pool is not a blessed existence.
We were blessed and now we are not blessed.
But after being in the pool for long, the dolphin and its reflection began to come to terms with its new conditions. The space (the pool) is repetitive and above it lives the man. The dolphin repeats its lament that its life is no longer a blessed one and it does not promise any improvement. It is so static that it will not deepen even in dreams. However, the other one, being only reflection of itself has no such worrying thoughts. The silvery flash from the reflection of its skin is like a long lost feeble memory of some places, far away. There is a coloured ball that the dolphin is supposed to play with to entertain the audience.
At night, the dolphin, moves around in circles in the pool like it has done so many times that even the water has “well-worn grooves” now. From it reflection it only gets silence (music of loss) and its silence,
turns my own heart to stone
There is a discarded plastic toy in the pool. But there is no hope left behind. The dolphin sinks with its own reflection deep into the pool only to return when the man blows his whistle. So long as human intervention is there, there is no redemption, the dolphin knows.
Seen from the human perspective, it is the same story. Man has built this complex society and has lost much of his freedom in the process. With the huge oceans all around him and many schools of dolphins in them, man prefers the aquariums. Equipped to swim like fish, he still prefers to watch others do it. Not only that human beings makes whatever is natural unnatural, he prevents himself and other animals the freedom which is naturally available for all. When life itself could be an entertainment in itself, man creates artificial entertainment which finally becomes uninteresting even for the entertainer. Thus the master fares no better than what he has enslaved.