by Michael Woods
The poet here recounts and reflects upon what she remembers as the very negative and frightening experience of going to confession as a child.
In Roman Catholicism a penitent will confess their sins to a priest who will listen to what they say and give a penance appropriate to the severity of the sins committed. He will then grant absolution (that is he will forgive the sinner in the name of God). Duffy referred to the same practice in 'Ash Wednesday 1984' in Standing Female Nude where she talks of the 'weekly invention of venial sin'. There are two general categories of sin as far as the Church is concerned - venial and mortal. Venial sins may be considered as fairly trivial in comparison to mortal sins. The crucial point in Catholic theology is that anyone dying in a state of mortal sin cannot go to heaven without first spending time in purgatory.
The penitent must use a set form of words and sequence of prayers when speaking to the priest. These words appear in the poem as italicised phrases and fragments of those prayers. 'Bless me Father for I have sinned' are the first words uttered in the confessional. Sentences that constitute prayers in confession, are split by Duffy to allow for the modulation between the voice of the priest who represents the authority of the Church, and that of the child's as she says her prayers. It is striking that so much of what we hear comes from the priest. It is supposed to be the child's confession. The reader is put in a position of overhearing snatches of a private conversation. The use of ellipses does, of course, imply that the child says a lot more but Duffy is deliberately presenting prayers, sense impressions of the child and the superstitious interpretations of the priest and, possibly, the parish in a fragmentary way. This creates a stream of consciousness effect, reminiscent of the writing of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.
Confession is presented as a frightening and repressive experience. The confessional is described as a 'dark cell', suggesting imprisonment while 'tell' evokes interrogation. Internal rhyme is developed through the words 'smells' and 'smell' and these along with the simile, which compares the confessional to a 'coffin', adds to the claustrophobic, deathly atmosphere. These words rhyme with 'hell' in stanza two and 'well' in stanza three. The implication here is that by association, the confessional is a hellish place where the child will 'stammer' in fear of 'eternal damnation' and feel compelled to confess 'sins those maggoty things / that wriggle in the soul'. The reference to Hansel and Gretel reminds us that they were shut up in a cage inside a wicked woman's house and held on to each other in their terror. The 'big black wood' is a further element designed to frighten the child. Also, she could be saying that the religion she was brought up I has no more validity than a fairy tale. The line 'cross yourself Remember the vinegar and the sponge' refers to the sign of the cross and Christ being given vinegar on a sponge while nailed to a very real cross. The idea here is that all sinners are implicated in the fate of Christ. The irony of the final phrase 'Jesus loves you' cannot be lost on any reader. The 'light on the other side of the door' is a metaphorical use of language by the priest that the child probably does not understand. In a literal sense, she would be aware of the contrast between the dark interior of the confessional and the light beyond it. Duffy's clear point here is that a religion seeking to promote the idea of a loving God should not terrorise children in the manner she experienced as a child. Her rejection of Catholicism is often cited and there can be no doubt that this poem articulates that. However, it is important to remember that there are elements of the Catholic faith that provide rich sources of imagery and thematic material in her work.