Nostalgia Poem by Carol Ann Duffy Summary, Notes and Line by Line Explanation in English


Carol Ann Duffy is a British poet and dramatist who is the author of the poem “Nostalgia”. The poem was released in the 1990’s poetry collection “The Other Country” by Duffy. The poem examines the concept of nostalgia—a yearning for the past—and how it might impact our lives today.

About the poet

Dame Carol Ann Duffy is a Scottish poet and playwright. She was appointed Poet Laureate in 2009 and resigned in 2019. Her collections include Standing Female Nude, Selling Manhattan, Mean Time, and Rapture. Her poems address issues such as oppression, gender, and violence in accessible language.


Stanza 1

Those early mercenaries, it made them ill –

leaving the mountains, leaving the high, fine air

to go down, down. What they got

was money, dull, crude coins clenched

in the teeth; strange food, the wrong taste,

stones in the belly; and the wrong sounds,

the wrong smells, the wrong light, every breath –

wrong. They had an ache here, Doctor,

they pined, wept, grown men. It was killing them.

The poem depicts nostalgia as a malady that renders the mercenaries physically ‘ill’ due to an unknown force. The opening line’s harsh hyphen and the repeated phrases “leaving” and “down, down” aim to further remove the mercenaries from their place of origin. The second repetition’s caesura produces a little pause in the line, intensifying the opening words’ melancholy. The word “dull” is used to suggest that the “coins” they are acquiring are insufficient to alleviate their suffering. The poem is charged with a sense of synesthesia by the repetition of “wrong” juxtaposed against various sensory inputs, and the certainty of “it was killing them” adds to the sensation of helplessness. The mercenaries are literally dying as a result of their intense yearning to return home.

Stanza 2

It was a given name. Hearing tell of it,

there were those whop stayed put, fearful

of a sweet pain in the heart; of how it hurt,

in that heavier air, to hear

the music of home – the sad pipes – summoning,

in the dwindling light of the plains,

a particular place – where maybe you met a girl,

or searched for a yellow ball in the long grass,

found it just as your mother called you in.

This stanza by Duffy focuses on the moments immediately following the “Doctor’s” diagnosis of “nostalgia.” There is a lot of alliteration, especially in the letter “h,” which represents how the word is passed from person to person. The poetry is sensual and uses various senses to convey this sense of desire to the reader. The grammatical isolation of “-the sad pipes-” gives the poem a melancholy tone. The emphasis on a specific moment—”where maybe you met a girl”—increases the impression that time is passing. The tonal melancholy of the poem drives this dismal dichotomy of wanting to go back to the past yet being unable to do so.

Stanza 3

But the word was out. Some would never 

fall in love had they not heard of love.

So the priest stood at the stile with his head

in his hands, crying at the workings of memory

through the colour of leaves, and the schoolteacher

opened a book to the scent of her youth, too late.

It was Spring when one returned, with his life

in a sack on his back, to find the same street

with the same sign over the inn, the same bell

chiming the hour on the clock, and everything changed.

The third and final stanza is the most sorrowful, emphasizing the mercenaries’ inability to relive the past and return to the time they desire for. The poem’s longest line, “Some would never fall in love had they not heard of love,” appears at the beginning of the first verse. Duffy contends that more individuals can now recognize and self-diagnose their sentiments as “nostalgia” since a word to describe the experience has been developed. This verse emphasizes the gloomy combination of recollection and wanting to go back to the time when that memory occurred, making the sorrow evident. Different manifestations of the inexorable sorrow that melancholy brings might be seen.

One of the mercenaries who decide to go home is the subject of the poem’s concluding quatrain. The opening stanza’s repetition of “leaving” and “down” echoes the triple repeat of “same,” and the use of a mirrored method unites the poem in tonal melancholy. After a caesura, the last three words of the poem enhance its melancholy conclusion. The soldier gave in to his wishes, left the mercenaries, and went home. However, “everything changed,” and the thing he was seeking is now lost forever. The poem captures this sense of longing by examining the effects of the illness while concentrating historically on the phrase’s origin. With Duffy mounting the past’s passing, the incapacity to relive it is evident.