I am very bothered when I think
of the bad things I have done in my life.
Not least that time in the chemistry lab
when I held a pair of scissors by the blades
and played the handles
in the naked lilac flame of the Bunsen burner;
then called your name, and handed them over.
O the unrivalled stench of branded skin
as you slipped your thumb and middle finger in,
then couldn’t shake off the two burning rings. Marked,
the doctor said, for eternity.
Don’t believe me, please, if I say
that was just my butterfingered way, at thirteen,
of asking you if you would marry me.
I’d say the most interesting thing about this particular Armitage poem is the way in which it follows the traditional length of the romantic sonnet; although abandons all of the other usual facets. A sonnet professes the poet’s love for the recipient and in a strange and unconventional way, this poem does exactly that. It describes a juvenile love and the innocent disregard for consequences and the ‘butterfingered way[s]’ we use to get attention when falling in – what we then are convinced is – love at a young age. The language used massively juxtaposes what one would expect to find in the traditional sonnet; roses and wine are replaced with white-hot scissors, Bunsen burners and ‘the stench of branded skin’…not quite the pinnacle of conventional romance; and it is in some ways endearing how the speaker still holds some guilt over his actions so many years into the future
Marriage is used as a covert motif throughout the poem and is finally professed as the speaker’s intentions in the final line. Armitage refers to the victim of the speaker’s ‘butterfingered ways’ as ‘slipping [your] thumb and middle finger in / then couldn’t shake off the two burning rings.’ Now, this particular line is a very interesting one. As opposed to the ring finger, Armitage puts emphasis upon the fact that the unnamed girl is using other fingers to use the scissors, perhaps suggesting that she is blatantly not ready for even contemplating the thought of marriage in the same way that the speaker’s immature act proves his lack of readiness. Of course a lack of readiness for marriage at the age of thirteen is to be both expected – to a degree – encouraged, but the following line which depicts that the girl ‘couldn’t shake off the two burning rings, Marked / the doctor said, for eternity’ seems to imply that just because these two are not ready for marriage in that present moment, they are in some way destined for each other and ‘marked’ to be together.’ The speaker’s anecdote of how he burned the hand of a girl he loved to draw her attention suggests an entirely positive message overall; it denotes that an action does not have to be lavishly brimming with romance for it to be romantic in itself uniquely.