‘Nessa’ by Paul Durcan


by Paul Durcan

Upon analysing a poem, I like to decode it in a particular way. I like to read the poem as if it were a story. This helps me to generate an understanding of both the poet and the poem’s context.  The following notes outline the story of ‘Nessa’. Once an understanding of this poem’s story has been established you will then be able to more effectively create your own opinions and observations.

The Story of the Poem

  1. The poem is set in Dublin and chronicles the time the poet first met the titular; Nessa.
  2. The couple are immediately attracted to each other ‘She took me by the index finger…’.
  3. The speaker is smitten with Nessa, he feels both intoxicated and overcome by his emotions while in her presence. Durcan uses a powerful metaphor to capture this sensation ‘…and dropped me in her well’. This metaphor suggests both the sense of being out of control and the idea of falling helplessly towards something new, unknown and possibly dangerous. 
  4. The intensity of this sensation is highlighted by the repeated word ‘whirlpool’. It’s as though he feels that he is drowning in an emotion that he cannot control. 
  5. Nessa is portrayed as a spontaneous, energetic and carefree young woman. She is both confident and self-assured ‘Would you care to swim?’. She leads the way and seems to be the instigator of this budding relationship. It’s important to recognise that his poem was set in an Ireland which had different societal expectations for woman’s behaviour as today’s Ireland has. In this sense Nessa is quite bold, she goes against societies expectations. During this time in Ireland women would have been expected to act subserviently and passively. This is what has possibly attracted the speaker to her.  
  6. Stanza four marks a shift from the past to the present. It is important to realise that the poem was written seven years after the event took place. It is therefore a retrospectively written poem. The poet and Nessa were still together at this time.
  7. The poet clearly feels uncertainty and dread. Perhaps the relationship no longer has the spontaneity or intoxicating abilities it once had. Maybe the poet fears losing Nessa, or maybe he realises how vulnerable love has made him. The poet shows definite signs of insecurity in the context of the relationship here. 
  8. The speaker recalls images from their first meeting to describe his current dark state of mind. He now languishes on the rocks of Dalkey, Dublin, where he once swam with Nessa. The hard and desolate shoreline serves as a poignant metaphor for his current state of mind. He imagines himself in trouble in the water, the waves acting here as another metaphor for his distressed and punitive mental state. 
  9. The poet pleads with Nessa to relieve his feelings of uncertainty and dread and asks her to ‘…stay with me on the rocks…’.
  10. The poem ends on a poignant note, with no real closure for the reader. 


  1. Love
  2. Strength
  3. Intoxicating Power of Women
  4. Mental Anguish
  5. Nature
  6. Relationships

Poetic Techniques Evident:

  1. Repetition: ‘…a whirlpool and I am very nearly drowned.’
  2. Metaphor: ‘And dropped me in her well’, ‘She was a whirlpool’
  3. Assonance: ‘She was a whirlpool, she was a whirlpool’

*If you have any questions please ask me via Instagram.

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