Non-fiction elements in Eileen Duggan’s “The Tides Run up the Wairau”


In an initial reading of Duggan’s poem, “The Tides Run up the Wairau,” the poem appears to fiction through the use of poetic language. The poem tells the story about a woman dealing with a troublesome love, and she compares this love to that of a raging body of water. This comparison initially gives the poem it’s fiction qualities, however, on a closer look, there is fact in this fiction.

Love appears in the forms of Cook Strait and the Wairau River, each having prominent roles in the poem, “The Tides Run up the Wairau”, by Eileen Duggan. The presence of these bodies of water are significant to the poem because they represent heartbreak and longing; difficulties of love. Despite the poetic and symbolic meanings of water, the comparison of water to love has elements of truth. Duggan argues in the poem that the harsh bodies of water symbolize these emotions of love. The first recognizes the similarities between the Wairau’s difficult headwaters and a speaker’s inability to openly express her love, while the second points out the relationship between the Wairau River and Cook Strait, in which love is equivalent to a river fighting against the tides of the sea. Cook Strait, located at the southernmost point of the northern island of New Zealand, is considered to be the roughest and most unpredictable body of water in the world. It feeds into the Wairau River, whose headwaters are difficult to traverse.

The use of water shows how love comparable to the tides of an ocean or a river: gentle and and calming at times, but also rough and difficult, and seemingly impossibly to fight. The speaker of the poem seems to be addressing a lover whom she express her love for. However, this lover refuses to leave her, and the speaker cannot seem to fight off the lover’s pursuits. Here, this supports Duggan’s first observation about love. The general idea shows a conflicted heart and how the speaker is struggling through inner turmoil with a persistent lover. Just like a river’s unpredictable current, so is the speaker’s journey through love.

For the second case, the Wairau symbolizes the speaker while Cook Strait symbolizes the lover. The river, despite it’s own strong currents, cannot fight against the might of the ocean. The figurative meaning reveals the speaker who, like the river, cannot fight against the powerful tides of love. The idea that love is easy is a misconceived concept that has plagued the minds of many, where it is, in fact, the polar opposite. “The Tides Run up the Wairau,” is substantial proof that love comes with a variety of problems, and that not all of them are conquerable. 

“The tides run up the Wairau,” makes reference to Cook Strait, the ocean in which the river feeds into. The river fights against the Strait’s tides, and this conflict also reflects the conflict that is occurring in the Speaker’s heart. Her heart is “running salt,” which entails that she is crying and heartbroken over this situation. In the second stanza, this conflict becomes evident when the speaker says, “I cannot love you”, however, the lover’s “tide of love,” is persistent, and the speaker cannot fight it. The emotional pain that affects the speaker, such as the memories of him which linger in her mind, implies that difficulties lie in the past. She uses the phrase, “salt of pain”, to reveal to readers how the lover’s presence and affection causes this inner turmoil, like rubbing salt in a wound. On a closer look, the Wairau river in “The Tides Run up the Wairau” can also represent the state of mind of the speaker, and how weak and hopeless she feels towards the lover, whose love is represented by the sea’s powerful tides. She cannot fight the lover’s affections, which is like the river fighting the tide.  Concluding the said tale of love, the speaker weeps because fighting this lover’s affections for her is like a river fighting against the tides of the sea.

The line, “For though I cannot love you,” is interesting because it focuses on the mental state of the speaker. It is already known that the speaker, despite having obvious attractions towards her lover, cannot seem to express her love for him. In fact, even though she is heartbroken in doing so, she fights against his tides of love. Her inability to tell the man she loves her feelings reveals to readers that maybe, she doesn’t know how to. This questions the idea of expressed and unexpressed love. Sometimes love is truly felt but cannot be expressed through words. A love that has no words appears in many pieces of romantic literature, as well as in real life. This type of love is seen throughout Duggan’s poem. The speaker obviously has feelings for the lover, since her heart is crying for him. However, there is some element that seems to prevent her from expressing her love, instead causing her to fight her lover away. The speaker, since she cannot openly express her love, tries to push her lover away to protect him from the outside element. In this case, she is expressing her love by trying to protect him. The speaker loves the lover so much that she’s willing to sacrifice a potential future with him to protect him from an outside presenceThe type of love the speaker of Duggan’s poem is going through is tormented love. The torment she goes through is both internal and external. She fights with herself to push the lover away, despite loving him, as well as fighting with the lover himself. We see tormented love in real life, which is also another reason why this poem has non fiction aspects to it.

Duggan, in her poem “The Tides Run up the Wairau,” gives an accurate definition of an aspect of love with her symbolic use of turbulent bodies of water. The use of the Wairau River and Cook Strait to symbolize the struggles in love helps readers understand the concept of a tormented love. The inner turmoil the speaker goes through, as well as the fight to push away a lover to protect him provides the definition that love is not easy and does have it’s problems. Like the ocean, love is gentle, but also dangerous

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