Beautiful by Carol Ann Duffy explores the physical and mental damage that can come from beauty. Duffy traces four women: Helen of Troy, Cleopatra, Marilyn Monroe, and Princess Dianna. The poet draws upon the experiences of these people to explore how males exploit and destroy them. Although in some cases beauty seems like an advantage, Duffy suggests that it is what brings attention, and therefore downfall to these women. The physical beauty of these women is contrasted heavily by the tragic downfall each of them was forced into.
Summary of Beautiful
One of these is mythological, Helen of Troy. One stems from ancient history, Cleopatra. Finally, both Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana come from more recent history. Despite the status they held and the time period they lived through, these women were all equally prosecuted and exploited.
The poem moves chronologically through their lives, exploring their rise to fame and subsequent downfall. Each one is brutal, ending in a death caused by the exploitation of a patriarchal world. Although some of these women gained power within their lives, they could never truly flourish in a society that placed masculine identities as more influential. Duffy uses this poem to expose the horrors of society, women exploited until they come to a tragic end. Cleopatra, Marilyn Monroe, and Princess Diana all died horrifically. Cleopatra died to a self-inflicted snake bite, Munroe to an overdose, and Diana to a car crash after being pursued by the ravenous press of England. The exploitation of women is rife throughout history, not stopping even as we move into the 21st century.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure of Beautiful
Carol Ann Duffy splits Beautiful into four sections. Each of these sections varies in stanza style and length. In total, the poem contains 25 stanzas, spanning several pages. Each of the sections, divided by Duffy, represents one of the four women.
The first section is varied in structure. Some paragraphs are short, while some are long. Duffy could be using the freeform structure of the section to reflect the mythically of Helen of Troy. As a character born from myth, Duffy represents this fantasy depiction through the energetic and changing structure. The final stanza measures only two lines, perhaps reflecting her subjection at the hands of a patriarchal society. The shortened stanza representing her eventual demise and minimization in history.
The second section, depicting Cleopatra, is built from lengthy stanzas. Each of these long-form stanzas reflects major parts of the ruler’s life. The length of this section could be emblematic of her long reign, Duffy remembering the success of Cleopatra. Even when discussing Cleopatra’s death, it is contained within two words, only a slight mar on the incredible reign she had. Duffy emulates her success through the extended stanzas, containing an element of Cleopatra’s longevity through this style.
The third section explores Marilyn Monroe. The first two stanzas contain 9 lines, while the second two contain 10. This section is carefully regulated, but not so much as the fourth. The fact the stanzas get longer as this section progresses could reflect how controlling the media were of Marilyn. As she advanced in her career, the media began to show more of her, represented through the lengthening structure. Yet, even in these stanzas, there is an element of regularity. Monroe’s life was heavily controlled by the media, them wanting her to be depicted a certain way. Duffy uses structure to reflect these ideas, emulating her life through the structure.
The fourth section discusses Princess Diana. This is the most structurally confined section of the text, being written in quatrains. These carefully planned stanzas could reflect the pressure on Diana to conform to the stereotypes of a princess. Her life was measured and directly compared to other royals, the pressure on her immeasurable. Duffy emulates this pressure by confining the structure to a particular style – representing Diana’s entrapment through the form and structure of this section.
Themes in Beautiful
One of the key themes within Beautiful is Duffy’s exploration of women in history. History is a major theme that Duffy discusses within ‘Feminine Gospels’. This poem uses history to suggest that women have been exploited since the beginning of time, both in fantasy and real life. Duffy exposes the horrors of this exploitation, discussing how it often leads to pain and death. Women are oppressed at the hands of men, both individuals and making up larger forms of society.
Another theme that Duffy explores throughout Beautiful is the female body. Indeed, the title word ‘Beautiful’ refers to female beauty. Yet, this beauty is often a negative thing, leading to exploitation. Duffy argues that the female body is used as a point of manipulation, society sexualizing these bodies for their own gain. Especially in the third section of the poem, Duffy suggests that society focuses on Marilyn Monroe due to her beauty. While some could see this as a form of gaining power, it seems that Duffy focuses more so on how this attention leads to the eventual demise of these women.
A core literary technique used within the construction of Beautiful is an allusion. Both in regard to fictional and real women, Duffy makes allusion to the lives of past women to exemplify her argument. Although not actually saying the names of these four women, Duffy alludes to key moments or ideas from their lives. In doing this, especially when taking women from such a wide arch of time, Duffy suggests that this exploitation has been a part of society for a huge period of time. By founding Duffy’s argument in cases of real women, she demonstrates how this exploitation can impact real lives.
Another technique that Duffy uses throughout Beautiful is caesura. Following or preceding important phrases within the poem, Duffy uses caesura. This caesura creates a slight metrical pause within the line. This pause then places emphasis on what comes before or after the caesura. In doing this, Duffy can focus the poem on key ideas without disrupting the rhythm of reading. In many places, this caesura appears incredibly blunt, such as ‘Beauty is fame.’, emphasizing the harshness of this statement.
Part One – Helen of Troy
She was born from an egg,
Who looked there, loved.
The poem begins by focusing on the personal pronoun, ‘she’. Women are at the center of this poem and Duffy makes this evidently clear from the offset. Helen is said to be born ‘from an egg’, Duffy also focusing on the physicality of this figure in the opening line. It is interesting to note that even in fiction, women are exploited and prosecuted.
Duffy notes Helen to have an unobtainable beauty, ‘daughter of the gods’ and ‘divinely fair’. The reference to beauty continues in ‘pearl’, Duffy using this to suggest the value which beauty holds in society. Duffy then uses asyndeton, connecting many adjectives to describe how beautiful Helen was.
The ‘starlike sorrows of immortal eyes’ is oddly wounded. Duffy could use this to suggest a melancholic pang to the character. Perhaps Helen, in her godly position, understood the great burden that beauty had placed upon her.
Stanzas Two and Three
She won the heart
it was War.
Duffy places ‘heart’ at the end of the first line of the second stanza. Similarly to ‘loved’, this places metrical emphasis on the world. Duffy points to how emotions come from seeing this beautiful woman, ‘every man’ flocking to her.
There is a great deal of male lust in these stanzas, everyone wanting to be with her. The use of caesura around ‘line, sighed,’ signals the desperation of the men that follow her. Helen’s beauty captures these people in a spell, then all wanting to follow her ‘till death’. Although Helen has a great deal of power, it is all based on her beauty, the overwhelming ‘every man’ following her being an incredibly daunting image.
Upon deciding on a man to be with, Helen ‘fled’. Again, Duffy using caesura to emphasize this word. The use of ‘fled’ plays into the semantics of hunter and prey, Helen being reduced to a fleeing animal. The reaction to this escape inspires ‘War’, the grave impact of her beauty leading to total chaos. Helen is followed and prosecuted only for her beauty.
A thousand ships –
bragged and shoved across a thousand miles of sea.
Within the fourth stanza, Duffy makes reference to ‘Dr Faustus’, ‘A thousand ships’ echoing the description of ‘A face that launched a thousand ships’. This confirms to the reader that Duffy is focusing on Helen of Troy, who features in Christopher Marlowe’s play.
Duffy focuses on the physical strength of Helen’s pursuers. They have described as ‘heaving an ore’, ‘tattooed’, and ‘muscle’. The masculinity present within these descriptions furthers the gender dynamic of the poem. Duffy is exploring how women are prosecuted by men, the poet constantly referring to the semantics of masculinity.
One could argue there is a slight reference to Desdemona from Othello, ‘a handkerchief she’d dropped once’. This reference bears relevance as Desdemona is murdered by Othello due to his male rage, unable to believe his loyal wife.
Asyndeton is once again used across the end of the fourth stanza, Duffy linking together names for Helen. The large number of names people call Helen could further link to her name, her notorious beauty calling the attention of every man.
Stanzas Five and Six
Meanwhile, lovely she lay high up
before they sliced a last grin in his throat.
The triple reception of ‘loved’ signals the happiness that Helen experiences. Now away from her perusers, she is able to experience the happiness of love. Yet, the men still follow her, wanting to contain her beauty form themselves.
The short, stunted ‘Beauty is fame’ is followed by a caesura. Duffy emphasizes the brutality of this line. Helen did not ask for beauty, yet she is made into an icon that must be pursued due to the male gaze. They look upon her and whisper her name, spreading her name across the globe. The perusers kill her husband, ‘sliced a last grin in his throat’, male rage and jealousy destroying Helen’s life.
Stanza Seven, Eight, Nine
Some swore they saw her smuggled
and kept a little bird inside a cage.
These final three stanzas explore the mystery of Helen, the perusers unsure of where she escaped. The use of ‘dusk’, ‘moon’, and ‘smuggled’ play into the semantics of secrecy, Helen slipping away from her followers’ grasps. Yet, even in this act, the male gaze focuses on how ‘her dress/clung to her form’. Duffy suggests that at all times the male gaze sexualizes women.
Duffy introduces a character who helps Helen, her female ‘maid’. This woman ‘loved her most’, loving her for herself instead of her beauty. Indeed, she would not ‘describe/one aspect of her face’, protecting Helen of Troy. Instead of furthering the iconic legend of Helen, she remains faithful, the only friendly character of this section is a female. This could be a mechanism through which Duffy suggests that women always support women, especially in retaliation to the male gaze.
The final image of this section focuses on ‘little bird inside a cage’, representing the trap that beauty is. Helen’s whole life was marred by the prosecution from men, trapped due to her physical features. The final image of a ‘cage’ symbolizes this oppression, Helen’s life destroyed due to her beauty.
Part Two – Cleopatra
Stanzas One and Two
She never aged.
to Alexandira, the warm muddle Nile.
Duffy begins this stanza by focusing on the longevity of Cleopatra’s reign, ‘She never aged’. Once again Duffy begins a section by focusing on the female pronoun, ‘she’. Yet, the focus on ‘aged’ could link into the notion that women’s beauty fades as they age. Duffy could be retaliating against this idea, demonstrating how Cleopatra ‘never’ changed during her life.
The sentences within much of this part are written to make Cleopatra the passive receptor of events. For example, ‘him kneel to pick her up’, displays that she is being ‘pick[ed] up’, an action being executed upon her. By framing the syntax of sentences like this, Duffy presents Cleopatra as passive in her own life. She is forced into roles and positions by the men that surround her. Duffy uses this to suggest the oppression of women, Cleopatra subjugated even in success.
Yet, Cleopatra is able to leverage her beauty to get what she wants, Duffy presenting the woman’s power. The fact she reduces ‘Caesar’ to ‘gibbering’ displays the control she has. We know this is a sexual power by the location, ‘in bed’. Duffy suggests that Cleopatra gains power by accepting her beauty and using it to manipulate and control men.
This is further suggested by ‘she rolled’, Cleopatra being the active participant in lines. Cleopatra ‘reached and pulled him down’, controlling Caesar with her intelligence and beauty.
Tough beauty. She played with him
until the big man slid beneath the table, wrecked.
The oxymoronic ‘Tough beauty’ displays Cleopatra’s character perfectly. She is at once beautiful and impactful. She uses her beauty to gain leverage, being able to outsmart the men in her way. Anything that Caesar does, Cleopatra does the same or better, ‘matched him glass for glass’. Duffy dismantles the notion that women cannot perform equally to men, Cleopatra doing so despite being subjugated for her feminine beauty.
The use of asyndeton, ‘floated, gargled doubles over tables, downed’ displays Cleopatra’s success. In every task, she attempts she is able to come out on top. The masculine atmosphere is natural to her, penetrating their obnoxious setting and proving that she is as capable as them. She outdrinks ‘the big man’, showing her power while he ‘slid beneath the table, wrecked.’ The final word demonstrates Cleopatra’s power, able to ‘wreck’ men through her commitment to being extraordinary.
She watched him hunt. He killed a stag.
of cities lost foever in the sea, of snakes.
The repetition of verbs conjugated against her ‘she’ demonstrates her efficiency in many tasks. Duffy repeats ‘She watched’, ‘She hacked’, ‘She let’ to show Cleopatra’s power. Again and again ‘she’ begins the sentence, Duffy presenting the extraordinary capabilities of Cleopatra. Cleopatra even transcends gender, ‘made him fuck her as a lad’, becoming more and more powerful.
The end of this section points to Cleopatra’s downfall, yet is much more subtle than the other sections. This is perhaps relating to how successful Cleopatra was in her life, her demise only a tiny part of her story. The historic romance of ‘armies changing sides, of cities lost forever in the sea’ creates a tone of reverence. Cleopatra is fantastically powerful, her demise coming from a self-inflicted ‘snake’ bite. This section ends with a powerful demonstration of Cleopatra’s success. The clever grammatical division, using caesura, or everything in this section coming before ‘of snakes’ represents her final moment. Death to a snake bite is her final act, ‘snakes’ bluntly finishing her section.
Part Three – Marilyn Monroe
Stanza One and Two
The camera loved her, close-up, back lit,
The whole world swooned.
Duffy focuses greatly on the sexualization of Marilyn, present from the first line. The use of asyndeton, ‘close-up, back-lit, adored’ compound the sense of invasion. The ‘camera’ follows her, capturing her from every angle. Even when ‘sleepy’, her ‘startled gaze’ is instantly captured. Duffy presents the chaos of this setting, the constant use of caesura fracturing the flow of the poem. This is emblematic of the chaos of Monroe’s life, constantly followed by the cameras due to her beauty. The repetition of ‘filmed her’ furthers this idea, a camera constantly on the beautiful woman. The fact the whole ‘US whooped’ demonstrates the lengths to which Monroe was stalked, everyone knowing the intimate details of her life as she lived it.
Alongside the innate eroticism of Duffy’s language here, she also presents a note of violence. Monroe is a commodity to be employed, ‘investors’ gold’, Duffy suggesting how people capitalize on her beauty. Indeed, ‘her eyes’ are ‘pressed by a banker’s thumb’, the violent imagery being covered in false ‘sapphires’ and ‘platinum’ to cover up the horrors of her mistreatment. Monroe is manipulated and controlled by those around her, made into a money-making machine instead of treated like a human.
Duffy employs a form of epiphora at the end of the second stanza, ‘The whole word swooned’ echoing ‘The US whooped’. Now, her commodification has spread to the whole world, becoming an international sex symbol. She is abused and exploited for the whole world to see.
Dumb beauty. She slept in an eye-mask, naked,
The audience drooled.
The media twist her public perception. Known as ’Blonde Bombshell’, the media span her image into ‘Dumb beauty.’. Although nothing of the sort, the media enjoyed the idea that she was stupid, expanding this until it was the common perception of Marilyn Monroe. This directly contrasts with ‘Tough beauty’, Duffy drawing a connection between the two women. Cleopatra had agency over her own image and was presented differently to the further exploited Marilyn.
The hallucinatory, almost feverish, presentation of Monroe’s life begins with ‘slept’. Duffy presents the woman exploited from the moment she wakes right till she sleeps. Everything in between is connected with hellish asyndeton, propelling the poem onwards, ‘coffee, pills, booze’. The reference to addictive substances foreshadows Monroe’s death, overdosing on sleeping pills.
The reference to ‘light’ is normally a positive association. Yet, for Monroe, even the most positive things are subverted. Duffy uses ‘under the lights’ to display how exposed Monroe was. Especially surrounding the rumored affair with President Kenedy, the world blamed her instead of the wildly powerful man who manipulated her.
The filed on, deep, dumped what they couldn’t use
of her public hair.
Firstly, the consonance across ‘deep, dumped’ creates a sense of oppression, the language flowing in hypnotic circles. Furthermore, the plosive ‘p’ within both these words cuts through the narrative, representing the brutality Monroe experienced on a daily basis.
Even after her suicide, the media continued to use her image. Duffy writes that ‘she couldn’t die when she died’, money being made of her death and long into the future. They abused and exploited Monroe in life and death, no one caring about her death. Furthermore, even the ‘smoking cop’ that ruled over her death is nonchalant, ‘smoking’ suggesting how at ease he is. The fact the examiners see her ‘public hair’ demonstrates how even her body is abused after death. She is exposed to the world, men never letting her rest. After this death, the ‘dark roots’ represent the real Marilyn, only exposed to the world after her demise. Duffy further suggests that she was constantly under the influence of the media, subjugated by a Hollywood machine that sought only profit.
Part Four – Princess Diana of Wales
Stanzas One and Two
Dead, she’s elegant bone
they’d wear, coloured their hair.
Firstly, Duffy begins this section with a premonition by the end, ‘dead’. The caesura following this word adds emphasis, creating an unsettling moment of pause. Diana, apart from her fantastic activism and philanthropy, is also known for how badly she was treated by the press. Her death came in a car crash while fleeing from the press, perhaps signaling ‘dead’ as her final resting state.
The reference to ‘bone’ could also be Duffy discussing the suspicion that she was bulimic. Diana was constantly in the public eye but suffered much of her life from this eating disorder. The descriptions Duffy uses, ’ankles crossed, knees calmed, hands clasped’ present the constraints that the media placed upon her. Diana was forced to be prim and proper, Duffy suggesting that ‘You know her name’ simply from this description. She was an iconic figure in the media, with her death saddening the world. By referencing ‘coloured their hair’, Duffy signals that Diana was trying to present a certain image to the media. Forced to act a certain way, she cultivated the look to match it. Duffy questions why women are forced to look a certain way, returning to the key theme of Beautiful.
Stanzas Three, Four, Five
The whole town came,
The cameras gibbered away.
Follow this, these stanzas reveal how invasive the media was in pursuit of Diana. Although loved by many, ‘The whole town came’, she was still constantly followed by the media. The repetition of ‘stare’, combined with polysyndeton represents the invasive media. The constant, repeated, invasion followed Diana until her death.
The use of ‘Beauty is fate’ calls back to ‘Beauty is fame’ earlier in the poem. Duffy presents how the physical qualities of a woman have to lead to determining how their lives played out, ‘fame’ and ‘fate’ repenting the outcomes of Helen of Troy and Diana. Right throughout history, Duffy suggests that women have been exploited for their beauty.
Subsequently, even the details of her marriage were leaked to the media. The iconic photo of her ‘posed alone/in front of the Taj Mahal’ was during rumors of the impending separation. Even ‘pale’, sometimes seen as a symbol of sickness, is glorified on Dianna, ‘beautifully’ attached to this quality. Furthermore, the constant presence of the media is evident in Duffy’s use of ‘gibbered’, an unquenchable wave of clicking.
Stanzas Six and Seven
Act like a fucking princess –
History’s stinking breath in her face.
The use of italics within the sixth stanza reflects the voice of the media. Moreover, their use of expletives, ‘fucking’ and ‘cunt’ demonstrate their ruthlessness, not respecting Diana. They use her only for pictures, hating her while they make their livings from her. They treat her poorly, the commanding ‘Act like a fucking princess’ demonstrating the notion that she was forced to embody a certain type of person. The caesura of ‘smile, cunt’ places emphasis on the expletive, defining the rage behind the media that pursued her.
The shock of Diana, her ‘blue eyes widened’, displays a sense of vulnerability. Subsequently, she cannot ‘take it all in’, the constant abuse of the media. Although loved, ‘acres of flowers’, the presence of men was stronger. Duffy ends the poem by focusing on ‘History’s stinking breath in her face’, personifying history. Moreover, a disgusting image displays how women are exploited, the repulsive world capitalizing on their images. The final words, ‘her face’ centralize the poem on the female experience. Duffy has given examples of many women throughout history who have been abused, asking the question: when will this come to an end?
The first of the women explored in Beautiful is Helen of Troy. Helen is a character from Greek Mythology, known as the daughter of Zeus and Leda. She is commonly referred to as the most beautiful woman in the world, hence her inclusion in the poem. She became a figure much loved in art and history, with much of literature touching on her story.
The second character discussed is Cleopatra, the last active ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt. She ruled from 51-30BC. Cleo, similarly to Helen of Troy, is a figure much favored by art and literature. In 30BC, her naval fleet (including her husband, Mark Anthony) was defeated. This lead to Antony’s suicide. Once Cleopatra learned of this, she killed herself by poisoning. While history is not certain if this death comes from self poison or being bitten by an asp, many believe she self-inflicted the snake bite.
The third person discussed in Duffy’s Beautiful is Marilyn Monroe. Monroe was an American actress, model, and singer. She was emblematic of America’s changing attitudes to sexuality, becoming a sex symbol of the 1950s and 60s. She was viciously controlled by Hollywood, eventually dying at the age of 32 to a sleeping pill overdose.
Finally, Duffy discusses the Princess of Wales, Diana. Lady Di was known as the “People’s Princess”, is a much-loved figure in the U.K. In 1981 she engaged Prince Charles and married later that year. After the couple’s separation in 1992, the media sought details of their marital difficulties. Diana was viciously hunted by the media, eventually dying in a car crash while fleeing the paparazzi in 1997. Her funeral was televised and brought in 32.10 million viewers in the U.K., with millions more watching around the world.
History is a key theme within Duffy’s Beautiful, and in several of the ‘Feminine Gospel’ poems. Both within History, The Long Queen, and Sub, Duffy uses history to make her arguments. Although in The Long Queen the woman has lots of power, the other three poems expose how mistreated women are throughout history.
Duffy also uses Beautiful to explore women’s bodies. This is similarly explored in The Woman Who Shopped, where women end up being exploited for their bodies. This theme is also touched upon within The Diet and The Map-Woman.