‘Circe‘ was published in The World’s Wife, one of Duffy’s most popular collections, in 1999. It is one of the poems in this publication that focuses on a female figure from history or mythology. In this case, Circe, one of the secondary characters from Homer’s Odyssey. In Homer’s story, she is only defined through her interaction with Odysseus. In Duffy’s poem, she is the narrator, defining her own life and recasting Odysseus in a very different light.
Myth of Circe
In Greek mythology, Circe was the daughter of Helios, the sun god, and Perseis. She lived on the island of Aeaea, where she met Odysseus on his journey home from the Trojan war. He sent his men to explore Circe’s island and accepted her hospitality. But, one man who remained outside Circe’s home saw Circe use magic to transform all the men into pigs, lions, and other animals. This man, Eurolychus, informed Odysseus about what happened, and they came up with a plan to free the transformed men. Hermes told them to put a specific plant into a drink so that they wouldn’t be transformed. Odysseus threatened Circe and forced her to restore the men to their proper forms. He went on to spend a month with her and they had a son together before he left her.
In the first part of the poem, the speaker starts out by describing the various ways that she cooks different parts of pigs. She takes the reader through the ears, brain, skin, and balls. Line by line, she reasserts her dominance over the men who thought they could take advantage of her home and dominate her. Mixed in with the cooking imagery, she suggests the cruel ways that men have treated women throughout history. At one point, she even addresses the listener, asking when men had “listened” to them. The poem concludes with a few lines that directly reference the arrival and Odysseus’s departure from her island.
Structure and Form
‘Circe’ by Carol Ann Duffy is a four-stanza poem that is written in free verse. This means that the poem does not conform to a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. But, that doesn’t mean the poem is without form. For example, “sty” and “sky” at the ends of lines eight and ten of stanza one. These half-rhymes are a great example of how free verse allows for instances of rhyme and meter. The first stanza has eleven lines, the second: nine, the third: nine, and the fourth: eight.
Throughout ‘Circe,’ Duffy makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Allusion: throughout this poem, Duffy alludes to tales from Greek mythology. Specifically, she explores Circe’s role in Odysseus’s journey home after the Trojan war.
- Alliteration: seen through the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of words. For example, “nereids and nymphs” in line one and “bristling” and “backs” in line four of stanza one.
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines six and seven of stanza one as well as lines five and six of stanza three.
- Enumeration: a rhetorical device that occurs when a writer chooses to list out items. For example, “should be blanched, singed, tossed / in a pot, boiled, kept hot, scraped, served, garnished / with thyme” from stanza three.
I’m fond, nereids and nymphs, unlike some, of the pig,
of the tusker, the snout, the boar and the swine.
like a lemon popped in the mouth of the sky.
But I want to begin with a recipe from abroad
In the first lines of ‘Circe,’ the speaker, Circe herself, begins by telling the listener what she’s fond of. This includes “nereids,” or female water spirits, and “nymphs,” or female nature spirits. Juxtaposed against these more feminine images is the “pig,” something else she’s fond of. She lists out pig attributes, all things that she admires. Readers should take note of the use of a perfect rhyme at the ends of lines two and three with “swine” and “mine.” This is one of the only examples of perfect rhyme in the poem.
As the lines progress, it becomes clear that Circe admires the pig for what it adds to meals. There is also some sexually suggestive language in these lines. For example, “under my thumb” and “skin of their backs.” These phrases allude to something more going on in Circe’s world than a simple interest in the characteristics of pigs. She uses progressively insulting words in the next lines. For example, “hogs and runts.”
The pigs, which are a clear allusion to the men Circe transformed in the original story, are kept behind a “creaky gate” in a “sty.” There, they eat swill, which she feeds them at dusk.
which uses the cheek – and the tongue in cheek
at that. Lay two pig’s cheeks, with the tongue,
in a dish, and strew it well over with salt
nymphs, with those piggy eyes. Season with mace.
In the next lines, the poet goes back and forth between having her speaker insult the man-pigs, and allude to a distaste in men in general, and describing how she cooks pigs. Circe goes back and forth quickly, listing out techniques and ingredients. In the second half of the stanza, she uses personification to depict these animals. This is another way that she alludes to the men they used to be. They are “wise,” “cruel,” “kind.” All of them have “piggy eyes” and will be seasoned “with mace.” This alludes to the spice as well as the weapon, mace. It is a defensive tool often used by women in the form of pepper spray.
Well-cleaned pig’s ears should be blanched, singed, tossed
in a pot, boiled, kept hot, scraped, served, garnished
from the slit, bulging, vulnerable bag of the balls.
When the heart of a pig has hardened, dice it small.
The cooking terms come back at the beginning of the third stanza. The poet uses enumeration and accumulation to list out the steps to cooking “pig’s ears.” After describing how the ear should be cooked, the speaker asks a rhetorical question regarding how the “ear” treated her. As a representative of men, and of their ability to hear and listen to the women in their lives, she asks if the ear ever listened “to you, to your prayers and rhymes, / to the chimes of your voice, singing and clear?” This is a beautiful lyrical line that juxtaposes the brutality of men, seen through their depiction as pigs, against the beauty of a woman’s presence in their lives. The fact that they can ignore “your voice, singing and clear” further emphasizes how cruel these men are. She emasculates them with the next lines references “balls.”
The last line of this stanza reads: “When the heart of a pig has hardened, dice it small.” Circe’s depiction of men makes a “hardened” heart seem inevitable. It’s going to happen eventually, so one should be prepared to do away with it.
Dice it small. I, too, once knelt on this shining shore
watching the tall ships sail from the burning sun
Of course, I was younger then. And hoping for men. Now,
let us baste that sizzling pig on the spit once again.
In the final stanza, the speaker finally brings in some real details in regard to Odysseus and his men. When she says “I, too” at the beginning of the sentence, she’s acknowledging that the listener is in the same place she is. She, too, once hoped for men. Now, she sees them for what they are. Without ever explicitly saying the pigs and men are one and the same, she makes the reader aware of the fact.
The lines in this stanza contrast significantly with the previous. They are far more lyrical and poetic-sounding than the cooking imagery. The past was beautiful in a way that the present isn’t. But, the speaker admits she was a different person then. She was young, naive, and unaware of what the men coming to her island was going to mean for her life.
It is about Circe’s methods for cooking pigs, taking back her power over men, and detailing the different person she is today versus when Odysseus visited her.
The themes in ‘Circe’ are control and women’s empowerment. Circe takes back her power from the men who visit her island and attempt to control her. She empowers herself through the detailed cooking demonstration. She asserts her own power over her story.
It was published in 1999 in The World’s Wife.
Duffy wrote this poem in order to retell Circe’s story and depict her in a different light. Now, her story is told by a woman from a woman’s perspective.
Carol Ann Duffy was the first female Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Circe’ should also consider reading some other Carol Ann Duffy poems. For example:
- ‘A Dreaming Week’ – suggests that books and writing are the ideal forms of escape.
- ‘Beautiful’ – focuses on the damage beauty can cause. Duffy speaks on Helen of Troy, Princess Diana, and others in these lines.
- ‘The Light Gatherer’ – explores motherhood and the happiness a child can bring. The latter is represented by light.