Death and the Moon by Carol Ann Duffy is an elegy written for Adrian Henri, a longtime partner of the poet’s. The poem focuses on the distance that death creates and the uncertainty of death. Duffy is unsure where Henri has gone, longing for him to return. Duffy’s imagery of the moon is integral to the poem, with ‘moon’ implying both distance and subtle melancholy.
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Summary of Death and the Moon
Duffy uses images of stillness, ‘frozen pond’, to convey how strange the world becomes without Henri. Having known Henri for many years, a world in which he is not in is something unfathomable to the poet. Duffy works through her emotions within this poem, exploring the initial confusion that death incites. The poet then moves on to remembering the funeral, before finally returning to the strange ‘black night’ – a representation of the world without the familiar presence of Henri. The poem is incredibly tragic, ending ‘Feminine Gospels’ on a melancholy note.
You can read the full poem Death and the Moon here.
Form and Structure
Carol Ann Duffy splits Death and the Moon into three stanzas. Each of these stanzas is written in free form, having no rhyme scheme. All three of the stanzas have a regular 8 line structure. Although there is no rhyme scheme, Duffy uses enjambment on many of the lines. Enjambment creates a sense of flow throughout the poem, perhaps focusing on the passing of time after Henri’s death. The constant structural flow within the poem further creates a haunting atmosphere, images blurring into one another in ghostly silence.
Themes in Death and the Moon
The most prominent theme within Death and the Moon is death and the past. Considering that Duffy knew Henri for a huge amount of her life, the world now seems strange and foreign to her. Duffy references the semantics of death and silence, ‘ghosts of my wordless breath’ to convey her longing. She knows she can never get back Henri, but grapples with this concept, articulating her suffering through this deeply tragic poem.
Duffy uses the semantics of distance within Death and the Moon to explore the chasm of death. Death poses as a great divider, separating Duffy and Henri. Yet, Duffy does not fully understand this distance, grappling with the concept through her engagement with the lexis of distance. Words such as ‘nearer’, ‘where’, ‘edge’, ‘stood’, ‘huge’ all define qualities of size and location, Duffy using these to articulate her loss. It is almost like Duffy transforms her physical loss into a spatial representation within the poem.
Another device that Duffy uses is consonance. Across key images, such as ‘Cold as cash’, Duffy uses this technique to solidify the brutality of the image. The unfriendliness of ‘cold’ is furthered by the harsh consonance of ‘c’, cutting through the line. Duffy uses moments such as these to create an unsettling and disrupted tone within Death and the Moon.
Death and the Moon Analysis
The moon is nearer than where death took you
and stretched, I could touch the edge of the moon.
The poet instantly focuses Death and the Moon on an image of ‘The moon’, posing as a melancholy symbol of night and the notion of death. Following this, Duffy connects with the semantics of distance, ‘nearer’, expressing her lack of understanding about ‘where death took you’. For Duffy, the abstract notion of death can only be expressed through the semantics of the physical, the poet relying on images of distance to conceptualize her loss.
The focus on ‘Cold’, both within ‘Cold as cash’ and also in ‘frozen pond’ gives an idea of deep melancholy. Cold is often a temperature associated with lack of energy and sadness, Duffy drawing upon this. Indeed, ‘Frozen pond’ with ‘fish’ inside could symbolize how Duffy’s world has seemed to stop. Death has impacted her so drastically that everything has slowed down to still. Water, normally an image of movement and joy, is frozen solid in the poem. Death has turned the world into a haunted ice landscape.
The use of the conditional tense, ‘I could touch the edge of the moon’, signals Duffy’s own self-doubt. She knows that she can never reach ‘the moon’, meaning she could never reach further. This means she will never reach that strange location ‘where death took you’. The use of the personal pronoun in the first line of the poem building on the personal elegy style. The poem is incredibly depressing, Duffy’s world transformed into a soft silence.
I stooped at the lip of your open grave
in the red cave of your widow’s unbearable cry,
Duffy extends the stillness of the first stanza into the opening of the second. The stagnant poet, ‘stooped at the lip of your open grave’ is watching the coffin in the funeral ceremony. The first instance of movement occurs when Duffy throws ‘a fistful of earth’ on the grave – burying her friend. The oxymoronic ‘hard rain’ and ‘tough confetti’ compound a sense of disbelief. The use of oxymoron presents conflicting emotions, Duffy unable to understand the death of her friend.
The contrast between the sound of the ‘wood’ as earth bounced upon it, compared to the silence of the body is moving. Duffy focuses on the semantics of the body, ‘your eyes, your tongue, your soundless ears’ all silent. Silence and stillness once again prevail in Death and the Moon.
Duffy presents contrasting reactions to the death, Marcangeli’s ‘unbearable cry’ and Duffy’s own ‘living sleep’. Both experience deep grief at Henri’s passing, but articulate it in different ways. The poet presents the funeral in snapshot images, at once surreal and moving.
and measured the space between last words
is huge, mute, and you are further forever than that.
Following the final words on the second and third lines of this stanza, ‘Unreachable’, ‘Unseeable’, Duffy uses enjambement. The long white space that expands beyond these enjambed words presents a sense of distance. Duffy extending the words onwards forever. By placing them syntactically last on these lines they are emphasized, brutal aural repetition further conveying the tragedy.
Images of ‘the moon’ resurface, its ‘light’ casting a ‘tender’ comfort on the scene. The moon is frequently a melancholic image, but here Duffy turns that into comfort, the watching presence a constant in everyone’s life. This perhaps poses contrast with human transience, the moon surviving forever while humanity will not.
The final image of Death and the Moon uses a mixture of enjambement and caesura to further the ideas. The decision of ‘black night’ creates a sense of emptiness, stretching outwards due to the use of enjambment. This is then combined with caesura following ‘huge, mute,’ to further the sense of separation. The metrical pauses which follow each of these words are depressing, each silence echoing the stillness of the first two stanzas. Even after all of this emptiness, ‘you are further forever than that’, the impossible enormity of death overwhelming the poet. The last line is incredibly moving, Duffy conveying the existential gap between the living and the dead.
Historical Context to Death and the Moon
Duffy had a 10-year relationship with Adrian Henri, the person this elegy is written about. Although about Henri, the dedication is to Catherine Marcangeli. Marcangeli was a long term friend of Duffy and also Henri’s partner. In this poem, Duffy consoles her friend while also remembering her past lover.
Death and the Moon is the final poem within Duffy’s ‘Feminine Gospels’ poetry anthology. In comes right after North-West, another poem that explores ideas of loss. Interestingly, Duffy uses similar images of the moon in this poem and The Light Gatherer, yet in that poem is it comforting, while here it is unsettling.