‘Delilah’ is one of many popular poems published in Duffy’s well-loved volume, The World’s Wife. ‘Delilah‘ was her fifth collection of poetry, published in 199 by Anvil Press Poetry. All the poems focus on women from history of mythology and present their stories through a feminist lens. They are always the counterparts of famous male figures/characters. Other poems in this collection include ‘Mrs. Midas,’ ‘Anne Hathaway,’ and ‘Medusa.’
The Myth of Delilah
‘Delilah’ was inspired by the story of Samson and Delilah from the Bible. Samson, described in the Book of Judges, was a Nazirite who was given inhumane strength. This allowed him to perform feats that other people could only dream of. He famously killed a lion with his bare hands and destroyed it as a Philistine army. In the most relevant part of the story, he was betrayed by his lover, Delilah, who the Philistines sent to seduce him. She ordered a servant to cut his hair and gouged out his eyes. He was forced to labour until his hair regrew. This allowed the Philistines to take over the temple of Dagon.
The poem describes the relationship the two had in new terms. It focuses on how unhealthy Samson’s concerns with his strength and image are while also showing a tender side of him. Delilah narrates the poem, giving her power that the original biblical story did not give her. She chooses to cut his hair, despite what they might’ve shared with one another, and she refuses to be judged by anyone for that choice. She was the only one there. She knew what they went through and felt.
Structure and Form
‘Delilah’ by Carol Ann Duffy is an eight-stanza poem that is divided into uneven sets of lines. The first stanza has six lines, the second: nine, the third: six, the fourth: ten, the fifth: one, the sixth: seven, the seventh: one, and the eighth: two. Duffy also chose to write this poem in free verse. This means that it does not make use of a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. But, that doesn’t mean the poem is entirely without rhyme. In fact, there are a number of examples. For instance, “said” and “bed” at the ends of lines one and two of the first stanza and “shower” and “hour” in stanza four.
Duffy uses several literary devices in ‘Delilah.’ These include but are not limited to:
- Allusion: this entire poem is an allusion to the biblical story of Samson and Delilah. See above for more details.
- Alliteration: seen through the repetition of consonant sounds. For example, “we were” in stanza one and “wound” and “war” in stanza three.
- Enjambment: seen through the line breaks. For example, the transition between lines six and seven of the first stanza.
- Anachronism: an example can be found in the sixth stanza of the poem when Duffy uses the word “biblical.”
Teach me, he said—
we were lying in bed—
He sat up and reached for his beer
In the first lines of ‘Delilah,’ Samson asks her to teach him “how to care.” This is an immediate diversion from the original story that only portrays Samson as strong, without any need for tender emotion. Delilah is with him in bed, likely pre or post-sex. Despite his asking for her advice about caring and love, he soon leans away from her to get his beer. Through this line, Duffy is reaffirming the character’s stereotypically male features. His interest in romance is short-lived.
I can rip out the roar
There’s nothing I fear.
Put your hand here—
In the second stanza, Samson starts to go through the various stories that defined his legacy. He brags about his strength and all the inhuman accomplishments he had. He did things like “flay the bellowing fur / from a bear” just because someone dared him to. In his eyes, this makes him far more impressive. He is used to these stories impressing the people he’s around, but he doesn’t know Delilah’s true intentions. She’s not the same as everyone else. Readers should take note of Duffy’s consistent use of enjambment in these lines. This helps control the pace at which a reader moves through the lines and conveys Samson’s words more realistically.
he guided my fingers over the scar
over his heart,
What is the cure?
The third stanza is only six lines long and describes how Samsom moved Delilah’s hand to his heart. This is, again, a brief gesture of true emotion and intimacy. But it doesn’t last long. Rather than speaking about emotion, the narrative turns to his battle wounds. He says that he “cannot be gentle, or loving, or tender.” He has to “be strong.” It appears that Samson is trapped in the version of himself that people want to see; whether or not this is actually a problem for him is unclear at this point. It’s more likely he’s telling her what he thinks she wants to hear. He asks her, “What’s the cure?” This implies that there’s something wrong with him that could be fixed if only he knew the answer. Between this stanza and the next is a very striking shift in tone. His gentleness is quickly replaced by lust and a need for power.
He fucked me again
until he was sore,
And, yes, I was sure
that he wanted to change,
Duffy describes their sex in the next lines, briefly telling the reader how Samson ended up “sore” after the two slept together. This is an interesting reversal of male/female roles, suggesting again that Samson is not entirely the person he seems to be. He’s someone who should, according to the stories, not ever get “sore.” Since Delilah’s emotions aren’t mentioned in these lines, aside from her first-person narration, it’s clear that Duffy is trying to emphasize how little this relationship is for her benefit. The sex act was for Samson’s pleasure alone.
They showered, and he put his head in her lap, another moment of tenderness that isn’t going to last. The following lyrical line suggests that they can only be tender together, with Samson setting aside some of his masculine exterior when it’s dark. He “wanted to change,” Delilah thinks. There is something in him that wants to be different. The use of the phrase “my warrior” on her part does imply that she has emotions for him. She’s not the heartless traitor that she’s made out to be in the original story.
Stanzas Five and Six
I was there.
So when I felt him soften and sleep,
when he started, as usual, to snore,
I fastened the chain to the door.
The fifth stanza is only one line and three words long. She says, “I was there.” This is a way of proving that she is the only one who knows for sure what he was like. No one can tell her she’s wrong about him because She “was there.”
But, just as the original story plays out, once he’s asleep, she starts cutting off his hair. There are some good examples of alliteration in these lines with “slip and slide and sprawl” and “handsome and huge.” By using the word “biblical” in this stanza, Duffy is inserting an example of an anachronism or an error in a timeline. This is purposeful and meant to allude to the importance of this moment in biblical history. Delilah shouldn’t be aware of its importance, but she is.
Stanzas Seven and Eight
That’s the how and the why and the where.
I cut every lock of his hair.
Despite the love she may have felt for him, she went ahead with her task. She cut his hair until history played itself out like it was supposed to. She tries in stanza seven to justify herself. She was the one who had to sleep with him and came to know him. So, she’s the only one who can really pass judgment on what she did. This gives her a power she wouldn’t otherwise have.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Delilah’ should also consider reading 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.