If I Was Dead

Carol Ann Duffy

‘If I Was Dead’ describes the many deaths that love is able to return one to life from. From drowning to cremation, the speaker rises like Lazarus.

Carol Ann Duffy

Nationality: Scottish

Carol Ann Duffy is considered to be one of the most significant contemporary British writers.

She is recognized for her straightforward, unrelenting approach to gender issues.

If I Was Dead by Carol Ann Duffy is a seven-stanza poem made up of quatrains, or groups of four lines. The poem has no rhyme scheme, but does employ some repetition as the phrase, “if I was dead” is repeated a number of times, and each element (earth, air, wind, fire) is referenced. The poem has limited punctuation, and acts as one long sentence, only drawing to its conclusion in the last two stanzas.

If I Was Dead by Carol Ann Duffy


In this piece, the speaker of the poem, through seven stanzas, is answering her own “what if” scenario. She imagines herself experiencing all manner of deaths. At the beginning of the poem she sees herself buried, her bones drifting around through the earth, untethered.

She sees her skull as a conch shell on the bottom of the ocean, and her heart as mulch for a “red, red, rose.” She continues, completing her reference to all of earth’s elements, by describing death by cremation, her ashes thrown into “the face of the wind.” She imagines herself without control over life and death, her blind eyes at the base of the flowers.

The last two stanzas conclude the piece and the statement. She says that even if she was dead, her lover’s love would raise her from the grave, and return her to flesh and blood. She would be like Lazarus, the legendary man from the bible, and the lover, like Jesus, raising her from the dead. She would return hungry, for “your living kiss.”

If I Was Dead Analysis

Stanza One

Throughout this piece, Duffy’s speaker makes a number of statements that begin with the phrase, “If I was dead,” the first occurs as the poem’s opening line.

She continues after this line to describe the state of her body if she was dead, and her,

bones [were] adrift

like dropped oars

She brings attention to her bones, the parts of herself which are physically the strongest. She weakens them and romanticizes them. If she was dead and her bones were let go into the earth, they would float adrift like oars that were dropped from the side of a boat.

She has imagined herself buried and her bones drifting freely into the earth. They do not stay contained to the place in which she would be buried. This statement is not finished but continues into the second stanza without ending.

Stanza Two

In stanza two she continues her statement, now adding, if she were to be drowned. In this case, her skull is on the bottom of the ocean, acting as a conch shell. She is imagining this different scenario of a death at sea, where her skull has become part of the surroundings. It acts as

a listening shell

on the dark ocean bed;

Often it is said that by listening to a conch shell one can hear the ocean. The reader can wonder, what one hears from a conch when it is itself in the ocean. The statement is still unfinished.

Stanza Three

Once more, she asks at the beginning of this third stanza, “if I was dead.” In this instance, she sees another important part of herself, her heart. The imagined source of love and emotion in the body. She sees it as

soft mulch

for a red, red rose;

She is again buried and her heart, as would the rest of her, becomes part of the earth. It decays, and invigorates the earth, allowing a rose to grow from it. Another widely symbolic image of love.

Stanza Four

As her long statement continues, she experiences another resolution to her life in the fourth stanza. In this case, her body is cremated, it is burned after death. After her death and cremation, the “grit” that she has become is taken and “thrown / in the face of the wind.”

By this point, Duffy has gone through all of the elements. She has experienced earth, air, water, and fire. She has been buried with her bones drifting through the soil, drowned, with her skull a “listening shell,” she has been cremated in a fire and then thrown into the air. She is becoming in all these instances different parts of the earth. Her body is returning, one way or another, to that from which it came and she gives the reader an experience of each way of returning.

Stanza Five

This fifth stanza is the last time she begins with, “if I was dead.” In this case, she returns to the element of earth. She is again buried and her eyes, blind and unseeing, are at the “…roots of flowers.” She is nothing but a memory, without impact or volition in the world.

Stanza Six

It is at this point that the poem makes a turn and the reader begins to understand where this long sentence has been heading. It is helpful before reading this stanza to remember how much she has gone through, and say to oneself before reading the next eight lines, “If I was dead.”

The speaker swears, if this was the case, “your love”

would raise me

out of my grave

After finally beginning the ending of the poem, the reader understands that even if she was dead, in all of the many ways that she has listed, this undefined lover would be able to raise her from the grave. Even, as she stated, if she was drowned, burnt, or buried. She makes clear in the fourth line of this stanza that she is not returning as a spirit but as “flesh and blood.” A full and complete human being.

Stanza Seven

The poem concludes by referencing Lazarus, and her own returned human nature.

Lazarus of Bethany is the legendary man mentioned in the bible who Jesus raises from the dead, four days after his death. She is drawing a comparison between her lover, and the power of Jesus Christ. This is an impactful metaphor fitting for this piece.

She has returned from the dead and is once again experiencing all of the joys of humanity. She is hungry for all manner of things, “for this, and this, and this.” These undefined things for which she is desiring are unnamed, but because the poem concludes with, “your living kiss,” one may infer from the repetition of “this” that each is representing a kiss. Just as one might kiss the cheeks and lips of one’s lover, so follows the pattern of the words at the ending of this piece, each a chaste brush of the lips.

She draws further comparison at the ending of this piece to fairytales, in which a sleeping princess is awoken from sleep, or in this case, a much darker death, by a kiss.

About Carol Ann Duffy

Carol Ann Duffy was born in Scotland in 1955 and grew up around her four younger brothers. She went to school at Liverpool University and received a degree in Philosophy. Throughout her life, she has worked as a reviewer, critic, and editor of anthologies, alongside her publishing of numerous books of poetry. She was made Britain’s Poet Laureate in May of 2009 and is the first lesbian poet to ever hold this position.

Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.

Join the Poetry Chatter and Comment

Exclusive to Poetry+ Members

Join Conversations

Share your thoughts and be part of engaging discussions.

Expert Replies

Get personalized insights from our Qualified Poetry Experts.

Connect with Poetry Lovers

Build connections with like-minded individuals.

Sign up to Poetry+
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Got a question? Ask an expert.x

We're glad you like visiting Poem Analysis...

We've got everything you need to master poetry

But, are you ready to take your learning

to the next level?

Share to...