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. You can read the full poem here.
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
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 in 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 in 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
The poem concludes by references 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. 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.