Carol Ann Duffy is Scotland’s most famous contemporary female poet. She is the UK’s poet Laureate and is the first female to ever have held this distinguished position. Duffy often uses dark humour in her poems and writes in monologues filled with rhetorical questions which encourage the reader to try and see life through the eyes of the narrator (as is the case with Medusa.) She is a very clever poet who uses simple words in a complicated way, often to make political points. Here is an analysis of Medusa which is from her collection entitled The World’s Wife.
Form and Tone in Medusa
Medusa is a poem in free verse divided into 8 (mostly) equal stanzas. It employs many clever features. It is packed with rhymes and half rhymes which gives the poem an almost musical flow. It contains examples of sibilance (a form of alliteration) It uses tricolons, which are groups of three to emphasise emotions. The poem has a dark, almost gothic tone (no surprise with a title like Medusa) but is also tragic and Duffy skillfully creates sympathy for a character that could easily just be considered to be hideous in nature.
The poem, which can be read in full here, opens up with one of the aforementioned tricolons. This commonly used, rhetorical device is a tool to emphasise a point, in this case the emotions being felt by medusa, those pertaining to jealousy. The narrator then speaks metaphorically about how these emotions have turned her into a Medusa-like character. (Medusa was a character in Greek mythology with snakes for hair, that could turn a person to stone just by looking at them) in this first stanza Duffy uses the S-sound to make a reader imagine a hissing, the kind of noise one would associate with serpents.
In this stanza the narrator describes how they have become. All though she is seemingly describing her physical appearance it is clear she is actually talking about how she now perceives herself. I think it is obvious that her self-esteem is incredibly low. This low self-esteem gives the narrator a self-image of someone that has breath that “stinks” she uses another tricolon to describe her mouth. She then uses the oxymoron “bullet tears” this has the effect of helping portray the grim image that is being put across but softens the narrator so we can be sympathetic with them.
The first sentence in this stanza is short and sharp and addresses the reader directly. But could it be assumed from the next two lines that the reader is supposed to be her husband or partner? The narrator addresses the reader as the person they love and then describes them, again with three descriptors, as “perfect man, Greek God, my own.” Her jealousy then comes to fore as she states that she knows he (the reader) will betray her and so he is better off as stone. This is a terrifying statement. At this point we can only guess as to whether the narrator’s partner has been adulterous or if this is all in Medusa’s imagination. Perhaps history has told her that he will be unfaithful?
In this stanza it details medusa turning things into stone. You can see a pattern emerge as the objects she turns become more significant, starting with a bee and then a bird. The actual item that is turned to stone is described in an almost “happy” way a “buzzing bee”, a “singing bird” but then the reality hits as they become “dull grey pebbles” and “dusty gravel”. This paradox creates an interesting dynamic as the reader you get to see the comparison between the previously beautiful item and the horrid item it transforms into.
This stanza continues much in the vein of the previous, detailing the things medusa is turning to stone. Once again the things she is transforming grow in stature. There is some elements of black humour here as the cat turns to stone and shatters the dish it was drinking from and the pig is transformed into a boulder and rolls into a pile faeces. This humour helps to ease the tension after the drama of the third stanza and creates a lull before a further harrowing crescendo. In essence bringing the reader a slight calmness before the big scare, much like a horror director would.
Medusa takes a pause to reflect on herself. She blames her actions, these transformations, on love. Before highlighting another transformation, this time changing a dragon into a volcano. Throughout these transformations there is an interesting visual parallel between the original object and what it is turned into. You could sort of imagine a ginger cat being turned into a red brick and a dragon into a volcano.
In this stanza Duffy furthers the comparison between the narrator and the character of Medusa by describing the narrator’s partner in ways you’d associate with a Greek hero (in the original story of Medusa she was killed by Perseus). She makes the husband sound guarded, but at the same time like he is mean by describing his tongue as being like a sword. She then seemingly questioned why he has cheated, almost pleading by saying “wasn’t I beautiful” the use of the past tense is really interesting here and once again points to the low self-esteem of the narrator.
Look at me now.
Giving this line its own stanza makes it very impactful. It is very much a double entendre as it could be taken as the narrator pleading with their partner to look at them. Or it could be a threat as looking at Medusa would result in your death.
Summary of Medusa
I think that using the character of Medusa as a metaphor for a jealous lover was a stroke of genius. The metaphor works so well and through this comparison Duffy is able to really get at the heart of the feelings of a jealous person. Emphasising how it can ruin a person’s confidence and lure them to a place where they shun other people, or turn them to stone. The self-loathing littered throughout the poem is particularly tragic and once again highlights the effects that infidelity or suspected infidelity can have on a person’s life.