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.
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.
‘Medusa’ by Carol Ann Duffy contains several themes. There are themes such as jealousy, feminine dignity, and doubtfulness. The character of Medusa is a symbolic representation of jealousy in ancient Greek mythology. The physical attributes of Medusa depict how jealousy turns a person into a formidable and fierce creature. She can’t even have anyone around her as her eyes can turn them into stones. Despite the absence of human companionship, Medusa maintains her dignity. She knows that there are some things she can’t change. That’s why she has to be happy with what she actually has. Moreover, when she confronts her appearance, she becomes doubtful of her self gratification. The lines such as, “Wasn’t I beautiful?/ Wasn’t I fragrant and young?” reflect her doubtfulness.
Form and Tone
‘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.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
A suspicion, a doubt, a jealousy
hissed and spat on my scalp.
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.
My bride’s breath soured, stank
Are you terrified?
In this stanza, the narrator describes how they have become. Although 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.
So better be for me if you were stone.
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 the 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?
I glanced at a buzzing bee,
In this stanza, it details medusa turning things into stone. You can see a pattern emerge as the objects she turns to 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.
I looked at a ginger cat,
in a heap of shit.
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 are 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.
I stared in the mirror.
from the mouth of a mountain.
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.
And here you come
Wasn’t I fragrant and young?
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.
Feminism in Medusa
‘Medusa’ by Carol Ann Duffy is a feminist representation of the mythical character of Medusa. In the text, Medusa doesn’t stand on the negative side. Duffy projects her character, as someone who is suffering internally and finding an answer. Her appearance as well as her special power, in reality, make her a slave of loneliness. Moreover, the tone of the speaker doesn’t reflect any sense of disgust. Rather it depicts her doubtfulness about herself. Apart from that, Duffy, by using the symbol of Medusa, portrays those women who suffer just like the mythical character. In this poem, the poet highlights those who kept themselves hidden for the negative response of society. Moreover, the style of the poem closely resembles the form of a “gyno-text”. It makes the poem an ideal example of “L’ecriture feminine”.