Mrs. Midas by Carol Ann Duffy

‘Mrs. Midas’ by Carol Ann Duffy is an eleven stanza poem that is separated into sets of six lines or sextets. It is in the form of a dramatic monologue, a style of writing that Duffy engaged in frequently. There is a single speaker, in this case the wife of the mythological King Midas, known for his god-given ability to turn anything he touched into gold. This piece is one of a few included in her The World’s Wife Collection (published in 1999). It focuses, as do the others, on women unrecognized by history. Duffy creates a story for this character, refocusing the past from the female perspective. 

 

Rhyme 

The lines do not follow a regular pattern of rhyme, but there are a few moments in which the end rhymes are perfect, or are connected due to assonance or consonance. This is the use and reuse of vowel or constant sounds. It results in half or slant rhymes. Duffy chose to make use of these scattered instances of rhyme in order to provide the text with some rhythmic unity, but not get bogged down by a particular structure. This technique also ensures that the focus remains on the narrative and the female speaker. 

Some examples of these rhymes in action can be found at the end of the second stanza and the beginning of the third. The words “tree” and “gleamed” are connected due to the long “e” sound. There are also moments within the lines themselves. Such as that between “wine” and “unwind” in lines one and two of the first stanza. Consonance is also present in this same section, in the words “filled” and “smell,” the double “l” repeats itself noticeably. 

 

Other Poetic Techniques in Mrs. Midas

Alliteration is another common technique. It occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. There are examples throughout ‘Mrs. Midas’ but in the second stanza reader might notice the repetition of words beginning with “p” such as “pluck” and “pear” and “putting.” This lends the poem an extra amount of rhythm and structure. Stanza four is another great example. These moments, in which the tension is building as the speaker realizes her husband’s power, are enhanced by the alliteration. 

Enjambment occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. It forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. This technique is scattered all over the text. It appears in all the stanzas. One example is the transition between lines five and six of the third stanza. Here, a reader must go down to the sixth line to see what Mrs. Midas is going to say. 

You can read the full poem here.

 

Summary of Mrs. Midas

‘Mrs. Midas’ by Carol Ann Duffy is a dramatic monologue spoken from the perspective of Midas’ wife. It details the aftermath of his granted wish. 

The poem begins with the speaker preparing a normal meal. Everything is as it should be until she sees something odd outside. Her husband is there, picking apples and twigs from the tree. It appears as if they are glowing. He comes inside, the doorknobs gleam, and he touches his wine glass. It immediately turns to gold.

She is shocked and horrified by his granted wish. There is nothing about it that she sees as miraculous or wonderful. Rather, she sends him to a different room and eventually drives him out to the woods where he has to live by himself. 

His “gift” has ruined his life and violently disrupted the speaker’s. She is forced to move on, after a time. Mrs. Midas is left with only her memories of him. 

 

Analysis of Mrs. Midas 

Stanza One

In the first stanza of ‘Mrs. Midas’  the speaker begins by telling the reader that it was late September when the following events occurred. She had just poured some wine, in an attempt to “unwind” from the day. This woman, who the title reveals to the be the wife of the mythological King Midas from Ovid’s Metamorphosis, is acting as any other housewife would. She is cooking dinner, standing in the kitchen and trying to relax. 

Duffy personifies the kitchen by describing it as having “steamy breath” that fogs up the windows. It is emitting its own smell, something attached to this speaker’s everyday life. At this point, this woman could be anyone. 

She goes to the window and opens it. There “he” is. Her husband is standing outside “under the pear tree snapping a twig.” This is a strange way to introduce someone, but it makes sense in the larger scheme of things. 

 

Stanza Two 

The speaker admits that it was dark outside and that the “visibility” was poor, but she knows what she saw. When he held the branch in his hand it “was gold.” She describes the kind of pears they grew in their garden, but it doesn’t matter to Midas who plucks a pear from the tree, turning it gold as well. 

The speaker isn’t too concerned about what he’s doing and half-heartedly wonders if he’s putting “fairy lights in the tree.” She does not yet realize the gift that he has been given.


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Stanza Three

Her husband comes into the house in the third stanza and the “doorknobs gleamed.” They too were turned to gold. There is a vague reference in this line to something the speaker learned in school, the “Field of the Cloth and Gold.” It connects to the building of temporary palaces in Calais, France in 1520. 

The image of kings and royalty continues into the next lines as her husband sits down to eat. He is like a king at the table. His chair is a “burnished throne” and he has a strange and “wild” look on his face. This is his physical reaction to realizing that his wish has come true. The speaker on the other hand still doesn’t know what’s going on. She asks what “in the name of God is going on?” He doesn’t answer right away, instead, he laughs, keeping his secret to himself a little longer. 

 

Stanza Four

Rather than interrogate him further, she decides to serve the meal in the fourth stanza of ‘Mrs. Midas.’ There is corn first, and he devours it. This is meant to make the couple seem normal, but in a few seconds, everything is going to change for them. Before any time has passed at all he’s spitting out the “teeth” of the corn. They are now “the teeth of the rich.” This metaphor compares the golden, teeth-shaped pieces of corn to something richer, teeth made of gold. They would only belong to the very wealthy. 

Before the pleasure of the gift is fully explored, the speaker is confronted with one of the biggest negatives. Truly, anything he touches turns to gold. There is tension building in the scene, something that is enhanced when Duffy uses the phrase “where was the wine.” The intense alliteration here makes the scene more serious. 

Her husband takes the wine, drinks, and all of a sudden it is not a simple glass, it is a “golden chalice.” The change happens quickly, a fact that Duffy illustrates with the use of commas and another prominent alliterative phrase, “glass, goblet, golden chalice.”

 

 

Stanza Five 

Rather than sit in amazement of his new talent, the speaker starts to scream. She is immediately worried about what this power is going to mean. He is on his knees, and she sends him to the other side of the room where he can’t touch her. The cat is locked in the “cellar” and she moved the phone out of the way. These are her priorities. In a moment of humour, Duffy’s speaker adds that she doesn’t mind if the toilet is transformed. 

 

Stanza Six 

There is a clever play on words in the next lines as the speaker considers the ridiculousness of their situation. She says, “granted,” everyone has a wish. But, only a few have “wishes granted.” It seems obvious now that, of course, her husband, who she thinks is a fool, had to get from the gods what he wanted. 

Her next thoughts show off her practicality, a feature that makes her very relatable. She considers gold, and the good it will really do for her and those around her. It does nothing really. It doesn’t feed anyone. She is wondering, what is really the use of this power?There is another moment of humour as the speaker muses on the fact that finally, her husband is going to be able to give up smoking. 

 

Stanza Seven 

Without any introduction or explanation, the seventh stanza of ‘Mrs. Midas’  begins with the two-word statement: “Separate beds.” This is something which really should go without saying. There’s no way they could sleep together. But clearly, the speaker is worried that he’s going to try something. She puts her “chair against” the door. She is using the words “near petrified.” This is another interesting phrase as it relates to the state she would be in if she were touched by her husband’s hand. 

Her terror goes on upstairs, while below her, her husband is turning the bedroom into the “tomb of Tutankhamen.” This works in two different ways. King Tut’s tomb is known today for its riches, but at the same time, it is still a tomb. The fact that the bedroom is becoming one symbolizes the end of their relationship. 

This change of circumstances is not welcomed by the speaker. She would rather not sleep in separate rooms. She tells the reader that at this point in their marriage they were quite happy with one another and spent many hours “unwrapping each other.” Duffy makes use of a simile comparing their bodies and clothes to fast food that one tears into greedily. 

His “honeyed embrace” is not longed for now. She fears that any kiss from him would turn her lips “to….art.” She would become the petrified one, immediately transformed into a golden statue. 

 

Stanza Eight

Duffy flips a familiar metaphor on its head in the eighth stanza of ‘Mrs. Midas.’ The saying “heart of gold” takes on a very different meaning. It is no longer something to strive for, but rather fear. She worries all night about what’s going to happen next. It is also made clear to the reader that there is one thing plaguing her mind more than anything, that she isn’t going to get to have a child. 

When she imagines it now, she sees it with “amber eyes” and “ore limbs.” Her breath will not hold milk and she’s going to have to keep her child in her dreams. Two more examples of alliteration appear in the last lines here with “streaming sun” and “burned…breasts.” 

 

Stanza Nine

Although she mourned (briefly) the loss of the relationship there is nothing to be done about it. She states bluntly that he “had to move out.” She needed him out of the house as quickly as possible. They get in the car and she takes him into the woods, somewhere she thinks he can’t hurt anyone. 

It was dark when they drove, and he sat in the back as if trying to hide. After passing him off to his new home, she sees herself as “the woman who married the fool / who wished for gold.” His gift appears to be more of a burden on her than on him. There was a brief period where she went to go visit him. When she did so, she parked the car “a good way off,” just in case something went wrong. 

 

Stanza Ten

When she approached the campsite, there was always evidence to let her know that she was getting close. There would be animals transformed and glistening footprints near the river. When she saw him, he was in a sad state. He had thinned and appeared delirious. Her husband told her that he heard the “music of Pan / from the woods.” Pan was another Greek god, one associated with music, the woods, shepherds and by necessity, isolation. 

A reader should consider the fact that Midas got everything he ever wanted, and its presence in his life ruined him. He could be rich beyond all measure, but he is poor, alone and losing his mental faculties. 

 

Stanza Eleven

In the last six lines of ‘Mrs. Midas’  the speaker expresses her irritation over his lack of consideration for what would happen to their relationship. She sees his wish as being nothing but selfish self-indulgence. Rather than sticking around in the history of their lives together she decided to sell the house and move. 

There are times now in which she still thinks of him. His memory comes to her when the light is placed in one particular way, or when she sees a bowl of apples. Of all the things she misses, the most prominent in her mind is his hands. 

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  • Avatar H Goaman says:

    Fine summary. But, totally insufficient analysis in that it does not mention the source text even once – Ovid, Metamorphoses, 11.84 ff.

    The poem is almost meaningless without comparison to the Ovid.

    First, none of the references make any sense without considering the source text, and hence they are ignored by the analysis above. The wine is from “Italy”, gold is referred to as “aurum”, and so on, which all alludes back to the poem’s Latin source text. The “golden twig” is a reference to Ovid, who in turn was referring to the Golden Bough of Aeneas (Aeneid 6), which allowed him to travel safely through the underworld. In the Duffy, the Golden Bough has undergone its own change, or ‘metamorphosis’, from Oak tree/ holly (Ilex) into a pear tree.

    The reference to Pan in stanza 10 is crucial. In Ovid’s version of the myth, Midas, after Bacchus has saved him from turning everything he touches to gold, foolishly intervenes in a singing competition between Pan and Apollo. Timolus, the judge, declared Apollo the winner, but was overruled by Midas, who was hiding behind a rock. Midas’ punishment from Apollo was that he was given the ears of an ass. The “final straw” in the Duffy refers to the fact that some reeds spring up in the Ovid (from where Midas’ hairdresser has shouted his terrible secret into the earth) which sing of Midas’ donkey ears.

    Of course, the key element of the Duffy poem is that she chooses to focus on Midas’ wife. In the much longer Ovidian version, Midas’ wife is not mentioned at all. Hence, this poem appears in Duffy’s “The World’s Wife” collection, giving a voice to the previously silenced woman.

    There is clearly much more to be said, but I thought it worth pointing out the basics of how this excellent poem ‘receives’ its classical source. Also, worth comparing this approach with Hughes’ rather different rendering of the Midas myth in ‘Tales From Ovid’.

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      Thank you for this. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your critique. You clearly have terrific subject knowledge! As someone who used to write frequentky for the site I know from experience that context is so vital. And unless you knew better (which to be frank, I didn’t) it would have seemed like a safe bet to relate the poem to the midas myth in general, but as you point out without using this particualr version it loses it’s meaning. This is really helpful info and i’m so thankful our readers will get to see it. In fact you have inspired me to learn how to use our sites upvote system to give your message the credit it deserves.

    • Avatar maria says:

      I couldn’t agree more!

      After having seen various detailed (line by line) analyses of this poem, I was surprised that none mentioned the very specific references to Ovid’s version of the Myth.

      I’m glad I found your comment 🙂

      • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

        This is why the comments section is so important. That and it gives me a chance to poke fun at trolls.

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