‘Salome’ is one of many popular poems published in Duffy’s well-loved volume, The World’s Wife. It was her fifth collection of poetry, published in 1999 by Anvil Press Poetry. All the poems focus on women from history or mythology and present their stories through a feminist lens. They are always the counterparts of famous male figures/characters. Other poems in this collection include ‘Mrs. Midas‘ and ‘Anne Hathaway.’
The first lines of the poem, which begin the dramatic monologue, quickly depict Salome’s feelings regarding the death ofJohn the Baptist. She’s unmoved by it. His head is there near her bed, and she couldn’t really care less about who he was or the fact that she was complicit in his death. She briefly attempts to remember his name before thinking about breakfast. She ends the poem by noting the fact that her bed is sticky with blood. The ending implies that this is more of an annoyance than anything else.
Myth of Salome
Salome was the daughter of Herodias and is remembered as the cause of John the Baptist’s execution. In the Gospels of Mark, it’s written that John the Baptist was imprisoned by Herod Antipas but was too afraid to have him executed. That evening, Salome danced for Herod, and he promised to give her anything she wanted. The girl chose the head of John the Baptist as her reward. She had been prompted by her mother, whose marriage John had condemned. Herod had to behead John, and he presented his head to Salome, who gave it to her mother.
Structure and Form
‘Salome’ by Carol Ann Duffy is a five-stanza poem separated into uneven sets of lines. The first and last stanzas have four lines, and the middle three stanzas have nine each. The poem does not follow a specific rhyme scheme, but there are several instances of rhyme within the stanzas. For example, “better” and “butter” in stanza three and “blighter” and “slaughter” in stanza four.
Duffy makes use of several literary devices in ‘Salome.’ These include but are not limited to:
- Metaphor: a comparison that doesn’t use “like” or “as.” For example, “Colder than pewter” used to describe John the Baptist at the end of stanza one.
- Simile: a comparison that uses “like” or “as.” For example, “who’d come like a lamb to the slaughter” in stanza four. This one is particularly effective, considering the biblical allusion that’s also a part of it.
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet uses the same consonant sounds at the beginning of lines. For example, “done” and “doubtless” in line one of the first stanza as well as “several shades” in line two of the second stanza.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
I’d done it before (and doubtless I’ll do it again, sooner or later)
what did it matter?
In the first lines of ‘Salome,’ the speaker, Salome herself, alludes to her behavior at the dance. She woke up “with a head on the pillow” beside her, something that didn’t bother her at all. What, she wonders, “did it matter?” Immediately it’s clear that this version of Salome is deeply cynical. She doesn’t care about the life she took.
Good-looking, of course, dark hair, rather matted;
the reddish beard several shades lighter;
Colder than pewter.
Strange. What was his name? Peter?
The next lines describe the head and provide the reader with more information about how Salome processes this situation. She analyzes the head in a detached manner. She notes the hair color, how matted it is, and the beard. She thinks perhaps that the mouth is creased with wrinkles from smiling and laughing. This is something that should bother anyone else, but she doesn’t seem concerned by it.
Salome thinks that his name may have been “Peter,” but she isn’t sure. It doesn’t matter to her at this moment. When she kissed him, his lips her “Colder than pewter,” a metal used by wealthy people during her presumed lifetime.
Simon? Andrew? John? I knew I’d feel better
for tea, dry toast, no butter,
so rang for the maid.
hungover and wrecked as I was from a night on the batter.
She considers a few more names but moves on quickly to thinking about breakfast. She’s recovering from her night drinking and the murder that she’s complicit in. This again reiterates how insensitive she is to the situation. She isn’t really bothered about the man’s life. The rhymes continue into the next lines with words like “clatter” and “platter.” The speaker also describes the maid as “regional,” suggesting that she’s different from the speaker. She comes from somewhere else.
I needed to clean up my act,
who’d come like a lamb to the slaughter
to Salome’s bed.
In the fourth stanza, the speaker suggests that she’s “Never again!” going to make the same mistakes that she made last time. She needs to “clean up [her] act.” This contemporary-sounding language creates an interesting juxtaposition against her biblical story. It continues into the next lines with “booze and the fags and the sex.”
Salome refers to herself in the third person at the end of this stanza. This asserts her power as a woman capable of sleeping with a man and then tossing him out. They come to her “like a lamb to the slaughter.” This well-known simile has clear biblical connections. It also creates another contrast with her sin and John the Baptist’s holiness.
In the mirror, I saw my eyes glitter.
was his head on a platter.
The final stanza is only four lines long. She looks into her mirror, sees her own eyes, and flings back the sheets. There, in her bed, is a huge mess from the night before. Blood covers the sheets, turning them “sticky” and “red.” John’s head is there on a “platter,” just like she wished at the beginning of her story.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Salome’ should also consider reading some other Carol Ann Duffy poems. For example:
- ‘The Map-Woman’ – uses a metaphorical depiction of the female body to describe how inescapable identity is.
- ‘The Laughter of Stafford Girls’ High’ – explores women’s freedom and the strength of their voices. It is a mock-epic.
- ‘The Light Gatherer’ – explores motherhood and the happiness a child can bring. The latter is represented by light.
- ‘‘Education for Leisure’ – depicts the mindset of a young person preparing to commit murder.