‘Warming Her Pearls’ by Carol Ann Duffy is a sensual poem in which a servant girl reveals her love for her mistress, as she describes wearing her pearls throughout the day so that they are ‘warm’ for her mistress to wear that evening. This was a common practice in Edwardian and Victorian England because the luster of pearls was seemingly improved by body heat. It was after hearing this piece of trivia from a friend that Duffy felt inspired to write this poem.
Explore Warming Her Pearls
‘Warming Her Pearls’ by Carol Ann Duffy is a beautiful love poem that describes the relationship between the poet and her mistress. From the beginning of the poem, it is clear that the poet shares her pearl necklace during the daytime and at night her beloved wears them. There is a warmth of love in her heart, rather in her body, and a pacification of to be loved, ceaselessly, in the beloved’s heart. Mutually, they cherish the moments together and carry on with their relationship, unseen or unheard. Moreover, the poet misses her badly. She wants intimacy whereas her beloved wants secrecy. The hungry haste of a river inside the poet’s heart doesn’t titillate the passions of the sea-like mistress. For this reason, the poet, burdened with stones of her lover’s passivity, says, “I burn”.
You can read the full poem here.
‘Warming Her Pearls’ by Carol Ann Duffy is a dramatic monologue in which readers are privy to the private thoughts of the servant girl, as she ruminates longingly about the lady for whom she works. The poem is set out in six stanzas of four lines each. Most lines contain ten syllables although some are eleven or twelve. This could suggest an overflowing of emotions from the servant as she dreams of her mistress. However, there is no rhyme scheme in the poem.
The language is rich in comparisons and contrast, tactile imagery and alliteration and assonance. The frequent use of caesura and enjambment means that the rhythm is often disrupted, again indicating feelings of disquiet in the servant. Moreover, it is worth noting here the connotations of the word “mistress”, meaning both one’s superior or one’s illicit sexual partner.
‘Warming Her Pearls’ by Carol Ann Duffy contains several literary devices. Likewise, there is a tautology in the phrase, “my own skin” of the first line. The “pearls” itself present a metaphor. It is the symbol of their love, pure and fragile. Apart from that, the poet makes use of enjambment for internally connecting the lines. There is hyperbole in the line, “All day I think of her”. In the second stanza, there is a metonymy in “Yellow Room. The poet uses synecdoche in the usage of the words “silk” and “taffeta”. Moreover, there is a personal metaphor in the phrase, “my slow heat”. Here, the poet also uses personification. The poet uses a simile in the lines, “watch the soft blush seep through her skin/ like an indolent sigh.”
‘Warming Her Pearls’ by Carol Ann Duffy contains the themes of love, secrecy, passion, sexuality, and equality. Being a love poem, the text doesn’t deviate from the main theme. It’s all about the purity of their relationship and trust. They are in a relationship that externally runs slowly and silently. But internally, it makes the poet restless. She burns each night for the absence of her beloved’s aroma. Moreover, there is secrecy in their relationship. They keep themselves aloof from the passionate overflow of sexual desires. Apart from that, the passion for which the poet talks in the poem is different from manly passion. There is sweetness in their wants and serenity in their demands.
Most importantly, the theme of equality is there in this poem. The love story of the poet and her mistress is about two souls, equal in their desires and dignity. The only difference is that the partner is slow in her response and the poet is passionate in her thoughts.
Analysis of Warming Her Pearls
Next to my own skin, her pearls. My mistress
round her cool, white throat. All day I think of her,
In ‘Warming Her Pearls’ by Carol Ann Duffy, the intimacy of the relationship between servant girl and mistress is evident in the first line, ‘Next to my own skin, her pearls.’ It is impossible to read these words quickly; we feel how the girl savors the feeling of the necklace against her ‘own skin’. The use of the possessive pronouns placed together seems to load this act with meaning.
We have an immediate sense of the physical closeness between these women, although they are divided by class, their daily lives are entwined in the intimate gestures they share. Again there is sensuousness in the language, “My mistress/ bids me wear them, warm them, until evening/ When I brush her hair.”
The long alliterative ‘w’ sounds are soft and combined with the repetition of ‘them’ hints that the girl is aware of the pearls, reminding her of her mistress as she feels their weight against her skin. They make her feel close to her mistress as she wears them, as she has been instructed. Then she will transfer them over as she helps the lady of the house with her ‘toilette’ and places them around her ‘cool white throat’.
The fact the throat is white is another indication of class distinction since the upper classes did not need to work outdoors and thus remained pale, while others who toiled outdoors acquired a suntan.
It seems almost unnecessary to include the final sentence of this stanza: All day I think of/her because we already have the impression that the mistress is the servant’s object of desire, thus constantly monopolizing her thoughts.
resting in the Yellow Room, contemplating silk
each pearl. Slack on my neck, her rope.
‘Warming Her Pearls’ by Carol Ann Duffy describes the daily occupations of the lady in the second stanza. She has weighty decisions to take while she rests in the Yellow Room, ‘which gown tonight?’ The capitalization of the rooms suggests that there are many in the house, perhaps there is also a ‘Blue Room’ and a ‘Red Room’. Certainly, there is wealth and prestige because she is ‘contemplating silk or taffeta’ which are luxurious fabrics.
The image of the mistress as ‘she fans herself” while her servant “work (s) willingly’ could be seen as sensual. Does the mistress experience these erotic thoughts too, and is thus fanning herself to quell her feelings?
Duffy now gives us the very sensual image of the servant as she works ‘my slow heat entering each pearl.’ There is something animalistic about this, as though she is marking the necklace with her warmth, her heat, her scent. The girl admits that she is happy to ‘work willingly’ such is her desire to please. The next line: ‘Slack on my neck, her rope’ suggests that the mistress has quite literally held on to her servant, as she is in the position of power, but her servant is also so enthralled by her that she wants to do her bidding.
She’s beautiful. I dream about her
beneath her French perfume, her milky stones.
The servant of ‘Warming Her Pearls’ is open about her admiration, indeed fixation, with the lady. The opening short sentence ‘She’s beautiful’ requires no elaboration; it is a fact. When she is out, dancing with ‘tall men’ her servant dreams that she will be distracted by her scent upon the pearls. She wants her mistress to be ‘puzzled by my faint, persistent scent’. This is a clever use of oxymoron to show the lingering quality of the musk which infuses the pearls.
Just as she spends her time fantasizing about her mistress, she wants this feeling to be mutual. The strength of her attraction is mirrored by her scent which is evident despite the “French perfume’. The reader feels sorry for the servant girl, relegated to her ‘attic bed’ while her mistress is out dancing, dressed in her finery.
The metaphor used at the end of this stanza to describe the pearls as ‘her milky stones’ gives them another distinctly feminine, earthy quality. It makes them appear more porous, as though they will easily absorb her heat and warmth.
I dust her shoulders with a rabbit’s foot,
my red lips part as though I want to speak.
This stanza of ‘Warming Her Pearls’ shows us more of the intimate rituals that take place between the women: “I dust her shoulders with a rabbit’s foot,/ Watch the soft blush seep through her skin”. Moreover, the sibilant ‘s’ sounds and long assonance of ‘seep’ suggest a sense of pleasure from this encounter.
The reader wonders how firm these strokes from a ‘rabbit’s foot’ must be if they cause such a blush on the firm skin of her shoulders. She uses the simile ‘like an indolent sigh’ which suggests a sigh of pleasure. The experience is a sensual one for the servant, and unconvincingly it isn’t for her mistress too. It is now thought that readers get the first indications of the servant’s frustration. She wants to give voice to her passion, but cannot. There is something undeniably sensual in this image of her red lips caught in the looking-glass. They ‘part’ but she stops herself from disclosing how she feels.
Full moon. Her carriage brings her home. I see
for the case, slipping naked into bed, the way
The fifth stanza of ‘Warming Her Pearls’ opens with a two-word sentence “Full moon’. The image of a full moon is synonymous with sexuality and femininity. The mistress is delivered back to the grand house in her carriage and we imagine her servant listening as the door slams and imagining her every move. There is again a sense of ritual as she takes the jewels off and returns them to the case. There is the sense that the connection is lost, while the servant dreams of her she replaces the pearls and snaps the case shut, signifying that their relationship is nothing more than that of a typical mistress and servant.
she always does… And I lie here awake,
I feel their absence and I burn.
In ‘Warming Her Pearls’, the ellipsis in line two and line one of the last stanzas shows how she savors every image in her head as her mistress disrobes, before: “slipping naked into bed, the way/ She always does…”
The use of enjambment here shows the girl relishing these images before the ellipsis brings in a more wistful tone as she keenly feels her solitude. She is alone without even the comfort of the pearls which ‘are cooling’ downstairs. She is trapped in the torment of unrequited love, summed up effectively in the last sentence: “All night/ I feel their absence and I burn.” Here, the use of the word ‘burn’ shows the strength of her feelings and the acuteness of her pain, as does the word ‘all’, used here and in stanza one: “All day I think of her”. This is the love that dare not speak its name since it transgresses the boundaries of both class and sexuality.
About Carol Ann Duffy
Carol Ann Duffy is the UK’s former Poet Laureate and one of Britain’s foremost voices in contemporary poetry. She was born in Glasgow in 1955 and currently lives in Manchester where she teaches in the university. ‘Warming Her Pearls’ is found in her anthology “Selling Manhattan” from 1987.
Like ‘Warming Her Pearls’, one of the best poems written by Carol Ann Duffy, here is a list of a few poems that talk about the purity of love and a relationship of two equal souls.
- Love’s Language by Ella Wheeler Wilcox – In this poem, Ella Wheeler Wilcox talks about how love speaks through emotions, actions, and inactions.
- Love’s Dog by Jen Hadfield – In this poem, Jen Hadfield attempts to break down the idea of love by using various metaphors and symbols.
- Love After Love by Derek Walcott – In this poem, Derek Walcott similarly presents the mental suffering and restlessness of the speaker.
- Love Poem by Elizabeth Jennings – In this poem, Elizabeth Jennings uniquely illustrates the feeling of love.
You can read about Best Love Poems for Her here.