‘The Clown’s Wife’ by John Agard is a free-verse poem of seventeen lines. It tells of the professional and personal sides of a clown’s life. In the poem, the clown’s wife is the speaker. She uses colloquial language to give the reader a picture of her husband’s life. There are two sides to him: the clown and the husband. The poem offers a contrast to these sides and gives us a peek behind the ‘red nose.’ Furthermore, as the title suggests, the poem introduces us to the clown’s wife. We get a picture of her as well. So, not only do we learn about the clown, but we also discover information about his wife.
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‘The Clown’s Wife’ by John Agard tells the story of a clown through his wife’s eyes, giving the reader a glimpse of their lives.
In the poem, the wife speaks of her clown husband. She shows the duality between his professional life and his personal life. However, she also tells us about herself. She is not just a passive observer relating information about her husband. No, she is an active participant in the story being told. The wife acts to cheer up her clown husband, taking on the role of a clown herself. So, there is an element of role reversal at play here.
Duality is the main theme in ‘The Clown’s Wife’ by John Agard. This duality relates to the clown’s personal and professional life. He acts one way at work and another at home. The duality is signaled early in the poem. In the third line, for instance, the wife tells us that her husband is a different person on stage. So, the speaker immediately draws our attention to the different sides of her husband. Therefore, we are invited to view duality as important to the poem. Moreover, the wife tells us how the clown acts at home, which is completely opposite to our sense of a clown’s actions. Again, this points us to think about duality.
In the detailed analysis, let us split the poem up and look at two lines at a time.
Agard does something interesting with the first two lines. Therefore, we should study these lines in full:
About my husband, the clown,
what could I say?
From these lines, we know that the speaker is the wife of a clown. This information coupled with the title points to its importance. However, our interest here is not exactly with the content of the lines but with how they are arranged. You may notice that the structure of the question is inverted. That is, the second line would usually come first when asking a question. For example: What could I say about my husband, the clown? However, the poet changed the structure for a reason. Using inversion here, Agard wants to draw our attention to something. That something is the inversion of roles between the wife and the clown, a role reversal. As we continue, you will see how this foreshadowing plays out in the poem. Therefore, it is a good idea to keep the concept of inversion in mind as you read the poem.
On stage, he’s a different person.
The second and third lines give us information about the clown. We discover that ‘on stage, he’s a different person.’ That positions us to think of the duality previously mentioned. Being a different person on stage points to a dual existence. Furthermore, the fourth line cements this idea. We learn that on stage ‘he’s a king on a throne,’ which again brings duality to mind. Because the wife draws attention to his on-stage exploits, she also highlights a contrast when he is not on stage. Here, she does not have to mention this contrast explicitly because the reader can infer it. However, if there were any doubt, she makes it clear in the next lines.
but at home you should hear him moan.
The fifth and sixth lines spell out the contrast for us. He’s a king on stage, but he moans when he gets home. Again, we have this duality, the juxtaposition between his professional life and his personal life. We have a picture of the clown making people laugh. However, he is miserable when he gets home. It is almost like a switch goes off when ‘he walks through that door.’ The clown is left behind to be replaced by the husband.
Let us look at these two lines in full to get a better picture of the contrast between the professional and the personal aspects of the clown’s life.
without that red nose and them funny clothes,
he seems to have the world on his shoulders.
So, the seventh line points to the transformation, the change from the clown to the husband, from the professional to the personal. Shed of his ‘red nose’ and ‘funny clothes’ he is just a husband with ‘the world on his shoulders.’ These lines work to give us a visual of the contrast. One can picture the duality, an image of the colorful clown and the dreary husband side-by-side.
I do me best to cheer him up, poor soul.
Now the poem begins to focus on the speaker, the wife. You may have noticed that we are at the halfway point in the poem. At this stage, the switch of focus from the husband to wife is no accident. Therefore, it is safe to say that the poet wants us to think of duality again. The wife speaks of her husband for the first half of the poem, and now she speaks of herself. She does her best to cheer him up, juggling with eggs and doing cartwheels. Think back to the first two lines, to the inversion we identified, the role reversal. Now, this is playing out in the poem. The wife has become the clown to cheer up her husband.
I tell jokes, I do me latest card trick,
These two lines continue with the wife acting like a clown. She tells jokes and does card tricks for him. Moreover, she even borrows his red nose. This shows us that she has really transformed into a clown. Therefore, she exhibits a duality as well. She is both wife and clown, just as he is husband and clown. The next lines turn the focus back onto the husband.
But he doesn’t say exactly how he feels,
From these two lines, we learn that the husband does not ‘say exactly how he feels.’ Also, he does not ‘say what’s bothering him inside.’ Let us think about this for a moment to identify the contrast. When we picture a clown, we picture exhibition. Clowns are outgoing and expressive. They are extraverted. Now picture the husband not expressing his feelings, keeping everything inside. The husband is introverted. Again, this points to contrast, to duality. There is a clear juxtaposition between the professional and the personal aspects of his life.
The poem finishes on a light-hearted note. Let us view the last three lines in full, where the husband:
Just sits there saying almost to himself:
‘O life, ah life,
what would I do without this clown of a wife?’
The husband identifies the wife as a clown, further alluding to the role reversal previously discussed. Also, the reference to life not once but twice further solidifies the theme of duality. Therefore, we can say with some certainty that duality is the main theme of the poem. Furthermore, the light-hearted ending offers hope. Life is not simple, not one-dimensional, and we will have contrasting feelings. However, duality suggests that bad feelings are accompanied by good ones. Although the husband feels down when he is not acting the clown, he appreciates his wife. She makes things better. His words at the end acknowledge that he could not be without her.
The meaning of ‘The Clown’s Wife’ by John Agard is that everything is not what it seems. There are always two sides to everything. In the poem, the clown is a different person on stage. This contrasts with how he is at home. He is extraverted on stage and introverted at home. Therefore, this points us to think that everything is not what it seems.
John Agard was born in British Guiana (now Guyana) on 21 June 1949. Guyana is a country in South America, situated east of Venezuela. Agard was born in the coastal city of Georgetown, the capital of Guyana.
Yes, John Agard wrote several famous poems. His work forms part of the English GCSE syllabus, which is taught to British high school students aged 14-16. His poems ‘Half Caste’ and ‘Checking Out Me History’ have featured in the AQA English GCSE anthology since 2002.
If you enjoyed this poem, you may also like these two by the same poet: