The World’s Wife was published in 1999 and presents the female perspective on stories where the male character has traditionally taken centre stage.
So who actually is Medusa?
The character Medusa is one of the Gorgons’ three sisters from Greek mythology, who had snakes for hair and whose gaze turned people to stone. Medusa has always been famous - but Duffy tells her story so that the reader gains some sympathy for this otherwise monstrous character.
A suspicion, a doubt, a jealousy
grew in my mind,
which turned the hairs on my head to filthy snakes
as though my thoughts
hissed and spat on my scalp.
My bride’s breath soured, stank
in the grey bags of my lungs.
I’m foul mouthed now, foul tongued,
There are bullet tears in my eyes.
Are you terrified?
It’s you I love,
perfect man, Greek God, my own;
but I know you’ll go, betray me, stray
So better by for me if you were stone.
I glanced at a buzzing bee,
a dull grey pebble fell
to the ground.
I glanced at a singing bird,
a handful of dusty gravel
I looked at a ginger cat,
shattered a bowl of milk.
I looked at a snuffling pig,
a boulder rolled
in a heap of shit.
I stared in the mirror.
Love gone bad
showed me a Gorgon.
I stared at a dragon.
from the mouth of a mountain.
And here you come
with a shield for a heart
and a sword for a tongue
and your girls, your girls.
Wasn’t I beautiful
Wasn’t I fragrant and young?
Look at me now.
Medusa is told in the first person as a dramatic monologue by a woman who is insecure and worried that her husband is cheating on her. The poem begins: ‘A suspicion, a doubt, a jealousy’ and it is this jealousy which has turned the woman into a gorgon and now everything she looks at turns to stone. This feeling of doubt resonates throughout the poem, exemplified in the line, ‘but I know you’ll go, betray me, stray from home’.
Unlike our feelings towards the traditional monstrous character, this poem evokes empathy for the character as she is clearly distressed and suffering. Especially when she reminisces in the final stanza about the time she was young and beautiful, illustrating her complete lack of confidence. Nevertheless, she is still presented as a foul character who threatens the reader, with the line ‘Be terrified’. The poem also ends with the line ‘Look at me now’ which has a double entendre (double meaning). It could be read as a cry of despair or, as a threat – if you did look at Medusa you would die! This leaves the reader feeling conflicting emotions for the character, probably similar to how Medusa herself feels in the poem.
Form and Structure
The poem is written in free verse and as it progresses, the importance of the living things Medusa turns to stone increases, going from a bee to a dragon and then to her husband himself. The poem is divided into stanzas of mainly equal length, apart from the final line: ‘Look at me now’. This gives the poem a dramatic ending, leaving the reader unsure whether to feel threatened by or feel sorry for Medusa.
- The poem is packed full of rhyme (including half rhymes, internal rhymes and in stanzas 3, 4, 5 and 6 some end rhyme). This rhyme helps to unify the lines and create a sense of rhythm. The end rhyme produces a sense of finality connected with the death of her victims.
- Sibilance is particularly used in the first two stanzas to create the sound of a hissing snake.
- Tricolons (groups of three) also develop the rhythm in the poem. E.g. ‘A suspicion, a doubt, a jealousy’. In this case the rule of three also emphasises the power of emotions that Medusa is come over by, as ultimately this is what turned the lady into a gorgon.
- Rhetorical questions, e.g. ‘Are you terrified?’ are used to involve but also intimidate the reader. The last two rhetorical questions in the poem: ‘Wasn’t I beautiful? Wasn’t I fragrant and young?’ could be addressed to her husband, begging him to show her some affection; they could also be addressed at the reader as she longs to be comforted - she is so horrified by this change in herself.
- The oxymoronic metaphor ‘bullet tears’ emphasises the danger that Medusa brings, yet still evokes a sympathy from the reader because of her suffering.
- The whole poem is an extended metaphor for a jealous woman who is grieving for her partner and turns against him. The metaphor describing her husband’s heart for a shield suggests that he didn’t love her properly.
Overall, the poem is distressing for the reader as we see a lady who has become paranoid through jealousy, further damaging her relationship with her husband as well as her own well-being as she struggles to find a lost identity.
We hope these ideas have been useful and have helped you reflect in a bit more depth on what Carol Ann Duffy is trying to present. Why not have a read of some of the other poems in the collection (there are loads and some are great fun) and see if you can find any parallels?
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More GCSE poem analyses: My Last Duchess, The Yellow Palm, Nettles, and Praise Song for My Mother