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Carol Ann Duffy: Medusa

Context

Carol Ann Duffy is the first female Poet Laureate (2009), and probably the best known female
poet working in Britain today. She was born in 1955 in Glasgow. Duffy is well known for poems
that give a voice to the dispossessed (people excluded from society); she encourages the
reader to put themselves in the shoes of people they might normally dismiss.

She has published many collections of poetry, including The Worlds Wife (1999), from
which Medusa comes. The collection represents women from history, literature and
fairytale, particularly those whose stories tend to be defined by men, or who have only a cameo
appearance in a male-dominated scenario.

Her poetry often engages with the grittier and more disturbing side of life, using black humour
like a weapon to make social and political points. Her place on the GCSE syllabus caused
controversy in 2008, when a complaint was made about the poem Education for Leisure; she
responded with typical wit and intelligence with the poem Mrs Schofield's GCSE.

Subject
Medusa is one of the Gorgons, three sisters from Greek mythology who had snakes for hair and
whose terrifying gaze turned those who looked at them to stone. Medusa was slain by the hero
Perseus, who chopped off her head. To avoid looking at her directly he used a highly polished
shield as a mirror.
The first person narrator, Medusa, is a woman who has been transformed into a Gorgon because
of her jealousy. She suspects her husband is cheating on her. Everything she looks on is
destroyed, turned to stone, because of jealousy.
Although she has been wronged and is suffering deeply, there is an element of threat throughout
the poem, culminating in the final line "Look at me now", which can be read both as a cry of
despair and as a threat - if you did look at a Gorgon, you would die.

Form and structure

The poem is in free verse, structured around the woman's transformation, and the escalating
scale of the living things she turns to stone. She starts with a bee and her victims increase in
size until she changes a dragon into a volcano. Finally she turns her attention to the man who
broke her heart.

Despite the free verse formation, the poem is divided into stanzas of mostly equal length. The
final line, which is a stanza on its own, is an exception; this underlines it and creates a sense of
menace.
Language
Sound
The poem is rich in alliteration and rhyme, helping to unify the lines and create a
sense of rhythm even in free verse. For example in the third stanza, the two lines "but I
know you'll go, betray me, stray/from home"have two sets of internal rhyme (know/go and
betray/stray), and half rhyme between the final word and the first set of rhyme.
The third to sixth stanzas all have some end rhyme, which always includes the final
line of the verse, creating a sense of finality associated with the death of her victims.
Sibilance is used at the end of the first stanza to suggest the hissing of
snakes: "hissed and spat on my scalp".
Duffy uses groups of threes as a means to build up rhythm from the very first
line: "a suspicion, a doubt, a jealousy".

Imagery
Duffy has written a blackly humorous version of the myth. She uses appropriate
types of stone for each living thing that Medusa kills: a "dull grey pebble" for the bee;
a "housebrick" for a ginger cat. The sizes of the stones increase through the poem.
The danger posed by upsetting Medusa is emphasised by the metaphor of "bullet
tears". The metaphor is paradoxical, since tears are commonly seen as weak, but bullets
are violent.
The whole poem is an extended metaphor for a jealous woman who turns against her
partner. Although jealousy makes Medusa dangerous, she also loses a lot: her hair turns
to "filthy snakes" and her breath "soured, stank". She is aware of the change in herself: by
the end of the poem the rhetorical questions "Wasn't I beautiful?/Wasn't I fragrant and
young?" show her bitterness at being betrayed and sadness at that change.
The extended metaphor is further developed in her description of her man who was
a "Greek God" (a clichd description of a handsome man but wittily appropriate in context).
His heart is metaphorically a "shield", suggesting that he was unable to open up and
love her properly.

Attitudes and Ideas

The narrator is presented as foul and frightening. Indeed, she tells us that we should
be terrified by her. However, there is also a strong sense of sadness in the poem. Medusa has
resorted to these actions because of possible mistreatment by a man, although it's not clear cut
- "suspicion" has motivated her - which makes the poem tragic.

Medusa is blackly humorous. Does the contrast between humour and sadness make the
poem even more powerful or less so?

Comparission
The Clown Punk
The eponymous characters of both poems are frightening as well as tragic.
Both poems rely on strong visual imagery to engage the reader.
Like Medusa, the Clown Punk is a character we wouldn't normally observe so closely:
both poems ask us to take a second look at someone we might try to avoid.
Singh Song!
Both poems use distinctive imagery to create the character of a strong woman.
Alliteration and rhyme are powerfully used in both poems, but neither follows a
regular rhyme scheme.
Although both poems are about marriages, love leads to happiness in Singh Song!,
unlike the love described in Medusa.

Sample question

In your exam you will be asked to compare a certain aspect of one poem with another. In order
to do this, we need to get to know this poem a bit better by considering one of its main aspects.

What follows is a sample question which concentrates on one feature of the poem and an answer
(not necessarily complete!) to the question.

Question

How does the poet create the readers reaction to Medusas character?

Answer
The use of direct address to the reader, with rhetorical questions and commands,
brings the reader into immediate contact with Medusa.
We are given a real sense of the snakes on Medusa's head with the use of sibilance,
creating a shiver down the spine.
Carol Ann Duffy deliberately creates a sense of horror with the disturbing physical
description of Medusa.
The horror is balanced with wit: different animals are turned into different types of
stone.
The final stanza describes Medusa's armoured man and his "girls", directing us into
feeling pity for the narrator.
The Worlds Wife
The collection of poems by Carol Ann Duffy entitled The Worlds Wife was first
published in 1999 and presents stories, myths, fairy tales and characters in Western
culture from the point of view of women, very often giving voice to the hitherto unsung
women close to famous men. Much of literature through the ages and even today is
patriarchal, presenting the world from a male perspective. These poems were intended
by Carol Ann Duffy to rectify that, to highlight the fact that women have long been
ignored or silenced. The poems in the collection are witty, satirical, playful and complex.
The Greek Medusa Myth
In Medusa, the mythical protagonist is seen as being consumed by jealousy following
the unfaithfulness of her lover. The Medusa story is one in which three Gorgon sisters,
who hated mortal men, are so ugly that they turn all those that look at them into stone.
In the end, they are killed by the Greek God Perseus, who uses their reflection in his
shield to kill them.
Carol Ann Duffys Interpretation
Duffy uses the imagery of the Medusa to show the power and destructive nature of
jealousy. Medusa represents women who are betrayed by men and whose fine and
loving natures are distorted and ultimately destroyed by their experiences. Duffy
subverts centuries of misogynistic representation of women as evil, to show that it is
men, not women, who are the root cause of the worlds ills.

Structure
The poem comprises seven stanzas of free verse. The first has five lines, the remainder
six. There is no formal structured rhyme scheme, but a rhythmic effect is created by the
frequent use of internal rhyme, consonance and assonance. The unstructured
composition reflects the emotions of the speaker as her thoughts develop.

Language
The narrative is in the form of a dramatic monologue, in which Medusa seems to be
addressing an unknown audience. The reader is able to piece together the story as she
speaks.

'Choosing Tough Words': The Poetry of Carol Ann Duffy

edited by Angelica Michelis, Antony Rowland