Medusa – Carol Ann Duffy

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,
yellow fanged.
There are bullet tears in my eyes.
Are you terrified?

Be terrified.
It’s you I love,
perfect man, Greek God, my own;
but I know you’ll go, betray me, stray
from home.
So better by far 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
spattered down.

I looked at a ginger cat,
a housebrick
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.
Fire spewed
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.


Once again, we have a poem from Carol Ann Duffy, superimposing her thoughts about a fictional and mythical creature onto our minds, just like she did with the biblical figure of Salome [give that a read if you can find it and see the similarities]. But now we have another character from ancient folklore, the Medusa.


By all means, have a look where I got the words for the poem from at:

so it can aid your study, but be aware, not every response to a poem is the same as the next, so no answer is a wrong, or bad answer.

So, to this poem.

The Medusa in Greek mythology, was a monster, a Gorgon, generally described as having the face of a hideous human female with living venomous snakes in place of hair. Gazing directly into her eyes would turn onlookers to stone. Medusa was beheaded by the hero Perseus, who thereafter used her head, which retained it’s ability to turn onlookers to stone, as a weapon until he gave it to the goddess Athena to place on her shield. Clearly this was a dangerous beast but Duffy treats these characters from ancient lore in a modern context, adding things in to bring her to life and give her a modern attitude and lifestyle.

The poem begins with “a suspicion, a doubt, a jealousy” growing in the mind of Medusa, as Duffy writes in the first person putting herself in the mind and body of the Medusa. This seed of suspicion growing in her mind makes “the hairs on [her] head” develop into “filthy snakes, as though [her] thoughts” actually act like a snake and hiss and spit on her head.
If you have ever felt that emotion when suspicion in the mind gives way to proof and then anger, leading to you fuming about something, then you know something of what Duffy’s Medusa is feeling as she talks. She describes her “soured” breath “in the grey bags of [her] lungs.” Such use of grey scale colour adds to the picture in the mind of the reader.

These are dark thoughts that are hissing their way through her mind. This is an anger personified into the reptilian kingdom and these bad thoughts lead her to become more “foul mouthed” and “foul tongued, yellow fanged.” This is the response of a modern angry young woman and reflects the way the women of today can act. In some parts of the UK culture, we call them “ladettes,” the sort of young woman who is not afraid to say it as it is, to say her piece and do so in a foul mouthed manner. This is indeed, a very modern Medusa.

She tells us to “be terrified” because her feelings spread now to loving someone, an individual. She says “it’s you I love, perfect man, Greek God,” reflecting the original story of Perseus, the Greek hero from ages gone by, the epitome of perfection, the good looking, physically fit, young hero of then superimposed into the modern world. But at the same time as she loves the man, she knows that one day he will “go, betray [her], stray from home” like some men do, so this now shares an image of the scorned woman, the woman who trusts a man and then is treated harshly, hence the negative thoughts turning to snakes on the head. She feels as if it would be “better by far for [her] if [she] were stone.”

But then she reminisces about a past event. The tense changes to past tense because there is a story to be told in the next verse. She reflects on staring at “a buzzing bee” and how “a dull grey pebble fell to the ground.” Words like “dull” and “grey” are negative words denoting a sadness in the heart of this woman as she glances “at a singing bird.” Then the image of the “dusty gravel” and the “ginger cat,” coupled with the “housebrick” make the reader realise that her life is not a good one. And so the negativity continues as she feels like a “shattered a bowl of milk,” a “snuffling pig” and a “boulder rolled in a heap of shit.” The language she uses is something that is prominent in her poetry. She writes as she would say it and to me, that is an endearing feature of her poetry. You feel the anger, the resentment, the bitter hatred in her poems and although they are predominantly negative, they show a woman in command of her spoken and written language who can use her skills extremely effectively.

As a reader, you have to be able to see the metaphors used and write about them. You do this by deciding what one actually symbolizes. If the words are “the traffic was murder,” then you get a certain image in your head. Actually there are two used; the traffic and the concept of murder, but the metaphor mixes the two to create the one image in the mind of the reader. Duffy, in this poem, says that she, Medusa, stares “in the mirror” and says that somehow, her love has “gone bad.” The words “love gone bad” symbolize the positive being turned into the negative. In metaphorical terms, the concept of love and the concept of badness are merged to share an extremely painful and negative emotion.

All this rage and anger flare up in the Gorgon as she stares “at a dragon” [possibly another woman] and as she does so, we read that fire, itself symbolic of rage and anger, spews “from the mouth of a mountain.” It is like when you get increasingly angry and then at some point, the volcano erupts and it comes spewing out of your mouth; all that resentment and bitterness flowing like lava from your very own volcanic explosion.

Up to now, this has all been about her, about her love “gone bad,” but now she changes tack and irony and sarcasm, often called the “lowest form of wit,” are used to great effect. “And here you come,” she says, “with a shield for a heart and a sword for a tongue and your girls, your girls.” She is signalling out the man at the heart of this break up, the man who has caused her pain and her use of ironic comment is meant, on purpose here. There is a literary argument that goes something like this: when you write something, do you know from the beginning what you are going to write? If you do, then your writing is “intentional.” The literary theory of the “intentional fallacy” opposes that idea, as does the theory of the “unintentional fallacy,” whereby one can say that when you begin creating something, you cannot guarantee that every word is what you intended. Here, Duffy intends, in my opinion, to be sarcastic, to show and share the anger, the bitterness between her and her man.

“Wasn’t I beautiful?” She asks. “Wasn’t I fragrant and young?” In other words, I was as good as these young ones you date now, but “look at me now.” Those last words in the poem are her saying “look at me now,” or “look at what you have done to me, look what your double dealing and deceit has caused.” In a sense, she is right as well, to say this, for in relationships, we deal with each other in different ways. When it is all going nice, both persons in the couple love each other, care for each other, think of the other before themselves. But, this man she once knew, her Perseus, is a deceitful man. He is, in Duffy’s mind, a typical man. She is a feminist and comes from that literary background, so one has to immediately assume that what she is trying to do here is make a connection between how a woman is treated by a man normally and how this can turn her into something nasty, something resembling the Medusa of old.

It is, in effect, a poem that hints at the idea that all men are bad and are liable to do the same thing to a woman. But, what it does not do is say this directly. A woman reading this may think yes, how true of every man I have ever dated. A man reading this may think there is no wonder the man has left if that is what she is like inside. So, what is originally written as a poem to merge the ideas of the scorned woman and the Medusa of old becomes something that ends up showing that the old adage is accurate; hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, which is a slightly misquoted line by William Congreve that when said in full, should be “Heav’n has no rage like love to hatred turn’d nor Hell a fury, like a woman scorn’d.”