Warming Her Pearls
Carol Ann Duffy
Next to my own skin, her pearls. My mistress
bids me wear them, warm them, until evening
when I’ll brush her hair. At six, I place them
round her cool, white throat. All day I think of her,
resting in the Yellow Room, contemplating silk
or taffeta, which gown tonight? She fans herself
whilst I work willingly, my slow heat entering
each pearl. Slack on my neck, her rope.
She’s beautiful. I dream about her
in my attic bed; picture her dancing
with tall men, puzzled by my faint, persistent scent
beneath her French perfume, her milky stones.
I dust her shoulders with a rabbit’s foot,
watch the soft blush seep through her skin
like an indolent sigh. In her looking-glass
my red lips part as though I want to speak.
Full moon. Her carriage brings her home. I see
her every movement in my head…. Undressing,
taking off her jewels, her slim hand reaching
for the case, slipping naked into bed, the way
she always does…. And I lie here awake,
knowing the pearls are cooling even now
in the room where my mistress sleeps. All night
I feel their absence and I burn.
Now here we have one of the twentieth century’s greatest poets, in my opinion, someone whose poems have entertained and taught so many children in school classrooms. My favourite so far in twenty years of teaching has to be Salome, based loosely on the Bible story of the same person of the same name, but given that modern, subverted twist by Duffy that she always brings, as she seeks to bring to life someone of old. So when I see another poem, like this one, that I have to study, and hopefully teach, I get all too giddy with excitement at the chance to try and unpack it with a Year 10 class or same age students when offering home tuition, as I am now.
This one is towards the end of the love section in the anthology and with previous ones being more anti-love than pro-love, I am anticipating this to be the same before I read it. Are you thinking the same thing too [or were you] when you first saw it on the page in front of you? Or were you thinking “oh no, not another Duffy poem?” Well, do not worry, for it does not matter if you do not like them. What matters is that you understand them.
“Warming Her Pearls” is a poem that gives a personal account, from a woman, about that person’s “mistress” [a word with two meanings] who wears a set of pearls, but at the beginning of the poem, we see the speaker wearing those pearls because she has been asked to do so by her mistress. Now I want to ask a question here. “Next to my own skin, her pearls” is the first sentence but how does it make you respond? Each of us are different, thank God, and we will respond to such a poem as this in a number of ways, dependent on who we are and how we lead our lives. Someone who can be described as a ‘prude’ will blush at some of the wording to follow. Some teachers will absolutely loathe teaching this one because they know that a Year 10 class of boys and girls will react in two very different ways to the poem; the girls either slowly curious as to the sensuality of it and the boys offering their cheeky comments about the lascivious nature of some of the words. Me? I would teach this in a heartbeat and happily embarrass the lads who play up and try to be cautious as to how to approach such a subject as a woman like this who loves the wrong person.
The mistress wants her to wear her pearls. She “bids [her] wear them, warm them, until evening” when they are parted. The speaker then expresses that “at six, I place them round her cool, white throat” which is the beginning of the language of love, or as some would believe, the language of lust. The mistress is on her mind every minute of every day, infecting her thoughts. “All day I think of her,” she says, as we see where the mistress is and what she is doing during the day, “resting in the Yellow Room” or “contemplating silk or taffeta.” The mistresses life is a good one where the only thing she needs to think about is the question, “which gown tonight?” And as she “fans herself” in modest opulence, we see a speaker who is working “willingly” as her “slow heat” enters each jewel. To her, the pearls are lovely when on her mistress, but on herself, they seem nothing short of being “slack on [her] neck, her rope.” The reference to rope is an interesting one there. Is she referring to the rope that binds, or the rope that hangs, or some other form of rope and use for rope in the modern context? Your answer is the right one here, for none are wrong. So long as you can ‘prove’ what you are saying from the text, a marker cannot mark you down just because they disagree with you. If you can leave them thinking ‘hang on, I have never thought of that,’ then you are doing well and will score well.
The speaker speaks about her mistress in glowing terms, saying “she’s beautiful” and tells the reader that she dreams about her day and night “in [her] attic bed.” She also is able to “picture her dancing with tall men, puzzled by my faint, persistent scent beneath her French perfume, her milky stones.” Now we are beginning to get into the use of words related to the sexual encounter, but they are laced with undertones of love for the woman. She tells us some of the things she does to the mistress, like dusting “her shoulders with a rabbit’s foot,” softly encountering her skin to excite and to thrill her sensually. She likes to “watch the soft blush seep through her skin like an indolent sigh” as if this is some kind of trophy to be had and enjoyed for eternity. “ But then we get the odd phrase “in her looking-glass my red lips part as though I want to speak” which at first glance seems an odd thing to say, but as simple as it sounds, she is in the moment when you are so engrossed by your partner that you wish to say something and open your mouth to do so, but there are no words there, because you are mesmerised by the beauty of the person in front of you. This is love bordering on sensual obsession.
Like Cinderella, the princess in the fairy tales, when the “full moon” arrives at the end of the evening, “her carriage brings her home” and the speaker tells us that she sees “her every movement in [her] head.” She watches as she sees her mistress “undressing, taking off her jewels, her slim hand reaching for the case, slipping naked into bed, the way she always does.” Now, so far, this sounds like a woman and her mistress, but think for a moment about the word “mistress” and how it can have a double meaning. Yes, it can be about one woman and her obsession with another, but it can also become about the relationship between a maid and her mistress which adds an extra dimension to this relationship, one that means her love is something that should not happen. It is neither professional or correct in those situations for such passion to show itself. But, you see, sometimes, Duffy writes in a way where you are not sure if the speaker is even male or female and this can confuse the reader into reacting to the poem in a certain way and then, as you read on, you realise that there is something else happening here, a different message appearing before your very eyes.
A maid has to prepare clothing and jewelry. She has the chance and the privilege to dress and undress her mistress at times and I dare say that some maids in the past have become so besotted with their charges that they have fallen in love with their mistress and have been unable to keep their imagination to themselves. This poem suggests that this now might be the case with this relationship. Yes, there is love between one woman and another, but is it returned? Is it reciprocated, or requited? When you find that it is not, then you are left thinking that the maid loves her mistress but not the other way around.
With this in mind we come to the last verse and we see the love that one woman has for another, but that it is unrequited. The mistress being the person being served is such that she cannot ‘love’ her maid back in that way, so she allows her to wear her pearls as if to ‘keep them warm’ and as the maid lies “awake, knowing the pearls are cooling” she is able to dream of how her relationship with her partner could, hopefully, one day, become even better. The final sentence is perhaps, the most hard hitting because it shows us just how this woman feels. She says that “all night I feel their absence and I burn” which is an interesting image in the mind of the reader, for this is a woman who is so deeply in love that it has become an obsession, but you see, that is what Carol Ann Duffy does with her poems; she subverts what we consider to be normal in relationships, or love, or hate, or vengeance, and she offers a twist on them, a new way of thinking for the reader, a challenge as well to make them think ‘outside the box’ as it were when considering something as special as love.
This is a poem about love but one that subverts love. It is a poem that shows love, but an altered, or illegitimate form of love, one that simply cannot be, or should not be. Whether you read it from a two person perspective, or whether you see a maid and her employer, either way, what you end up with is a wildly amorous woman who has a huge desire for the ‘mistress’ in the title. Is this therefore, a poem about love? Can we label it in the same category as any of the others in this section? Or do we say yes, it is a love poem, but it is also one that twists the very idea of what love is and how it should operate? In the end, it will come down to how you see the world around you. Would it be right for the character of Anna in Downton Abbey to fall madly in love with Lady Mary? I think not.
I perhaps see less of the maid v employer situation and more of the woman who simply cannot have the woman she wants in the way that she wants her, for whatever reason. Yes, she may still be a maid, but that is a title of a job. First and foremost, she is a woman who is in love and for her, the pain is that she cannot receive the same kind of love back, which is why Duffy uses the word “burn” at the end of the poem. We tend to think in terms of how we burn with desire for someone else, but the word ‘burn’ can also be used in the sense of being able to ‘burn’ with anger, or resentment and this is how she feels at the end of this poem. It is therefore, a powerful portrayal of love gone wrong in the wrong context.
There is a problem for you though if you are a student preparing for exams and so, the question I have is simple: if you had to write about this one and how it showed love and then choose one other from the section, which ‘other’ poem would you choose and why? Now that is the $64,000 question!