The World’s Wife by Carol Ann Duffy
As the old adage goes, “behind every successful man, there is a woman.” But we rarely get a glimpse of the woman behind most of our famous figures in mythology, fairy-tales, and legends. So, Carol Ann Duffy sets about to change that in a most fascinating collection of poems in The World’s Wife.
In her fine, expressive, rhyming verse, she brings voices from the wives of familiar names in literature – Queen Herod, Mrs. Midas, Mrs. Tiresias, Mrs. Darwin, Mrs. Faust, Queen Kong, Frau Freud etc…
As our language is essentially patriarchal, women behind the scenes, behind history, behind the crowns, often lay forgotten and even remembered as the titles suggest in the name of their better halves. The poems give us an alternative perspective when the female spouse takes over the storytelling, and they all have something thought-provoking to say.
All of them are in a ballad form with a lyrical and rhythmic tone to them, with each of the female persona telling her-story. In the case of Mrs. Midas, she has to take care to lock the cat in the cellar, and close her bedroom door and jam it, while her husband continues to turn everything he touches into gold. She misses his touch, the one thing she can never have.
Mrs. Faust, on the other hand, is married to the heartless Faust who sells his soul to the Devil. But even as he brings in riches and luxury, she is more than happy to spend it. But they lack any marital bliss.
I grew to love the lifestyle,
not the life.
He grew to love the kudos,
not the wife.
Anne Hathaway is the only sonnet in the book, which is quite appropriate since she is none other than Shakespeare’s wife. He had very famously bequeathed to her the “second best bed”. The sonnet contemplates their relationship and questions the reason for him leaving her the second-best bed.
The style of writing is bold and brutal, and even violent in places. This is also part of the hard-hitting truth that Carol Ann Duffy wishes to contemplate upon. At times, she is unexpectedly hilarious. For instance, in the myth of Orpheus goes to the Underworld to fetch his dead wife, Eurydice – a faithful and loving husband in our eyes. But when we hear Eurydice in this poem, we may change our mind. For as she confesses:
In fact, girls, I’d rather be dead.
But the Gods are like publishers,
And what you doubtless know of my tale
Is the deal.
These poems are interesting to read and mull over – one will end up finding a perspective which hadn’t been amplified previously. These poems celebrate the creative ability and power of words to bring to life a new way of looking at a familiar story. It doesn’t in any way take away the beauty of the older tales, it just adds to it.