by Michael Woods
Medusa, scared that her husband will betray her, develops the power to turn any living thing she looks at to stone.
This dramatic monologue offers an unusual perspective on the Gorgon Medusa. She is a byword for terror and ugliness, feared for her terrible looks and foetid breath. In giving Medusa a chance to tell her story Duffy asks us to consider an alternative view and to see her as a woman who, fearing betrayal by her husband, developed the terrible physical characteristics for which she is so well known.
The destructive power of jealousy turns Medusa's hair to 'filthy snakes' and she equates these, metaphorically, with the thoughts she is driven to by this most destructive of emotions. She describes another transformation, that of her 'bride's breath' in stanza two that 'soured, stank'. The familiar term, 'foul-mouthed' (line 8) is normally metaphorically used to describe a person who uses a lot of obscenities but in this case there is a literal sense of her mouth being filthy and putrescent, along with her tongue. The harsh image of 'bullet tears' in her eyes reflects her stony feelings. She asks 'Are you terrified?' directing the question to the 'perfect man, Greek God (line 14) who is presumably Perseus. She would prefer the man she loves to be stone than someone else's.
Having been transformed into an object of terror and imperfection through the potential infidelity of someone with outward physical perfection, she proceeds to issue a chilling warning in the shape of a list of creatures that she has turned to stone. A mere glance at a bee or bird renders them respectively into 'a dull grey pebble' or 'dusty gravel'. The verbs 'spattered' and 'shattered' are powerfully destructive and disruptive to the natural order that would otherwise prevail. The In all these transformations, we are presented with a physical form reflecting an inner emotional state. For Medusa, not to be loved is to be turned into unfeeling, cold stone. The abstractions of jealousy and betrayal become concretely present in the physical reality of 'housebrick' and 'boulder'. The more concentrated 'I looked' required to transform larger creatures again highlights the extremity of emotion she feels as much as the power she wields. Duffy chooses not to pre-modify the nouns 'housebrick' and 'boulder' with adjectives to reflect Medusa's simple and absolute intention to change complicated life forms instantly and irrevocably to solid matter. This is conveyed particularly well in the change from 'snuffling pig' to boulder which 'rolled / In a heap of shit.' Pigs are known (erroneously as it happens) for wallowing in their own waste. Here, it seems that a boulder in 'shit' functions as an image for Medusa as she contemplates betrayal.
The only being that can endure her direct gaze is herself, 'I stared in the mirror', completing the sequence of verbs beginning with 'glanced' and 'looked'. She sees her head as a mountain whose mouth is a volcano. The image of the mirror prefigures the manner in which Perseus will be able to kill her. The pathos of her 'Wasn't I beautiful? / Wasn't I fragrant and young?' contrasts with her acknowledgement of what she has become. Her doom will arrive, ironically, in the form of the man she loves with 'a shield for a heart' and 'a sword for a tongue'. The shield will literally reflect his feelings about her while the action of the sword in decapitating her will speak of them more eloquently than words. The final line is loaded with ambiguity. It indicates her resignation and sadness in the face of what she has become but there is also a remaining desire for Perseus to see her as she once was. A third element is that if he were to look at her directly he would turn to stone and be lost to her forever anyway which, as she says in stanza three would be 'better by far' than enduring betrayal.
Medusa was one of the Gorgons and was slain by Perseus. Her hair was comprised of snakes. Her appearance was reputedly enough to turn anyone who looked at her to stone. Athena held a shield of polished bronze up so that Perseus could see the reflection of Medusa and decapitated her with his sword of adamant given to him by Hermes. He took her head away in his shoulder bag. He was pursued by her sisters, Stheno and Euryale but was rendered invisible to them by the helmet he borrowed from Hades.