by Carol Ann Duffy
ANNE HATHAWAY is one of three poems here taken from THE WORLD’S WIFE. Anne Hathaway was Shakespeare’s wife. She was born at Shottery near Stratford-on-Avon in 1556 and died in 1623. Shakespeare had married Anne, who was pregnant, when he was 18. They had three children together. Although she was seven years older than him, William Shakespeare died before her in 1616. In his will, despite being a man of considerable property, he specified that Anne was to receive only his “second best bed”. This has generally been perceived as a deliberate insult, a way of demonstrating that Shakespeare had been unhappy in the marriage.
In this sonnet, I am taking the opposite view of the instruction in Shakespeare’s will, and imagining that the second best bed was a place of passionate love and delight. On a simple level, the poem is a tribute to Shakespeare and in particular his sonnets. Although the poem is “in the voice” of Anne Hathaway, it also draws on my own experience of sexual and romantic love. The woman in the sonnet is recalling the joys of lovemaking, which took place in the “next best” bed when her husband was alive. The poem asserts the timelessness of great love- how even death can’t erase the living memory of love.
ANNE HATHAWAY is in sonnet form- fourteen lines, using regular metre and a more relaxed rhyme scheme than a strict Shakesperean sonnet- sometimes assonance (“world/words”; “kisses/seas”), sometimes no rhyme, and a full rhyme in the closing couplet (“head/bed”). There is occasional use of alliteration (“living, laughing, love”) or buried rhymes (“taste/best”; “dozed/prose”) which is intended to suggest the random touching of lovemaking- the words, as it were, touching each other within the poem! The sonnet form, or a variation of it, is one I like to use when wriiting love poems or elegies- ie poems with a universal theme. The sonnet reminds me of a prayer- something short and easy to memorise.
Obviously the language here is not Elizabethan, it is the language of now, so the “Anne Hathaway” of my poem is a more contemporary woman than the real Anne Hathaway. I have tried to keep the language of the poem sensual- “pearls, stars, kisses, lips, softer, assonance, touch, romance, scent, taste.” In the sonnet, the woman compares her lover’s lovemaking to the art of writing or poetry. Her body is “a softer rhyme” to his body; her body is an ”echo” or assonance” to his. Literary or linguistic terms become sexual acts- so the lover’s hand on an erotic part of her body is “a verb dancing in the centre of a noun”. She imagines he has “written” her- perhaps it is as his beloved that she feels most full alive? In the “best bed”, commonly then as now given to the visitors, their guests are described as “dribbling their prose”- that is to say, the guests are not experiencing the superior poetry of the lovemaking in the second best bed. In one way, the whole poems is a metaphor comparing love and poetic creativity. Anne’s memories of their love are held in “the casket” of her “widow’s head”- more alive than the ashes of a dead body in a cremation urn or casket.