by Michael Woods
This poem from The World’s Wife, written in the voice of Shakespeare’s widow, is immediately accessible because of its familiar tone and the manner in which Anne Hathaway enthuses about her dead husband. Despite its apparent simplicity, Duffy uses a rich complexity of ideas relating to language, relationships and Shakespeare’s work. She has chosen to adopt the sonnet form and this is particularly appropriate as Shakespeare himself adapted the form and wrote 154 of his own sonnets.
The poets Thomas Wyatt (1503–42) and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1517–47) were credited with introducing the sonnet to England. The standard form was known as the Petrarchan, Italian or regular sonnet, with a rhyme scheme abba abba cde cde, but it was modified thus by Shakespeare: ababacdcdefef gg. The volta is delayed in his sonnets until the final rhyming couplet although there is often a discernible change in direction at around line 8, the traditional position of the volta. Duffy’s rhyme scheme is looser than those already mentioned and employs half-rhyme, something in keeping with the ‘softer rhyme’ mentioned at the end of line 5 of this poem. The rhyming couplet conforms to the Shakespearean model but it does not introduce a new rhyme. By recalling ‘bed’ in line 8, the persona’s preoccupation with her physical relationship is brought to the reader’s attention.
It is fitting that Anne Hathaway writes in the form that her husband so famously used. This in itself is an act of homage and, possibly, a means of keeping him alive. Shakespeare’s famous sonnet 18, beginning ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ and ending with ‘So long lives this and this gives life to thee’, voices the commonly held view that humans might die but a work of art can last forever, effectively immortalising its subject.
Shakespeare, the arch metaphor-user and coiner of words, is written about in metaphorical terms even in the first line. The idea of a bed being a ‘spinning world’ is striking and starts the poem off at a giddying pace. Duffy neatly presents the bed as a microcosmic centre of an imaginative, expansive universe ‘of forests, castles, torchlight, clifftops, seas’ suggesting, at the very least, the plays As You Like It, Macbeth, Hamlet and The Tempest. As You Like It is set in the Forest of Arden, close to Stratford-upon-Avon; Macbeth and Hamlet are partly set in castles. Hamlet contemplates suicide on a clifftop and The Tempest involves a sea voyage. The image of Shakespeare diving in bed suggests oral sex with Anne Hathaway as well as reminding us that he was the man who wrote Ariel’s song in The Tempest.
It is significant that Anne Hathaway describes her husband as a ‘lover’ (line 3), suggesting that their physical relationship was vital and exciting. This is given further emphasis by the words ‘spinning’, ‘shooting’, ‘dancing’ and ‘laughing’. The vitality of their sexual union fits in well with the sort of people we might expect Anne and her husband to be.
Duffy begins with a quotation from Shakespeare’s will as an epigraph to the poem. Some commentators, and not only feminists, have taken the statement to be something of a slight on Anne Hathaway. To be left a ‘second best bed’ is not generally felt to have been complimentary. We might have expected, then, that Anne Hathaway would be given the opportunity to have her revenge. Although other poems in The World’s Wife do present women as being unhappy with their lot, Anne Hathaway’s version of events reveals that she was very much in love with her husband. Theirs was a marriage of equality. He left her his second best bed because it was the one in which they had enacted in a very real sense the drama of their relationship. No children are mentioned by Anne, she concentrates purely on the physical act and not its consequences.
In keeping with the expression of a separate identity, Anne Hathaway is presented as someone who is able to use words in an impressively poetic way. In this sense her personality rhymes with her husband’s. She refers to her body being a ‘softer rhyme’ to Shakespeare. Here, Duffy is subtly relating the poetic techniques of masculine rhyme and feminine rhyme to the actual lives of two people who could hardly be separated from art: ‘kisses’ at the end of line 4 is a feminine ending; ‘touch’ is a masculine one. This explicit use of linguistic and poetic terms draws attention to the self-conscious artifice of the persona’s utterance, as well as the poet’s.
Hathaway states that her lover’s words ‘echo’ as ‘assonance’ in her head. The words ‘on’, ‘body’, ‘softer’, ‘to’, ‘echo’, ‘assonance’, ‘touch’ and ‘noun’ are all linked by assonance; the ‘o’ sound does indeed echo through the lines as a softer rhyme. The description of Shakespeare’s touch as ‘a verb dancing in the centre of a noun’ creates a vital impression of joyous action. It is sexually suggestive in that his hands could be ‘dancing’ in the ‘centre’ of his wife. The line also alerts us to one of Shakespeare’s most famous means of energising language; he would often turn nouns into verbs. For example, in The Winter’s Tale Perdita says, ‘I’ll queen it no inch further.’ In a practically poetic sense, then, Shakespeare was able to find verbs in the centre of nouns. As is sometimes the case in Shakespeare’s sonnets, there is a perceptible progression in this sonnet with ‘Some nights’ (line 8), but the volta actually occurs after line 12 at the rhyming couplet, providing the clinching idea and sense of closure. This rhyme is, incidentally, masculine so we are aware of a female voice giving her husband something of a ghostly, lasting presence in its use. The metaphors in lines 8–9, ‘I dreamed he’d written me, the bed / a page beneath his writer’s hands’, are consistent with Shakespeare’s occupation but they also make a forceful statement about the imaginative power of his wife. She desires him so much that she would like to have been one of his dramatic creations. The bed as site of dramatic action is there as a blank for her husband’s imagination to be unleashed upon. Visually, sheets could easily be thought of as paper in this context. The blurring of the distinction between life and art is again inherent in this section of the poem. The subsequent ‘Romance / and drama played by touch, by scent, by taste’ is heavily erotic, concentrating on sensory exploration and not language itself. Lines 8–10 use theatrical imagery to powerful effect in presenting a scene of lovemaking. The word ‘drama’ makes reference to plays in general as well as to love, while ‘Romance’, one of the categories into which some of Shakespeare’s plays are placed, also reminds us that this relationship is not stale.
Anne relishes remembering that the ‘guests dozed on’ while she and William made love. The derogatory ‘dribbling their prose’ (line 12) is contrasted sharply with ‘My living laughing love’. The lilting alliteration and the cadence of the verse at this point convey extreme happiness and affection. This contrasts with the d, b and p, sounds in ‘dozed’, ‘dribbling’ and ‘prose’. The impression created is that the guests live an inferior life of prose. Shakespeare often gave low status characters prose to speak. The dash preceding the conclusion of the poem acts as something of a dramatic gesture and separates the descriptions of Shakespeare alive with Anne’s acknowledgement that he can only live on in her imagination now that he is dead. The fact that she describes her head as a ‘casket’, a strongbox for keeping jewels and other precious items, indicates the deep love and affection she had for her husband. The consonance on ‘hold’ and ‘held’ recalls that the lovers rhymed with each other when alive, while the tense-change poignantly signals the irrevocable change brought about by her husband’s death. The final, clinching rhyme of ‘head’ and ‘bed’ indicates that Anne Hathaway is able to keep love alive in her memory and imagination. We are left with Anne Hathaway cherishing the memory of being with her husband in ‘that next best bed’. Their true intimacy is made clear here as only she would have been able to interpret correctly Shakespeare’s intention when he wrote the famous bequest in his will. His will, in every sense, is hers.
This sonnet, then, is a poem about a poet by a poet, with the intermediary being the subject’s surviving partner. Carol Ann Duffy is using this thrown voice as a means of celebrating the subject, Shakespeare. Shakespeare delayed the volta in his sonnets until line twelve but there is often a discernible shift of ideas after the second quatrain, the point at which a Petrarchan sonnet displays a more noticeable turn.