Mrs Lazarus I had grieved. I had wept for a night and a day over my loss, ripped the cloth I was married in from my breasts, howled, shrieked, clawed at the burial stones until my hands bled, retched his name over and over again, dead, dead. Gone home. Gutted the place. Slept in a single cot, widow, one empty glove, white femur in the dust, half. Stuffed dark suits into black bags, shuffled in a dead man's shoes, noosed the double knot of a tie around my bare neck, gaunt nun in the mirror, touching herself. I learnt the Stations of Bereavement, the icon of my face in each bleak frame; but all those months he was going away from me, dwindling to the shrunk size of a snapshot, going, going. Till his name was no longer a certain spell for his face. The last hair on his head floated out from a book. His scent went from the house. The will was read. See, he was vanishing to the small zero held by the gold of my ring. Then he was gone. Then he was legend, language; my arm on the arm of the schoolteacher-the shock of a man's strength under the sleeve of his coat- along the hedgerows. But I was faithful for as long as it took. Until he was memory. So I could stand that evening in the field in a shawl of fine air, healed, able to watch the edge of the moon occur to the sky and a hare thump from a hedge; then notice the village men running towards me, shouting, behind them the women and children, barking dogs, and I knew. I knew by the sly light on the blacksmith's face, the shrill eyes of the barmaid, the sudden hands bearing me into the hot tang of the crowd parting before me. He lived. I saw the horror on his face. I heard his mother's crazy song. I breathed his stench; my bridegroom in his rotting shroud, moist and dishevelled from the grave's slack chew, croaking his cuckold name, disinherited, out of his time. Carol Ann Duffy (1955 -
This is a poem from her book – The World’s Wife.
It is all about grief and CAD is not short in using powerful words in expressing deep grief at the death of a husband. Her words clearly show that the extent of grief is overwhelming. Not to the extent of a suttee. In that case the return to life would be a really dramatic tragedy – if that was a possibility after the burning!
It is obviously based on the Lazzarus account in the Bible but it is a very different Lazarus in her poem in that the return to life is after quite a considerable time period and not the four days of the Bible.
Looking at some of the ways the grief is expressed …
S1 … clawed at the burial stones until my hands bled, retched his name … self-harm is an indication of strong grief, unfortunately in the past in some societies it has been expected of the wife … and the stones parallel the biblical event
S2 … shuffled in a dead man’s shoes, noosed the double knot of a tie around my bare neck … using the clothes of the parted in relation to grief concentrates the emotional tie and there is the suggestion of suicide.
S3 … the icon of my face in each bleak frame … she reduces herself to an icon = an object of uncritical devotion … and herself just a bleak object – framed
S4 … vanishing to the small zero held by the gold of my ring … this is a very original way to state the finalisation of fading grief … the wedding ring becoming a zero
S5 … Then he is gone in the sense that all that mammoth grieving state has been exhausted and he is gone. Her grieving over. And she was faithful for as long as it took.
S6 … Mrs Lazarus is now at peace with herself … in a field absorbed by the beauty of nature – healed, able to watch the edge of the moon occur to the sky – … but not for long!
S7 … she knows intuitively what is behind the raucous crowd as it comes before her … the introduction to the dramatic conclusion of the last stanza.
S8 … his mother would certainly be crazy if alive herself – a second birth of ghastly sight – I heard his mother’s crazy song … the implication being that Mrs Lazarus has equivalent feelings. That dramatic last line defines his newfound status – croaking his cuckold name, disinherited, out of his time. It is up to the reader to explore the implication – I wonder if family would relish the return of property for example for the will has been read.
But this poem presents serious consideration on situations when a partner dies or becomes dead in the sense that they leave the relationship never to return. But sometimes there are situations when they do return with dramatic effect. For example consider ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’ in the Thomas Hardy story.
Till death do us part is a statement of relational adherence. But I think it mainly concerns the way two people are engaged in life in their transactions. There is that personal question of how long to wait before, and if ever, in developing another relationship especially a sexual one. And because of the religious parallel how much does religion play a part in the decision making.
Well the relationship between Mr and Mrs Lazarus might have been very taught although the text seems otherwise from the Mrs Lazarus point of view. But I doubt if Mr Lazarus would consider Till death do us part in a literal sense. After all the chances of finding another partner look exceedingly bleak for he is bereft of all his possessions and didn’t quite look that attractive!
There is a little bit of humour evident in the poem albeit of a black nature. You must admire the colourful way CAD uses her poetic skills in the build up to the last two stanzas.
Carol Ann Duffy relinquished her role as UK Poet Laureate in May 2019 when Simon Armitage took over.