Little red-cap


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Teacher guide The World’s Wife by Carol Ann Duffy

The poem is drawn from the story of Little Red Riding Hood, a tale that has come down to us over centuries. It originated in ancient stories from Asia, but the version we know was shaped in medieval rural France. It spread across Europe and has a number of variations, although the presence of the little girl [not always in red], the Wolf and the grandmother are constant. The stories have changed over time and in our own day, the tale has been published in various forms for children and also splendidly subverted by a number of writers and film makers, like Angela Carter in her story, The Company of Wolves which was made into a film by Neil Jordan in 1984.
It is about growing up and the dangers of either ‘straying from the path’ or behaving in an unsuitable way with ‘wolves’. In the earlier stories it is notable that the girl rescues herself by outwitting the wolf and getting the help of other women, whereas in the later versions she is rescued by a woodcutter. Modern writers are giving Red Riding Hood back her ‘feisty’ nature. Some basic research via a search engine on the internet will give you a wealth of material relating to this and other fairy tales, if you are interested.
Little Red-Cap is a sexual and revolutionary symbol. Red is the colour of passion and of blood which is associated with menstruation and therefore with sexual maturity. In the French Revolution, the revolutionaries wore red caps as a sign of their allegiance and paintings of the time show them led, symbolically, by a bare breasted woman wearing ‘the cap of liberty’ and carrying the tricolour.

Duffy uses both of these ideas within her poem, which is partly autobiographical. When she was sixteen she met the poet Adrian Henri at a poetry reading. He was 23 years older than her, but she went to Liverpool University to be with him, and their relationship lasted for ten years.

The poem begins as a metaphorical journey through life represented by playing fields, the factory, allotments, representing childhood, working life and retirement. [Allotments are similar to gardens, except that they are all together in a group, away from houses and generally used for growing vegetables and fruit]. The path offers different possibilities at either side, with the silent railway line which once offered escape and the hermit’s caravan [a hermit is a holy man who lives in isolation in order to pray and become closer to God; it is sometimes used for anyone who cuts themselves off from society] as an alternative to the kneeling married men who keep their allotments as others keep mistresses [and which are just as demanding]. The path leads to the woods, which symbolise the unknown – the future, sex, maturity etc. and, in the tradition of the story

It was there that I first clapped eyes on the wolf.
The wolf is a poet and a representative of the male–dominated literary world. He is giving a poetry reading and is described in phrases that are linked by the rhymes of drawl / paw / jaw. He has red wine staining his bearded jaw – the colour of passion and the suggestion of a blood-stained mouth. To the girl he seems larger than life, expressed in a joking reference to the famous lines, What big ears he had! What big eyes he had! What teeth! Readers will be aware of the sequel to these which end with Red Riding Hood being gobbled up. Here, however, it is the girl who makes a move on the wolf.

In the interval, I made quite sure he spotted me

sweet sixteen, never been, babe, waif …

He buys her first drink, starting the ritual seduction process. She addresses the question in the reader’s mind by telling them why, in one simple word – Poetry. She wants the knowledge and experience that will make her a writer and she describes the process first in terms of another metaphorical journey, where she would be led by the wolf deep into the woods / away from home thus giving up the secure familiarity of home for the mysterious and unknown world of sex and literature. The place is described in words that suggest pain, confusion and darkness – a dark, tangled thorny place – but it is lit by the eyes of owls, traditionally birds of wisdom and knowledge in fairy tales. She follows the wolf-poet like an infant – I crawled in his wake, showing how much she has to learn. The childlike metaphor is continued with scraps of red from my blazer, reminding the audience of Red Cap again. Duffy uses some internal rhyme to link the ‘murder clues’ with shreds / red and clues / shoes. The picture is of the childish things being shed as she goes further into the woods, but it is also a reminder of what happened to the heroine of the fairy tale. It is further linked in readers’ minds with what they have read in the newspapers and in detective fiction about teenage girls being raped and murdered and left in secret places. She arrives amidst more nursery sounding rhymes

but got there, wolf’s lair, better beware

an idea carried on by Lesson one that night … which we may guess, since it is ‘the love poem’ was how to lose your virginity for which Duffy uses the symbol of the white dove

which flew, straight from my hands to his open mouth.

The narrator has sacrificed innocence for the experience of literature. In the original French version of the story there is often a long account of how Red Cap sheds her clothes before climbing into bed with the wolf, which has clear associations with seduction and rape. Duffy has used this in her description of her crawl through the woods, but here, instead of the wolf having invaded the female world of the grandmother’s cottage, she follows him willingly to the ‘wolf’s lair’ which is the world of books and language. As she comments

what little girl doesn’t dearly love a wolf?

The books she covets are described in rich and lavish imagery

a whole wall was crimson, gold, aglow with books.

This is the treasure she wants and she has happily exchanged the white dove of purity for a different kind of bird:

Words, words were truly alive on the tongue, in the head

warm, beating, frantic, winged; music and blood.

The words have life and the poetry sings. The new writer has lost her physical and literary virginity and her education lasts for ten years before she becomes disillusioned, and sees below the surface of magical things to their roots and that

a greying wolf / howls the same old song at the moon

an idea that is emphasised by her use of repetitious rhyme

year in, year out / season after season, same rhyme, same reason.

She is playing on the saying ‘Without rhyme or reason’ which implies that someone acts without motivation. She has outgrown the wolf and the words which were ‘music and blood’ have become stale and repetitious. She is now able to analyse poems and the way that things work for herself, expressed metaphorically in nursery style rhymes;

I took an axe / to a willow to see how it wept. I took an axe to a salmon

to see how it leapt. I took an axe to the wolf / as he slept …

This last gesture symbolising that he has outlived his usefulness and that, like Red Cap in the earlier stories, she can rescue herself from his clutches. The axe is of course used by the woodcutter in the later versions of the story, where the grandmother often springs alive from the wolf’s stomach and is replaced with large stones to fool the wolf for long enough to enable an escape. The stones may here represent the lack of inspiration weighing down his old belly, in contrast to the earlier experience of the winged words that could fly.

In early tellings of the story there is reference to a cannibal meal that the wolf tricks Red Cap into preparing from some ‘meat’ [from her grandmother] and some ‘wine’ [the grandmother’s blood] which she unknowingly consumes, the old woman thus becoming one with her granddaughter. In Duffy’s poem this idea is expressed through seeing

the glistening virgin white of my grandmother’s bones.

She symbolically frees her previous self [the virgin] and becomes part of a female hierarchy. As the narrator comments rather cynically about the wolf

I stitched him up.

The narrator, the young female poet, Little Red Cap have thus completed the revolution against male dominated literature and can make their own music.

Out of the forest I come with my flowers, singing, all alone.

Thetis was one of the Nereids, the fifty daughters of Nereus, who lived in the sea. Her father was a shape-shifter, an ability that is passed on to his daughter in this poem. She rejected the advances of the god Zeus, who then learned that she was destined to bear a son who would be greater than his father. To avoid disaster among the gods, Zeus married her to a mortal, Peleus, to whom she bore a son, Achilles. When he was a baby, she dipped him into the river Styx to give him immortality, but the heel by which she held him was left vulnerable and he was later killed in the Trojan wars.

In the poem, Thetis is fated to be brutalised by men, whatever shape she takes.

Stanza 1 presents her as a song bird being crushed by a male fist – perhaps an association with the story of Philomel who was raped by her brother-in-law, Tereus, and had her tongue cut out, so she could not accuse him. The gods turned her into a nightingale, forever singing her sad song. Duffy plays on words by substituting sweet sweet for the usual ‘tweet tweet’. The use of the saying ‘a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’ emphasises the man’s role as a hunter.

The emphasis here is on shrank, a bird in the hand, sweet … small song and the stanza abruptly stops with squeeze of his fist. The use of half-rhymes shrank / hand / man / sang and sweet / squeeze highlights the contrast between the fragile bird and the male fist.
In stanza 2 she becomes an albatross, phrased as shouldered the cross which has Christ-like connotations, especially when combined with up the hill a reference to Calvary. This is the albatross of Coleridge’s poem, ‘The Ancient Mariner’, which follows a ship, bringing good weather, until it is shot with a crossbow, and the ship is doomed to disaster. The rhyme scheme in this stanza of cross / albatross / crossbow and sky / why / eye links Christ with the bird and with death and also links the sky or heaven with the question of why the deaths happened. Clipping the wings of a bird makes it unable to fly away and, metaphorically, imprisons it.

Stanza 3 begins with humorous references to shopping for a suitable shape i.e. one that may make her safe from the male pursuer, but also implying the right dress size – Size 8 often being seen as the most desirable since it is very small. These are soon undercut by the double meaning of charmer closely followed by strangler’s clasp. This is emphasised by the colloquial Big Mistake. This changes the tone for the final complex sentence that ends the stanza. The rhyme scheme shape / snake / mistake / nape links the metamorphosis to its failure as the rhyme grasp / clasp makes clear.

Even becoming a big cat in the jungle is no guarantee of safety. Notice how the rhymes roar / claw/ paw / floored / raw / gore / jaw emphasise aggression and power until my gold eye saw, when the language suddenly becomes colloquial and mundane, the guy in the grass with the gun. The alliteration adds an effect more humorous than threatening, especially when combined with the double-meaning of twelve-bore which refers to type of hunting rifle, but also implies dullness . This use of bathos lends a resigned air to the attempts of Thetis to find a shape that will deter male pursuers.
Even in her own element, the sea, Thetis is not safe. The mermaid, like eels (traditionally slippery), dolphins (friendly to man) and even whales, is followed by the fisherman, who is given a song-like rhythm, to add to the double meaning of ‘hook, line and sinker’! Note the half-rhyme of singer and sinker, giving an ironic twist to those who catch the ocean’s opera singer.
I changed my tune comments the narrator, using a common expression for trying a different strategy when others haven’t worked. The fast moving mammals of the next stanza change their shapes in vain. They will all end up in museums or shops, in ‘lifelike’ poses to educate the public. The names are stopped by two slower, longer lines, as the scampering creatures come to an end. Formaldehyde, used to asphyxiate animals before they are gutted and stuffed, makes Thetis decide against any of these. The stanza ends on a humorous note with ‘Stuff that’. A taxidermist is someone who stuffs animals and birds, usually for museums or stately homes, but sometimes for individuals who want to preserve their pets.

Even when Thetis becomes the wind, she knows it is all hot air, for above the clouds, a fighter plane, symbol for brave young warriors, comes out of the blue and the roar of its engine cuts through the hurricane with which she tries to write her name, symbolically trying to establish her individuality. The Hurricane was the name of a fighter plane in the second world war, which adds another ironic note.

Turning to fire (symbol for desire) she discovers that her new husband is proofed against burning. So this time, when Thetis changes, she turns inside out. Perhaps the reality of motherhood changes her and giving birth to Achilles gives a new outlet for her energies and her feelings. The rhyming of burned / learned / turned suggests this. It may relate to Duffy’s own experience of motherhood and the effect it can have.
King Herod is infamous for the ‘slaughter of the innocents’ in the New Testament. Traditionally, the bible story reports that the three Magi (Wise men/Kings) stopped at his court on their journey following the star, to ask if Herod knew the whereabouts of ‘the new-born king’. This alarmed Herod, who did not want a rival king setting up against him, so he entertained the Magi lavishly and pretended he wanted to visit the new baby, begging them to return and tell him when they had found the child. After they had taken their gifts to the infant Jesus, however, they returned home by a different route and Mary and Joseph, warned by an angel of Herod’s murderous intentions, took the baby and travelled into Egypt. Meanwhile, Herod, thwarted of his revenge, ordered that all male children in Bethlehem, of the appropriate age, should be killed.
It should be noted that this massacre of the innocents has little foundation in historical facts relating to Herod or the period in which he lived.
Duffy uses the story to give a feminist slant by using the viewpoint of ‘Queen Herod’ and by making the Magi three Queens, rather than Kings. There are also some echoes of T.S. Eliot’s famous poem ‘The Journey of the Magi’, which would make useful background reading for this poem.

The first stanza tells of the arrival at Herod’s palace of the three Queens in the middle of Winter (December 25th occurs around the Winter solstice). They are dressed in furs, riding camels and have foreign accents. Like the biblical Magi they bring gifts, but this time for the King and Queen, who entertain them royally in return.

Ice in the trees.

With the first line, Duffy sets the scene and conveys a picture of snow frozen on the bare tree branches, informing the reader immediately of the season and the atmosphere. The rest of the stanza is a single sentence, which links together all the ceremonial aspects of the Queens’ arrival, the metre provided mainly by the use of alliteration and the listing of what was provided for the guests – sunken baths, curtained beds / fruit, the best of meat and wine / dancers, music, talk until the rhyming triplet that links Queen Herod to the visitors

as it turned out to be

with everyone fast asleep, save me

those vivid three

where ‘vivid’ tells the reader that the guests are both lively and exotic.

The stanza is brought to an end with the end of the night, abruptly.

till bitter dawn.
The second stanza begins by linking the wisdom of these female Magi to their age and experience

They were wise. Older than I.

They knew what they knew.

They wait until the males are in a drunken sleep and then ask to see ‘the baby’. This is not the baby Jesus, however, but the daughter of Queen Herod. At this point the poem becomes associated with the fairy tale, ‘Sleeping Beauty’ as the Queens mimic the fairies at the christening and bestow their gifts on her – of grace, strength and happiness.

The baby is equated with wealth ‘a little treasure’

Silver and gold

the loose change of herself

glowed in the soft bowl of her face.

We learn little about the guests except that the tallest queen gives the baby ‘grace’, although whether this is physical or spiritual grace is left ambiguous. The second queen has ‘hennaed hands’ and is therefore presumably Asian and her gift to the baby is ‘strength’, although whether this refers to physical or to moral strength is again left unclear. The third queen is black and gives the baby ‘happiness’ while she stares lustfully at her mother. It would seem to make clear that the happiness is unlikely to be brought by a man. This is confirmed by the queens’ warning to the narrator about the star in the East, which, for them, heralds not the birth of the saviour but one who represents mankind

The Husband. Hero. Hunk.

The Boy Next Door. The Paramour. The Je t’adore.

The Marrying Kind. Adulterer. Bigamist.

The Wolf. The Rip. The Rake. The Rat.

The Heartbreaker. The Ladykiller. Mr. Right.

All of these are clichés, either used in love songs and romantic cards or used about men who are apparently irresistible, but serially unfaithful.

The intimacy of the black queen’s gesture as she ‘scooped out my breast’ gives an added emphasis to the vow made by Queen Herod, as she suckles her infant girl.

No man, I swore,

will make her shed one tear.

The scream of the peacock outside acts as a protest from that showiest of male birds.

This baby will not become the ‘Sleeping Princess’ waiting for a handsome Prince to awaken her [in any sense].
As the visitors leave, Duffy presents several images; the kneeling camels, the guide clapping his hands in the cold, spitting and drinking from the jug held by a young maid, the maid herself ‘chittering’ a word that suggests both chattering and shivering – the contrast between the rough man and the delicate girl is made briefly. The final image of departure however is both powerful and sexual

I watched each turbaned Queen

rise like a god on the back of her beast

and is promptly linked with herself ‘splayed … below Herod’s fusty bulk’ in a contrast that explains Queen Herod’s mind reverting to the black Queen, and her warning.

The warning, for Queen Herod, is not of a new king to threaten her power, but of a ‘swaggering lad’ or a ‘wincing prince’ [an ironic reference to the Prince who hacked his way through the thorn hedge in ‘The Sleeping beauty’] who would either break her daughter’s heart or marry her and ‘take her name away’. This loss of identity with only a ring in return seems unbearable to Queen Herod and in the poem it is she who orders the massacre of the innocents, to protect her daughter. The description of the Chief of Staff is appropriate for one who would lead such an expedition – a ‘hard man’ who has suffered and is mean. Her instructions recognise that the murdered children will have mothers, but she is ruthless, Spare not one.

At midnight, the prophecy from the Old Testament of a new star in the East comes true. Duffy uses tension in this stanza to build up to the appearance, by using personification to describe the chattering stars and the way they shivered in a nervous sky. Also to treat Orion, the hunter, as a real man who knew the score, with his yapping dog star at his heels. The diamond studded W is the top part of the constellation, star-studded! The appearance of the new star is heralded by And then … and what the narrator calls The Boyfriend’s Star is described in confident and aggressive adjectives as blatant, brazen and buoyant the alliteration adding to the impression of arrogance.
The final part of the poem deals with the fierce protection Queen Herod feels towards her daughter, both as a mother and as a Queen and the mother of a future Queen. This repeats the archetypal idea of the mother, tender and protective towards her baby, who turns into a fierce aggressor if anything threatens her child, but also restricts it in this poem specifically to girls. This is because Duffy is exploring the reversal of the patriarchal attitudes of the Christian churches, where the saviour is male, the prophets and the Magi are male and also the destroyers are male.
In the original, mythological story, Midas was a King who was given a wish by the god, Dionysus. He asked that he should be able to turn things into gold with a touch. At first this was wonderful, but then he realised that it also applied to food and drink, and to living things. Eventually he went back to Dionysus and begged him to take the golden touch away. Dionysus granted his wish and told him to bathe in a certain river, after which Midas returned to normal.

The happy ending does not happen in the poem, which is narrated by Midas’ wife. The first she knows about his new power, is described in the first stanza of the poem.

It begins in a deliberately prosaic way, establishing the season as Autumn (the season of ripeness and changing colours) and the time of day as dusk, while the narrator prepares dinner in the kitchen. The kitchen is personified, its steamy breath/ gently blanching the windows. The word ‘blanching’ links it to the cooking of the vegetables as well as to the white misting on the glass. The atmosphere is calm, established by I’d just poured a glass of wine, begun/to unwind with its rhyming wordplay. The feeling is continued with the soothing image of wiping the misted window ‘like a brow’. The tone alters with the first sight of Midas who is ‘snapping a twig’.

The image that begins the second stanza is drawn out, just as the onlooker’s gaze struggles to peer through the fading light down the length of the garden, leading the audience into the caesura that follows that twig in his hand was gold. The idea of Autumn is reinforced by the name of the pear variety on the tree and the shape of the fruit is compared to a light bulb, the single word ‘On.’ making an impact as the reader realises that the pear, too, is gold. The narrator’s first thought is the pragmatic idea that her husband is putting lights in the tree, but it is in the form of a question, indicating her uncertainty.
Duffy’s description of Midas’s progress into the house is a mixture of the down-to-earth and the exotic, representing the confusion in the narrator’s mind and her struggle to come to terms with what is happening. Following the transformation of the doorknobs the reader is given an image of what happened when ‘he drew the blinds’ as the narrator is suddenly taken back to her schooldays and her history teacher, Miss Macready, describing the Field of the Cloth of Gold. This was a meeting, in 1520, between Henry VIII and Francis I of France, when each King tried to outdo the other in the splendour of their tents, clothes and entertainments. Cloth of Gold is silk fabric shot through with gold thread. Duffy makes this connection with one of her jokey rhymes

He drew the blinds. You know the mind;

Midas is also connected with the image when he sits down

like a king on a burnished throne.

This phrase comes from Shakespeare’s ‘Anthony and Cleopatra’, where Cleopatra is described for the audience:

The barge she sat on, like a burnished throne,

Burned on the water.

Midas is in a strange mood, according to his wife he appears both ‘wild’ and ‘vain’ and he laughs when she asks what’s going on. He is still at the stage when he is pleased with himself and his ability to turn everything to gold.

However, in the fourth stanza, things begin to look less attractive. When he tries to eat corn on the cob, we are given the image

Within seconds he was spitting out the teeth of the rich

as the corn particles turn to gold in his mouth. He asks for wine and amuses himself turning all the cutlery into gold while she pours it. Her hand is shaking because she has begun to see the consequences of his ‘gift’. The wine is described so that the reader can taste it, ‘ a fragrant, bone-dry white from Italy’ which creates more impact when we know what will happen to it as Midas drinks. Duffy creates the transformation of the wine glass through ‘goblet’ to ‘golden chalice’ but leaves the audience to imagine the drinking through the reaction of the narrator

It was then that I started to scream.
The rest of stanza five is Midas telling his story while his wife finishes the wine, ‘hearing him out.’ There are some amusing touches while she locks the cat in the cellar and moves the phone out of reach, but the toilet I didn’t mind, leaving the reader to imagine the solid gold WC. The implications of ‘keep his hands to himself’ however, are not funny because she can’t allow him to touch her. As the narrator, she reacts in the way most of the readers would if they were told his story, I couldn’t believe my ears, so she is representative of the ordinary, modern person faced with a myth or fairy tale they are expected to believe. The circumstances, however, mean that she sees the truth for herself.
Stanza six sees the narrator using wordplay to explain

Look, we all have wishes; granted.

aBut who has wishes granted? Him.

The properties of gold are delineated by the narrator. It is a metal that has been sought after, bought, sold, stolen and used to underpin the finances of countries. Here, however, it is seen for what it is – a soft, stainless metal that cannot be eaten or drunk (or smoked, it seems). The narrator can see at least one benefit from her husband’s predicament,

At least/I said, you’ll be able to give up smoking for good.

Aurum is Latin for gold and luteous comes from the Latin word for yellow.

The bald statement ‘Separate beds.’ begins stanza seven. Married life can no longer continue; more than that, the narrator wedges her door shut with a chair even as she uses the ambiguous phrase ‘near petrified’, which of course she would be if she was turned into gold. The wonderful image of Midas

turning the spare room/into the tomb of Tutankhamun

not only rhymes but creates a picture of enormous wealth wasted on a dead person, and so is amusing and sinister at the same time. It is followed by a wistful account of how passionate their relationship was in ‘those halcyon days’ and the contrast between ‘unwrapping each other, rapidly’ where the alliteration and assonance lend a clumsy haste to the words that echoes the action, and ‘I feared his honeyed embrace’ an image that recalls a fly trap, emphasised by ‘the kiss that would turn my lips to a work of art.’ Duffy uses words that refer to pleasure, ‘honeyed embrace’ and ‘work of art’ but endows them with fearful meaning because of their context.

More play on words is at the start of stanza eight, in the form of a question that employs two relevant clichés, ‘when it comes to the crunch’ and ‘a heart of gold’.
The narrator’s dream of the beautiful little gold baby

its perfect ore limbs, its little tongue

like a precious latch, its amber eyes

holding their pupils like flies

is also horrific, because of course it is a little statue. The image of flies trapped in amber echoes the ‘honeyed embrace’ of the previous stanza. The ‘dream-milk’ burns the mother’s breasts like liquid gold and she wakes up in the golden rays of the sun.

When Midas finally moves out of the house, in stanza nine, it has to be like a fugitive, ‘under cover of dark’ to a caravan ‘in the wilds’. He is no longer a member of society, as well as no longer being a husband. The narrator’s tone is both angry and regretful

And then I came home, the woman who married the fool

who wished for gold.

The fairy tale rhythms of these lines are ironic, since there is no happy ending. The narrator’s visits are described in terms of the golden clues around Midas’s caravan. These are beautiful, but also sad, since they seem to show his frustration at being unable to keep himself in food , ‘golden trout on the grass’. Starvation is making him delirious, according to the narrator, who finds that being asked to listen to the music of Pan from the woods is ‘the last straw.’

In the final stanza, the narrator begins with anger

What gets me now is not the idiocy or greed

But lack of thought for me.

Some readers may wonder who was the worse off for his idiocy and greed, especially when they read

I sold/the contents of the house and moved down here.

The mood changes at the end to nostalgia and regret, however, as the narrator recalls Midas

I miss most/even now, his hands, his warm hands on my skin, his touch.

The one thing that she loved most was the thing that he made fatal to her by his thoughtless wish.

The poem uses the story in an imaginative way to explore human greed and how it can affect relationships. There is humour and horror in the way that Duffy writes imagining what it might mean to be married to a man with the golden touch.

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