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And here you come
with a shield for a heart
and a sword for a tongue
and your girls, your girls.
Wasn’t I beautiful
Wasn’t I fragrant and young?
Look at me now.
Medusa’s final words before her infamous decapitation by Perseus, communicate a pathos which emanates from her elegaic tone as much the irony of her observation. Medusa’s reflection upon the approach of Perseus with his warrior like physicality and powerful sexual aura, involves several misrecognitions or displacements which highlight the imaginative torment inflicted upon her by the jealous goddess Athene.
For Medusa’s belief in Perseus’s subsitutions reveal a lingering idealism which has not been destroyed by the incarceration of her replusive ugliness. There can be still a residue of humanity in this hellish new world she is forced to live in and to perpetuate.
Hence the shield is standing in ‘for a heart’ and the sword ‘for a tongue.’ This suggests a hearkening back to a previous existence where things were otherwise to the hellish damnation of stone. Our knowledge of Medusa’s fate of course challenges this perspective, yet Carol Ann Duffy reminds us that even Medusa was ‘beautiful’ and ‘fragrant’ and ‘young’.
Does fate and often age take away such anchors? I think not. Words return to haunt us, close time capsules of emotions that just cannot go away. I do wonder at this point about the smell of Medusa. Did she ever smell otherwise? Does her self neglect anticipate that of Miss Havisham? Would it have made any difference if Miss Havisham smelt of Chanel? !
I think so!
And I realised as I was walking through mud with my dogs this morning that the greatest pathos around the compelling tale of Medusa is that in turning everyone who gazes upon her to stone, she has forgotten how to dream, perhaps because she is too bitter to risk dreaming ever -ever again. Thus,through Athene’s cruel punishment for her natural libido, she deprives others of their mutability, of their physical flexibility and mobility by fixing them into stone. They become, as a very astute student told me on Saturday, without any ability to ‘rot’ away and thus cannot enjoy the natural cycle of ‘invisiblity’. They remain fixed, frozen in ironic, doll like masks of themselves, not unlike( and I will write more on this) Freud’s conception of the ‘uncanny’ in his hugely influential essay of that name.
The tragedy of the last line ensares the terrible paradox of Medusa’s dreamless fate. She is woman who not unnaturally desires to be gazed at, to be looked at with love, even with desire. yet who would dare to gaze upon the Medusa knowing the living death that awaits them for such a look? Hence the last line is both plea and threat. And Carol Ann Duffy is superb at finding such moments in her poetry where a character is simultaneously in several psychological and emotional places at once.
‘Look at me now.’