Carol Ann Duffy is Britain’s current poet laureate and has published many well known volumes of poems, including Standing Female Nude, Selling Manhattan and Rapture - all of which were met with critical acclaim upon release. Unlike some poets of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, Duffy writes poetry which is both accessible and meaningful, often making sharp social, political, cultural and social points in her work.
Because of this, her poetry is often taught in schools. Back in secondary school I had to study her brilliant volume of poems called The World’s Wife. As the title suggests, the volume is comprised of a collection of poems which provide a female perspective on certain famous tales, myths, legends and events in history as a comic counter-balance to the fact that a lot of stories and histories are written from the perspective of men, since for most of our history humanity has been patriarchal, with women holding a subjugate position in society. This also gives Duffy the opportunity to update these stories and historical events for the modern era, as well as give them a gentle mocking in the process.
A prime example of this in the volume is her poem “Pilate’s Wife” in which she recounts Pilate’s trial of Jesus of Nazareth from the perspective of his wife. Like all the poems in The World’s Wife, “Pilte’s Wife” is told in the form of an informal monologue, made to feel as if Pilate’s wife is having a conversation with us. She starts off by saying to us, “Firstly, his hands – a woman’s. Softer than mine.” Here she emasculates Pilate by suggesting that his hands are more feminine than hers as a way of destabilising his power as the Prefect of Judea, suggesting that they are reflective of his lazy character: “indolent hands.”
How ones hands looked two thousand years ago was a strong sign of your background and social position; if you had rough, leathery hands, you were probably a worker, whereas if you had pale soft hands it indicated that you were from the upper-classes because they didn’t have to perform manual labour outdoors. What Duffy does is she turns this around and uses Pilate’s position in the establishment of the Roman Empire to mock his manhood and his sexual charisma.
As a result of his “pale, mothy touch”, Pilate’s wife longs to find “someone else” and so with her maid she creeps out of Pilate’s house and into the streets of Jerusalem. It turns out that Jesus has just arrived in the city on the back of a donkey, as in the biblical accounts, and Pilate’s wife catches a glimpse of him. Jesus’s appearance is immediately placed in contrast to that of Pilate’s, “His face? Ugly. Talented.” Although he does not possess the soft features of Pilate, for Pilate’s wife the rough state of Jesus’s face suggests that he is a man of great ability, unlike her husband.
She has a dream about Jesus, again in parallel with the biblical account. Then when she awakes she finds that Jesus has been put on trial and witnesses the famous moment when Pilate decides to distance himself from the trial and symbolically washing his “useless, perfumed” hands of the matter; Duffy drawing the connection between the feebleness of his leadership as shown in the Bible and the daintiness of his hands as Pilate’s wife expresses to us in her monologue.
In this way, Duffy combines the historical context with her own feminist retelling of the famous story through the perspective of Pilate’s wife arguably so as to satirise how even weak men could and, in many places, still can gain powerful positions in society in spite of their clear lack of ability.
Image: By walnut whippet from Hull, UK.SlimVirgin at en.wikipedia [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], from Wikimedia Commons