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Multi-dimensional love: Mrs Lazarus (Carol Ann Duffy)

The following is a long poem, and the explanation which is attached to this poem is also quite long. And yet, it provides a good example of

Click HERE to see the poem.

1 Introduction

The poem describes the real but dwindling grief of the wife of Lazarus, in a rewriting of the biblical story of Lazarus (John 11: 11-44). The poem deals with something like the death or expiration date of love. In doing so, “Mrs. Lazarus” seems to question the metaphysical dimension usually attributed to love. Since love takes place between human beings, love dies when one of the lovers dies. The poem thus constructs a version of love which differs from the stereotype. Herein resides much of its power.

 2 Stanzas 1 & 2

 Love and nature: The poem insists that rejecting the metaphysical dimension of love does not question the love of Mrs. Lazarus for her husband, as she “had grieved” (l.1). The loss of the beloved turns Mrs Lazarus into an animal by taking from her her reason. This take place both in terms of meaning – “ripped”, “howled”, “shrieked”, “clawed”, “bled”, “retched” (stanza 1) – as much as sound – the verbs are composed of monosyllabic words in which plosives abound. The desperation of such naturalisation also finds expression in the frustrated sexuality that emerges in lines 7 - “empty glove” –and 11 – “gaunt nun in the mirror, touching herself”.

Love and society & individuality: But that frustrated sexuality also indicates that something else remains in Mrs Lazarus’s grief: the social and individual layers of love:

The rawness of nature, the imperfection of individuality, the loss of the self and finally the adoption of another self identify love as a supreme fusion of the natural, social and individual dimensions.

3 The survival of love depends on nature  

When the beloved dies, love dies: This, however, is not the whole story the poem tells, for at this stage we have barely left stanza 2. From there on, grief does end, and with grief, so it would seem, love. This gradual disappearance takes place at the natural, material level, via the senses. If sexuality as referred to above primarily makes reference to the sense of touch, the narration of dwindling grief mainly calls upon the remaining senses, hearing, vision and smell, to which is added another material feature, private property: "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" (16-19). The material, natural death of her Lazarus’s body is thus consummated with the loss of material signs of his existence after death. It is on this natural because physical dimension that the other dimensions seem to hinge, as far as Mrs’ Lazarus’s love for her husband is concerned. 

From this moment on, grief and love for her husband are gone, and rather than matter, Mr Lazarus has become “legend, language” (l.21), “memory” (l.25). This dependence of love on physical matter also defines the budding love of Mrs Lazarus for the school teacher, experienced as “the shock / of a man's strength under the sleeve of his coat” (22-23). The world of physics thus opposes the world of metaphysics, and it is here that we have to place legend, language and memory, not so much by following the denotations and connotations of these terms, but by taking into account the structure of love in the poem. Whatever is outside love is outside the material world, which, as we have seen, is fused to the individual and social dimensions of love.

Love, illness & faithfulness: Two things still have to be pointed out as regards the relationship of love and grief with nature in Duffy’s poem: in stanza 5 the grief attendant on the death of a beloved is described in terms of an illness, for when grief disappears, the persona is “healed” (l.27). On the one hand, and through reference to the dehumanising process of stanza 1, this implies the restoration of rationality on Mrs Lazarus. The poem paradigmatically refers to the different “Stations of Bereavement”, yet syntagmatically works out only the irrational one of stanza 1. On the other hand, however, healing here also seems to imply overcoming a state of awareness of and attachment to the metaphysical dimension in the form of death. In addition, stanza 6 describes the development of grief as a natural process over which human beings hold no responsibility, as the persona describes herself as “faithful / for as long as it took” (l.24-25). This definition of faithfulness is as interesting as it is problematic. If faithfulness necessarily incorporates the will into its meaning, how can the loss of faithfulness be entirely natural?

4 Evaluating love as primarily natural

Duffy vs. Donne: In a way, such a construction of love is as it should be. Time, after all, is said to heal everything, and even the marriage rites of the Catholic Church tell us that one is married “till death do us part”. And yet, at the same time, one cannot be but reminded at this point of Donne’s “Valediction forbidding Mourning”, which demotes material love to

Dull sublunary lovers' love
  —Whose soul is sense— [which] cannot admit
Of absence, 'cause it doth remove
  The thing which elemented it (13-16)

and compares such a primitive form of love with a love in which

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
  Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
  Like gold to aery thinness beat. (21-24)

Obviously Donne’s is a different version of physical, because geographical, separation, yet by analogy it may raise doubts about the effects on love of the separation undergone by Mrs Lazarus.

Eternity and the ethics of memory: These doubts can be distilled for present purposes by letting them pass through the filter of Riemann’s yearning for eternity. One way in which such a yearning expresses itself is in the yearning for eternal life or an afterlife. According to Margalit in The Ethics of Memory, such a yearning is more understandable than belief in it, nor can most of us hope to survive by going down in history and being remembered the way, say, Napoleon is remembered. The most we can realistically hope for is “rememb[rance] by those with whom we maintain thick relations” in life (2000: 94).

But which kind of remembrance? Margalit speaks of an ethics of memory in which caring and memory go together (29-30). In thinking about the death of his own mother, Margalit tells us that after a while he, like Mrs Lazarus, lost touch with what he calls “a hot memory of reliving” (139). This was no doubt a natural process, but it was not a process about which he felt easy. In fact, he felt “as if my loyalty to her [was] in question”.

In doing so, Margalit testifies to mourning and grief as double-edged swords. They sever us from life as much as they transcend the limitations of life. They therefore call for an active personal response in us, for being double-edged, they generate tension and struggle. The end, a gradual loss of love, may be the same, but the process is individual, not natural.

The problem with Duffy’s poem: No such tension or individualisation exist in Duffy’s poem, for it defines love in exclusively natural terms and only grudgingly includes grief in its definition, as an illness, something one had better get rid of. Its naturalization of experience goes so far as to naturalise faithfulness – Margalit’s “loyalty” - a distortion behind which, if we enquired further, stands the reluctance of modern society to accept any kind of teleological understanding of nature.

5 Conclusion

So the poem aims at something healthy: it dares to bring love down to earth, make it more natural and pare down some metaphysical because idealized and therefore inhuman outgrowths of love. It seems, however, to have gone a little too far in its demystification of love. It denies love any metaphysical quality whatsoever, and this metaphysical deficit also carries the loss of an individual dimension in its wake. Not even a residual metaphysics is admitted within the natural framework of survival of the self only taking place in those the self cared for and those who cared for the self; in the poem only nature has something to do with the living, metaphysics is the land of the dead. Hence grief is an illness, memory is totally divorced from affection, and Lazarus, the person polluted by contact with metaphysics, is not the beloved any longer, but just disgusting. If love really is unique by virtue of addressing reality in its four dimensions, radically expunging one of them must take its toll.

daniel.candel@uah.es | ©2008 Daniel Candel Bormann