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'Thetis', by Carol Ann Duffy


I'm not going to lie: this could, perhaps, be my favourite poem of the collection. Perhaps, because you do need to note that I did not respect most of my teacher's thoughts on Duffy's work, nor his continuous self- righteous manner of speaking, and therefore spent most of my lessons ignoring what he was saying and doodling on scraps of paper, but probably didn't have any means by which I could doodle on the day that we looked at ‘Thetis’....

Peleus grabbing Thetis

The Mythological Character of Thetis

As with all of the poems within this collection, knowledge of the tale upon which the poem is based is key to deepening our understanding. Thetis 'of the silver feet' is known best as the mother of Achilles, and also a goddess of the sea. She was forced to marry Peleus, a mortal man, who captured her by holding onto her body as she continuously changed form. It could also be worthy to note that Thetis greatly loved her son, who could be one of the most archetypal literary male figures, and whose image is embedded into our entire culture as the typical 'macho hero'.

Notes on 'Thetis'

The poem begins with 'I', which highlights the importance of the narrator, and is followed by the emphasis placed upon her deliberate purpose as well as free will in the position of the word 'myself'; placing a word at the end of a line, not even followed by any punctuation, serves to highlight its importance. Remember, then, the importance of the self as a woman, because Duffy is signalling that there is where the reader's focus must be placed. The poet has lifted this myth from its old-fashioned setting into our current one. By doing so, we are incited to question the role of women today: we assume that they are treated differently, but does the validity of Thetis' tale within today's world not imply that there has been a lack of social change? Flight and Pursuit - symbolism, pace and transformation

Clearly, the narrator flees the terrorisation of man within the poem. Her trust is shown through her literal placement of her life 'in the hand/ of a man', and though she does not openly state that she becomes a bird, it is implied through the 'sweet, that [she] sang'; the sibilance also creates a softer sound, adding to the sense of innocence and gentleness formed by the play on the word 'tweet', whilst injecting the illustration with human element and therefore highlighting Thetis, as opposed to the bird form that she occupies.

The imagery is important, and the following forms that she takes are aimed at altering the reader’s view of women; each form reveals another aspect of female nature as viewed by Duffy.

- The ‘cross of an albatross’ : an intertextual reference to Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, in which the albatross provides good luck when sighted as a ship sails, and it is combined with the struggle of Christ to present female suffering for the sake of men. The answer to the question of ‘Why?’ may be literal, but holds tones of regret and sorrow as the pain of her efforts are doubly felt when her freedom is clipped.

- The ‘suitable...Snake’ : inverts the original interpretation of serpent imagery by portraying herself as being held under the sexual power of man. Note that she is still trying to please her counterpart in spite of constant persecution, which is reflective of women changing their appearances today.

- The ‘meateater’: the narrator now tries to remove herself from the presence of men, displaying her power as an animal high up in the food chain, in tune with nature. The natural structure of the entire setting is broken by the disruptive and also well-prepared hunter. This links to man’s desire to destroy in order to possess.

- The sea creature: returns to her home, and her sense of peace ties closely to her praise and appreciation of all around her. She finds a place where she feels equal, but ‘the fisherman’ arrives with his age-old and clichéd manner of capture.

- The undesired animal: almost all of the animal forms listed are considered vermin, and therefore repulsive, but then a disturbing turn takes place, as now in an equally repulsive action, with the ‘stink’ of the chemical formaldehyde, aims to remove Thetis’ self from the animal form and preserve a shape that is not even considered beautiful for the pleasure of doing so.

- The ‘wind’: the animal forms are tossed aside as once more independence is trying to be asserted, and a sense of freedom is quickly built up, as self-ownership is shown through her scrawling her ‘name with a hurricane’. Man, of course, builds air vessels in order to wrest control of the skies, leaving nothing for others, and certainly not for women.

- The final shape: starts as an offensive element, aimed to detstroy, and clearly full of passion, but her partner remains stone-cold, using one of his cold-cut inventions to entrap Thetis. So she ‘learned’, and morphs back into a human, finally subdued? Or using her birthright and ability to bear children in order to escape man? Promoted Female Characteristics in contrast with male virulence: passion, appreciation for nature, care. The male kind is presented as some cold, unnatural thing, in a sense. Form: Sextets

However, there is no rhyme scheme, nor any regular rhythm. Perhaps this reflects Thetis’s metamorphoses, as her self remains the same whilst her shape continuously shifts in form. Also, note the heavy use of internal rhyme at certain points, along with the use of asyndeton: these speed up the pace of the poem, flashing different images at the reader after each other in order to replicate the pace of the movement. The use of polysyndeton, on the other hand, draws out each component slowly to emphasise ‘his hook and his line and his sinker’. This allows for greater emotion to be attached to the words, but which? Disgust, sadness, or bitterness? And what are the effects? Having looked at the poem carefully, have a deep think. Think about what the poet could be trying to convey to her reader. Any form of writing seeks to be read, be it by the writer or someone else, and it is the reaction to that particular set of words which is most important. It is up to you to interpret the poem as you feel fit, but a well-made interpretation needs to be able to be linked back to the text. Your view of the poem must be a result of your reading of it, and not merely of you. One of the two AQA AS English Literature questions of June 2012 was about Thetis, and I am extremely glad that it was, because I hadn't revised my notes on most of the poems of this collection. If you've got the same exam coming up, though, I seriously wouldn't advise you to do the same. SO.... If you have any thoughts (as a reaction to this post), comment. Why? Well, because you can, of course. And if you have any suggestions of further reading to be posted about, by all means share them!

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