A favourite of mine – have studied it a lot with students and it’s always proclaimed the favourite at some point. I think I first came across it when teaching GCSE but it’s just as popular at A-level, perhaps more so because I think the students can understand some of the nuances of longing a little more by then.
Shakespeare famously left Anne Hathaway his “second best bed”, as Duffy uses for the inspiration in her epigraph – because, it’s widely assumed, the best bed was the one reserved for guests and so he’s leaving her the bed they shared together.
On first reading, the poem is a beautiful elegy to a writer, full of fantastical imagery and lyrical fairytales: the height of romantic description. It is slow, thoughtful, and ends sombrely – the “casket of my widow’s head” meaning she’s left with just her memories and imaginations (casket also having the dual meaning of both coffin and a box for the most precious of documents and possessions).
On a second reading, however, the poem becomes more than that – it’s an intensely private recollection of a relationship, loving one another in the most intimate moments. The way they touched, kissed, the sensation Anne expresses that she is only here now because she has become something more or other than herself as a result of his having touched her, as if he has brought her to life. It’s far more physical than the elusive “verb dancing in the centre of a noun” would suggest at first thought, and therein lies some of its appeal for me. It’s a poem that requires a second reading but doesn’t demand it. You can read this, think it’s lovely, and move on. But it rewards a second look.
by Carol Ann Duffy from The World’s Wife
‘Item I gyve unto my wife my second best bed …’
(from Shakespeare’s will)
The bed we loved in was a spinning world
of forests, castles, torchlight, clifftops, seas
where we would dive for pearls. My lover’s words
were shooting stars which fell to earth as kisses
on these lips; my body now a softer rhyme
to his, now echo, assonance; his touch
a verb dancing in the centre of a noun.
Some nights, I dreamed he’d written me, the bed
a page beneath his writer’s hands. Romance
and drama played by touch, by scent, by taste.
In the other bed, the best, our guests dozed on,
dribbling their prose. My living laughing love –
I hold him in the casket of my widow’s head
as he held me upon that next best bed.