Anne Hathaway

This poem also begins with an italicised extract, but here it is from Shakespeare's will. He has bequeathed to his wife, his "second best bed …"

Points to ponder

  • Why the "second best" bed?

  • Who received the finest bed, and why?

  • Why would the poet precede the poem with these words?

Shakespeare was famous for his adaptation and perfection of the sonnet form. This form was traditionally used as a love poem. The Petrarchan sonnet was the precursor to the Elizabethan or Shakespearean sonnet. The Petrarchan sonnet had an octet and a sestet, whereas the Shakespearean one had three sets of quatrains and a rhyming couplet. Duffy has not followed all the conventions of rhyme or metre, as Shakespeare did, but she has written a sonnet which is imaginative and impassioned, and it does end with the famous rhyming couplet.

The opening sentence contains a metaphor. "The bed we loved in was a spinning world / of forests, castles, torchlight, clifftops, seas / where he would dive for pearls." The image is rich in imaginative detail, and magically evokes a fairytale world of exotic landscapes, adventure and treasures.

Because the poem is about a bed, the sexual innuendo is fairly obvious. Hathaway suggests that as lovers, they were inventive and their sex life was exciting.

Another metaphor is initiated in line 3. "My lover's words / were shooting stars which fell to earth as kisses / on these lips…" It would seem then, that Shakespeare was quite the kisser! Or could it be that his words were? Imagine having a lover whose words were figuratively meteoric - they fell to Earth as kisses. This delightful simile shows how much brightness, light and magic were associated with Shakespeare's kisses.

Hathaway then combines (quite erotically) the tools of the poet with the idea of love-making. In this bed, the coupling is between Shakespeare and Hathaway, male and female. In poetry, a distinction is made between a feminine rhyme (usually two syllables, with the stress on the first syllable) and a masculine rhyme (usually a single syllable, but even if there are two syllables, the stress is on the second syllable).

Assonance, or the repetition of vowel sounds, is yet another tool of the poet, and Hathaway likens the sexual act to an echo - a repeated sound, perhaps alluding to repeated acts of sexual pleasure.

Shakespeare's touch is said to be "a verb dancing in the centre of a noun". He is, metaphorically, that which brings action and movement to her. Remember, that a verb can also indicate a state of being. Perhaps Shakespeare is Hathaway's reason for being? The connotations of "dancing" are lively, romantic, happy and celebratory.

In line 8, the speaker admits that some nights she had dreamed that Shakespeare had "written" her. She imagined that the bed was like a page beneath "his writer's hands." This very sensual image suggests that she at times passively awaited his touch, and became aroused and alive, once he had caressed her.

In line 9, Hathaway speaks of "Romance / and drama played by touch, by scent, by taste." This surely refers to Shakespeare's plays spanning different genres of romance and drama, but look carefully at the sensory details here. It is not just a matter of extending the metaphor of line 8: the woman feeling the arousing touch of her lover. Here scent and touch are added in a richly evocative manner.

In line 11, it becomes apparent where the "best bed" is: in the guest room. It has been reserved for visitors, and before we can even feel pity for Hathaway, who only has the "second best bed", it becomes clear that the guests are the ones to be pitied. Far from having an exciting and adventurous sex life, the visitors "dozed on, / dribbling their prose." They are sleepy and inert; their writings (literal or figurative) are dribbled.

Compare this to the "shooting stars", "spinning world of forests, castles, torchlight…"

The poem relies on several double meanings, much like those we find in Shakespeare's poetry and plays. Although she is a widow now (Hathaway outlived Shakespeare by seven years), she holds him very close to her. She describes her head as if it is a casket, and his memory is held there, not in a bitter manner, like Miss Havisham, but in the same way that Shakespeare held her on the "second best bed" - with love, adoration and intimacy. In a Shakespearean sonnet, the closing couplet would often contain the essence or crux of the poem, and here too, we see that Hathaway's closing sentiments are encapsulated. She truly loved and cherished her lover.

Diction

While the word choice in the poem is fairly contemporary, it is still possible to imagine a woman in the 1500s speaking of her love with passion and intensity. The diction, while not archaic, still manages to suit the personalities of the poem, and involves rich and symbolic detail, with some delightful examples of innuendo and contrast. For example, "Some nights, I dreamed he'd written me…"

Find other examples that you find interesting and vivid.

Style

The style is quite formal and symbolic. The writer enjoys the double entendres (double meanings) and the tone is suggestive. Duffy has made several allusions to the type of language that Shakespeare used, but added to that, a somewhat saucy, witty approach. There is a shift in tone towards the end of the poem when the reader realises that the widow is mourning the loss of her husband and lover. The closing lines contain a hint of loneliness, as Anne Hathaway longs for the love and the passion which death has claimed.