‘Dick Turpin’ Episode 4: The Poacher (in which our hero makes a new friend)

Ep 4 Dick and Willoughby victorious
In which our hero makes a new friend

Synopsis: Turpin and Swiftnick hold up a traveller only to be informed that he’s already been robbed. Turpin concludes that a ‘poacher’ is working their patch. They chase a likely suspect, but decide not to follow the rider into the woods and to head him off instead. They meet a foppish young man called Willoughby (played by Rupert Frazer) who claims also to have been robbed. He is the nephew of Sir John Glutton and is en route for Rookham Hall. Turpin and Swiftnick allow Willoughby to go on his way, laughing at him as he does so. A mysterious man is watching all three of them from behind the trees.

Ep 4 lovely Willoughby
Rupert Frazer as Willoughby

Big Nell (played by Joan Rhodes) tells Turpin that a newcomer to the neighbourhood by name of Vizard (the mysterious man) is absent all day and when he returns his horse has been hard-ridden. Turpin is convinced that Vizard is the poacher.

Meanwhile at Rookham Hall, Captain Spiker is not impressed with Willoughby’s ways and is openly aggressive in his behaviour towards him. Glutton tells Spiker he should acquire some social polish if he wants to get on in life. While Spiker is practising his courtly bows in front of a mirror, a maid brings him a letter from Vizard, in which Vizard promises to help Spiker catch a notorious thief.

Ep 4 Spiker meets Vizard good pic
Spiker meets with Vizard

Spiker rides to meet Vizard at the appointed time, and Vizard (played by Michael O’Hagan) informs him that the thief referred to is Willoughby.

Turpin is planning to catch his poacher by means of posing as a wealthy traveller. He dons a wig and affects a foppish manner by way of disguise and joins Willoughby in a tavern. While Willoughby and Turpin drink together, Swiftnick goes through Willoughby’s saddlebags and discovers his identity as the poacher. Swiftnick takes Turpin aside to inform him of this, and then Turpin returns to the table to blow Willoughby’s cover. The three of them agree to co-operate in order to rob Glutton, and Willoughby, who longs to return to London, agrees to leave once he has acquired the sum sufficient to cover his gambling debts.

Ep 4 Swiftnick discovers the truth
Swiftnick discovers the truth

Turpin infiltrates Rookham Hall and, disguised as a servant, steals the key for the strongroom from under Glutton’s pillow. Willoughby is engaged in distracting Spiker. Glutton discovers that the key is missing and shouts for help. Turpin and Willoughby are cornered by Spiker, Glutton and Vizard as they try to escape. Spiker steps forward to challenge Turpin, but Willoughby intervenes, leaving Turpin to deal with Vizard. Willoughby outclasses Spiker in swordsmanship and easily defeats him, thus getting his revenge for Spiker’s earlier treatment of him. Turpin also wins his fight with Vizard and, having become firm friends with Willoughby, they get away with Glutton’s money.

Commentary: First of all, it has to be said that this is one of the funniest episodes I’ve seen so far, and it features a hugely entertaining and show-stealing turn by Rupert Frazer. The final confrontation between Spiker and Willoughby, when Willoughby outshines the captain as a swordsman, is an absolute joy, and the odious Spiker well and truly gets his comeuppance.

Ep 4 Willoughby turns out to be a fantastic swordsman
Spiker is no match for Willoughby

And, of course, Willoughby’s main contribution to the series is the discussion surrounding wigs. Turpin wears one disguise or another in practically every episode and more or less every disguise is effected by a wig, a coat and a different voice and/or accent.

O’Sullivan himself displays his versatility when he dons yet another round of disguises as the bogus servant Zachary and the rich traveller intended as bait for the poacher (click on the images below to enlarge).

And Swiftnick is not to be overlooked either: he reveals his talent for picking locks in this episode when he and Turpin have the key for the strongroom, but not for the treasure chest.

Ep 4 shall I pick the lock
‘Shall I pick the lock?’

Big Nell also comes to prominence in this episode as someone who both shields Turpin and provides him with information, and she will feature in many more episodes as the series goes on.

Ep 4 Nell tells Dick about Vizard

‘Dick Turpin’ Episode 3: The Champion (in which our hero lands another lucky punch)


Ep 3 reading the flyer
Clunky plot device: Tom ‘The Bristol Butcher’ Bracewell, drops a flyer that conveniently tells us the who, the what and the why, and which also serves to set events in motion

Synopsis: Turpin and Swiftnick are riding towards Mudbury, to lie low for a while. On the way, they save a man’s life when he is attacked by deserters. The man turns out to be Tom Bracewell, a prize-fighter on his way to a fight. Turpin brags to Swiftnick of the time he knocked out the English prize-fighting champion, but admits it was probably down to a lucky punch. Once at Mudbury, Turpin takes a bath while Swiftnick learns that a man named Nightingale is running a protection racket and terrorising the village.

Ep 3 Nightingale bullying the village
Nightingale extracting money from the people of Mudbury

Nightingale employs a thug by name of Hogg (played by Robert Russell) to beat up anyone who refuses to pay. Swiftnick brags of Turpin’s former victory and the villagers temporarily regard Turpin as their potential saviour until, following an altercation with Nightingale, Turpin is beaten by Hogg.

Ep 3 Hogg
Our first glimpse of Hogg

Turpin refuses to leave and is determined to rescue Mudbury from the clutches of Hogg and Nightingale. He engages Bracewell to challenge Hogg to a fight. On the day, however, Bracewell is nowhere to be found, and in order to avoid forfeiting the money put down for the challenge, Turpin steps into the ring in Bracewell’s place. Swiftnick breaks into Nightingale’s house to find out if Bracewell is being held there, but in fact Bracewell has been gagged and bound and is trapped in a box near where the fight is being held. A small boy in the crowd discovers Bracewell, and just in time – Turpin has been well and truly beaten up, but refuses to give in. Bracewell steps into the ring just as Turpin delivers one final punch which defeats Hogg. The village is freed and Nightingale is placed in the stocks.

Ep 3 Nightingale in the stocks
Nightingale in the stocks

Commentary: The deserters we see at the beginning of this episode are presumably from the Jacobite Rising of 1715. James II fled to France following the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89 and was active afterwards as The Pretender. Those still loyal to James II feature in episodes which follow this one, as we shall see. The reigning monarch at this time was George I, who succeeded to the throne after Queen Anne’s death in 1714.

That which is most interesting about this episode is the way in which Turpin’s vanity manifests itself. He can’t reveal his name willy-nilly as he travels about the country because there is a very large price on his head and if captured, he will hang. The pair travel under assumed names: Mr Turner (close to Turpin) and Mr Nicholas Smith (which is Swiftnick’s real name, but it is a common enough name and he is unlikely to forget it). However, as we see in this and other episodes, there is a conflict between the necessity of keeping Turpin’s name a secret and his desire to create his own legend.

Ep 3 Turpin faces Hogg in the ring
A reluctant Turpin faces Hogg in the ring

In spite of Turpin’s vanity, he is hero-material nevertheless. He refuses to chuck in the fight, even though he is half-dead, and he is fighting under an assumed name – it is only at the end of the episode that he reveals his true identity. Fortunately for him, his ‘lucky punch’ replays itself and he lays out Hogg without having to concede the fight.

Ep 3 not going well
The fight is not going well for Turpin

This episode features a lovely over-the-top performance from John Grillo as the zealous tax-collector Father Nightingale. Turpin shows himself to be more than capable of preaching the Bible right back at the village’s oppressor, reminding us, perhaps, that he wasn’t always a highwayman and was once a gentleman-farmer. There are many funny moments in this episode and some excellent comic timing from O’Sullivan, who, of course, was something of a sit-com star (Man About the House in the seventies, Robin’s Nest and Me and My Girl in the eighties). The final fight itself, with Turpin dodging punch after punch, reminds me of the fight between Vitalstatistix and Cassius Ceramix (whose name is a pun on Cassius Clay, Muhammad Ali’s real name) in Asterix and the Big Fight – and of course, Vitalstatistix emerges the victor in exactly the same way that Turpin does here.

Ep 3 the victor
Turpin, sore and swollen, but victorious


‘Dick Turpin’ Episode 2: The Capture (in which our hero is duped by Cleopatra and labelled a symbol of anarchy)

Ep 2 Turpin captured
Turpin is captured!

Synopsis: Swiftnick’s apprenticeship is not going well because he’s foolhardy and talks too much. Turpin is not pleased with him, but agrees to give him one last chance as long as he can do as he’s told and keep his mouth shut. Within minutes of their arrival at the White Lion, however, Swiftnick is telling tales of their adventures to one of the staff, a young girl called Kate. Spiker has been tipped off and arrives on the scene, only to receive a splendid black eye during the fight which ensues. Turpin assumes it was Kate who informed Spiker, so he arranges for Swiftnick to serve an apprenticeship with a gunsmith and leaves him behind.

Ep 2 Swiftnick gabbing
Swiftnick telling Kate tales of derring-do

Meanwhile, Sir John Glutton and Spiker are laying a trap for Turpin. An actress sentenced to three years for scrumping apples is disguised as a rich widow travelling alone. Turpin holds up her coach and is captured. He is thrown into jail and sentenced to hang.

Ep 2 Spiker hanged her father
Kate tells Turpin he used to ride with her father

Kate visits Turpin in jail and tells him that he used to ride with her father, who was hanged by Spiker. Turpin informs Kate where to find Swiftnick, and the two lay an explosive ambush to rescue Turpin as he is transported from jail to the place where he is to be executed. Swiftnick is forgiven and reconciled with Turpin.

Ep 2 Swiftnick arranges a surprise
Swiftnick and Kate rescue Turpin

Commentary: the themes of betrayal and loyalty characterise this episode. The ‘squealer’ at the White Lion witnesses Turpin’s arrival and rides off to betray his whereabouts, motivated no doubt by the thought of the £200 reward offered for Turpin’s capture. The actress, who tells us she has played Cleopatra, is induced to play her part in Sir John’s plot in exchange for her freedom, but she cooks her own goose when she demands the reward and is instantly slung back in jail.

Ep 2 Cleopatra
‘Cleopatra’ sentenced for scrumping

In spite of the generous reward on offer, there are those who are loyal to Turpin. Kate stands out as one who risks a great deal to help the man who once rode with her father, and when Swiftnick hears that Turpin has been taken, he charges to the rescue regardless, not worrying that Turpin had dismissed him from his service.

Ep 2 The gunsmith
The gunsmith

Something else to note in this episode is the way in which Spiker’s vanity and ambition is exploited by Sir John Glutton. Spiker spends quite a lot of time looking in mirrors (for which he is often berated) and Sir John knows that what the man wants is property, position and respect. ‘Rid the nation of this symbol of anarchy’, says Sir John, and promises to reward Spiker accordingly once Turpin has been safely hanged.

Ep 2 Cleopatra disguised
‘Cleopatra’ in disguise with Sir John

In spite of the seriousness of the heavy-weight themes and all the talk of hanging, it’s important to note that the series has a light-hearted touch throughout, with plenty of humour. The gunsmith comments that Swiftnick looks as if he’ll eat too much, for example. Our ‘Cleopatra’ gives a wonderfully hammy performance and Sir John can’t make up his mind whether or not he wants Spiker to knock before he comes in.

Ep 2 reconciled
Turpin and Swiftnick reconciled



‘Dick Turpin’ Episode 1: Swiftnick (in which our hero acquires a sidekick and reports of Turpin’s death are greatly exaggerated)

Generic strip image for each post

Dick Turpin was a television series produced by London Weekend Television and screened in half-hourly episodes from 1979 to 1982. Richard O’Sullivan starred as the eponymous hero, with Michael Deeks as Swiftnick, Christopher Benjamin as Sir John Glutton and David Daker as Captain Nathan Spiker. I loved this series when I was a kiddy, and I’ve just acquired the DVD box set so I’m planning on writing a short post dedicated to each episode with a plot synopsis and commentary. I’ve even worked out how to make screenshots from the DVDs so there’ll be pics too, and I’m not going to pretend that most of them won’t be of Richard O’Sullivan looking gorgeous because that most certainly will be the case. He was my first celebrity crush and I adoooooooored him.

Ep 1 Dick Turpin revealed
Dick Turpin revealed to the viewer for the first time

Richard Turpin was indeed a real person and you can read about his exploits here. The Turpin of the television series is a ‘Robin Hood’ type of character, who only steals from the rich and often shares what he has stolen with those less fortunate. As Swiftnick says in ‘The Imposter’, Turpin offers an opportunity for the poor ‘to drag [themselves] from the mire’. In addition, Turpin is a character who has turned to crime because his farm was stolen from him by Sir John Glutton while Turpin was away fighting for his country. But the real Turpin certainly wasn’t the noble hero depicted in the television series: he was a notorious highwayman and a murderer who was eventually hanged for his crimes. Fortunately though, most of us can tell the difference between real life and telly (some YouTube commenters excepted) and we know that this is just a bit of entertainment.

Dick Turpin Episode 1: Swiftnick in which our hero acquires a sidekick and reports of Turpin’s death are greatly exaggerated

Synopsis: Sir John Glutton plans to evict Mary Smith and her son Nick from The Black Swan inn where they hold tenure if they cannot pay twenty guineas in rent. Mary borrows the money from Dick Turpin, who holds up Sir John’s coach and takes the money back. Nick helps Turpin evade capture, but Nick himself is taken by Captain Spiker. Mary begs Turpin to rescue Nick and to let Nick ride with him as a highwayman. Turpin grudgingly agrees. Disguised as a doctor, Turpin tells Sir John that Nick has the plague. Turpin’s ruse is discovered by Spiker who arrives just as Turpin and Nick are about to make their escape, and a fight ensues. Turpin and Nick escape and the episode concludes with Turpin bestowing on his new sidekick the name of ‘Swiftnick’.

Ep 1 Swiftnick_s arrest
Nick Smith, later ‘Swiftnick’, is arrested

Commentary: In this, the first episode, everyone’s sort of finding their feet a bit – by which I mean ‘it’s not great’. The fights are very stagey and the scene in which Turpin and Mary are discussing Turpin’s past and Nick’s future in The Black Swan is uncomfortably like watching a filmed play, but this is in part owing to a pretty bloody awful performance on the part of Jo Rowbottom as Mary. She’s just terrible. The series improves rapidly, however, and this first episode is really just about providing expository information: who the characters are, Turpin’s tragic backstory as justification for his criminal activity, how Swiftnick becomes the sidekick, and so on.

Ep 1 genuine riding of horses
David Daker on horseback as Captain Nathan Spiker 

The other point to mention is that there is genuine riding of horses: O’Sullivan, Deeks and Daker are all seen mounting and dismounting, with a bit of trotting too perhaps, although obviously the more dangerous riding scenes (and there are lots of them) are clearly performed by stand-ins. Nevertheless, the actors were clearly required to do some actual horse-riding themselves.

Ep 1 The Farm
Jo Rowbottom as Mary Smith with Richard O’Sullivan as Dick Turpin

The key themes that emerge from this episode and that feature throughout the series are those of disguises, imposters, impersonators, and the use of Turpin’s name. Turpin is presumed dead at the beginning of the story, hanged for his crimes, but this turns out to be another man who used Turpin’s name to carry out his own acts of robbery and who eventually went to the gallows still professing to be Turpin. The most interesting moment of the episode comes when Nathan Spiker, who believes Turpin to be still alive, is explaining to Sir John Glutton why anyone would want to die in another’s stead. Spiker claims that the carnival atmosphere attending the execution of a celebrated criminal is such that the condemned man had to be Turpin to the end, to go out in a blaze of (someone else’s) glory. Even Nick Smith takes on Turpin’s name to steal the twenty guineas needed to pay the rent; unfortunately for him, the traveller he tries to rob is none other than Turpin himself. There is a kind of hero-worship that surrounds Turpin in as much as other would-be thieves are anxious to emulate him. And it is easy enough to pretend to be Turpin, when all the imposters have to do is pull a neck-tie up over their noses so the lower half of the face is obscured.

Ep 1 Dick Turpin in disguise
Turpin’s first disguise

In this episode, Turpin ‘dies’ twice: first when another goes to the gallows for him, and second when Turpin disguised as the doctor announces that Turpin has perished of the plague. Turpin also appears in disguise twice: first as the traveller who unwisely flashes his money in The Black Swan (thus provoking Nick’s attempted robbery), and second as the doctor. It takes no more than a wig, a pair of spectacles and an unconvincing accent.

Ep 1 another disguise
Turpin disguised as the doctor, with Christopher Benjamin as Sir John Glutton (far left)

Two Medusas: Carol Ann Duffy and Robert Olen Butler

Mark Brown Medusa

Medusa at the Chelsea Flower Show 2015

Photograph by Mark Brown

There are various different versions of Medusa’s origins and history, as is often the case with the dramatis personae of the Greek myths. Her story exists in at least two forms. In the first, Medusa was once a very beautiful young woman whose hair was her crowning glory, but in setting her beauty against that of the gods, she commits the crime of hubris and is subsequently punished by Athena (or Minerva): all Medusa’s luxurious ringlets are turned into snakes. The second version of the story is rather more prevalent: Medusa is raped by Poseidon in Athena’s temple, and the goddess, furious that her temple has been defiled, turns Medusa into a monster. This is how Medusa appears in Ovid’s Metamorphoses:

Her beauty was far-famed, the jealous hope

Of many a suitor, and of all her charms

Her hair was loveliest; …

…She, it’s said,

Was violated in Minerva’s shrine

By Ocean’s lord. Jove’s daughter turned away

And covered with her shield her virgin’s eyes,

And then for fitting punishment transformed

The Gorgon’s lovely hair to loathsome snakes.

Raped by a god and punished for this by a prim virgin of a goddess. Nice. But there is another way to look at this, if you choose to. Athena could not, presumably, take on Poseidon – at least not without massively annoying Zeus – so she turns Medusa into a weapon by granting her the power to destroy. Medusa herself can avenge her violation on every man who crosses her path. This fits nicely with the end of the story: Perseus gives Medusa’s severed head to Athena, who fixes it in the centre of her shield for use as a weapon: ‘Minerva still, to strike her foes with dread, / Upon her breastplate wears the snakes she made’ (Ovid). And this way, it becomes a story about female vengeance directed towards men, rather than each other.

So, what is generally agreed about Medusa? That she has snakes for hair, obviously. Those who look at her are turned to stone, and even after she is decapitated by Perseus, her severed head retains this power. She can only safely be viewed as a reflection, at one remove from reality, and Perseus defeats her by using his shield as a mirror to view her movements without having to look directly at her.


“Perseus (Benvenuto Cellini) 2013 February” by Morio – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

It starts getting fuzzy after this. Medusa is usually an archer, carrying a bow and a quiver of arrows. She is often depicted as half woman-half snake, like a sort of evil version of a mermaid (as in the picture above at the top), but even this is not necessarily a given (the statue in the picture directly above shows a foot). In some versions, Medusa’s blood is also poisonous and various monsters are engendered from the drops that fall on the floor. In Ovid, it is the flying horse Pegasus that springs from the body after her death: ‘and from their mother’s blood / Swift-flying Pegasus and his brother sprang’.

What we can only guess at, and where the myth opens itself up for creative re-workings and re-imaginings, is how much of her former self is left following the transformation. Is she also a monster in her mind, does she kill for pleasure or vengeance? Or – much worse – is her mind left untainted by her physical transformation so that she is horribly aware of her own hideousness and of her isolation from every living thing? She is exiled to a deserted island, but nothing can live in proximity to her in any case – she will forever turn to stone those she gazes upon. She is utterly alone. Those who venture near her island are the would-be-heroes who seek to destroy her for their own glory. Her lair is littered with stone statues, the grisly remains of the men who tried to kill her. Her very name has become synonymous with the monster, as is evident in the frequent use of the definite article when reference is made to her: the Medusa.

To get some idea of how Medusa features in a twenty-first century consciousness, you could do worse than start with a Google images search. Clearly, the Medusa still appeals to many. There are imaginative attempts to appropriate this figure and situate her within various discourses, but this inevitably entails some changes to the existing myth: the most obvious alteration is that the majority of Medusa-images thrown up by a search retain her trademark snakes but do away with the hideous visage. My guess is that Medusa’s power is attractive but her monster-face is not, so in the spirit having one’s cake and eating it, many of the images feature a beautiful face topped with glossy snakes that have somehow settled into an attractive hair-do. It’s a watered-down Medusa to suit those who want to be powerful and pretty.

The sadness of a lonely Medusa can also be found in images here and there:

Sad Medusa

(Artist is ‘Mattchew’. Visit the thread for a detailed blow-by-blow discussion of how the picture was created – it’s really interesting!)

And I’m afraid a very, very large number of Medusa images are quite simply pornographic. I’m guessing these are pictures produced by men, but this isn’t entirely fair because after all, Rhianna must have agreed to those distressingly tasteless photographs for GQ. I’m not posting any of those images here. If you want to see them, look them up yourself, because I’m afraid this sort of thing really gets my back up. Medusa is a killer, a slayer of men, a potent though possibly not entirely uncomplicated symbol of female power: to reimagine her in a pornographic light is quite simply to drag her back into the realms of male fantasy and the discourse of woman-as-sexual-object. Boooooooooring.

Let’s move on to take a look at how Medusa features in films. In the original Clash of the Titans (1981), a stop-motion Medusa is hideous and deadly:

I saw this in the cinema several times when it first appeared and I can still remember how my heart thudded through these scenes. The finale is unbearably tense: the quiet stillness of the hero; his face gradually becoming beaded with sweat; the focus on his hand as he tightens his grip on the sword; the slithering sound and warning rattle that accompany Medusa’s slow progress – all of this made my ten-year-old palms sweat, and it’s a far more effective climactic battle than that of the noisy 2010 remake:

Yawn. Noise, running around, slow-motion leaping, endless CGI, more noise, more impossible movement – it’s all very macho and very silly. It even has a rather pointless noble sacrifice. It’s all straight out of Churn-‘Em-Out Scripts ‘R Us. The Medusa herself is ugly/beautiful by turns (mostly beautiful). Daft. But nowhere near as daft as the Medusa in Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief (also 2010):

This is just awful. I couldn’t bear to watch any more than this tiny clip, even though Uma Thurman is beautiful enough to take your breath away. This Medusa is beautiful all the time, and what’s more, she has retained her female form – no slithering along the floor for Uma. But no matter how much the hero tries to appear scared, watching him running around a garden centre just isn’t going to make my palms sweat. And in this version, the Medusa’s victims have been reconfigured as naff garden ornaments. No no no. Nope.

But what is different here is that Medusa has a voice. She’s not supposed to, of course – she’s supposed to have a forked tongue following her transformation – but she talks here. In 1981, she couldn’t say a word, she just rattled and hissed. In 2010, she either does a lot of laughing and screaming or she engages in a bit of psychological warfare by taunting her intended victim. This brings me to the title of this post, because both Carol Ann Duffy and Robert Olen Butler have given the Medusa a voice and I’d like to briefly discuss here the differences in those voices.

Medusa with fingers

(Artist: Giovanni Mazzi)

The texts under consideration are taken from Duffy’s The World’s Wife and Butler’s Severance. Duffy’s text is a poem which forms part of a series of poems imagined to have been written by the wives of various biblical, mythical or fictional males (for example, Queen Herod, Mrs Tiresias, Mrs Faust), but there are one or two real wives in there as well: Mrs Darwin, Anne Hathaway (Shakespeare’s wife). You can read the whole text here.

Duffy’s poem is structured thematically into two groups of three six-line stanzas, followed by a final stanza and then one line on its own. The first group of three deals with her transformation, and everything is heavily metaphorical: here she is not the Medusa of myth, but the bride of a philandering husband. The snakes are her jealous suspicions: ‘my thoughts / hissed and spat on my scalp’. The transformation is wrought by herself in something akin to self-harm, a physical manifestation of her mental anguish, and she projects her tortured psyche onto the landscape when she begins to turn things to stone.

The second group of three shows us her growing power through a series of repetitive shifts: ‘I glanced at / I looked at / I stared at’. Glances become looks become stares. The looks which destroy become longer and more deliberate: a glance can be performed almost unintentionally, but not so a stare. Her victims, too, become larger and larger in size as her power grows: bee—bird—cat—pig—dragon. And in the last six-line stanza, we meet her next (final?) victim: ‘And here you come’ (my emphasis). The last line of the poem, the line that stands alone, has both a declarative and an imperative function, with a different meaning for each: ‘Look at me now.’ In a declarative sense, the presupposed meaning in context is that she is asking her husband to compare her present ugliness with her former beauty. As an imperative, she is ordering the man to look at her so she can turn him to stone. As a riff on the theme of female vengeance, it’s pretty good.


(Artist: Ubbo Enninga)

Butler’s text is a prose poem from his book Severance, the premise of which is as follows. Apparently a head remains conscious for 90 seconds after decapitation, and, given that we can speak at 160 words per minute when sufficiently excited, a severed head should be able to produce 240 words before death is absolute. Butler has written sixty-two prose poems, all imagined to have been the words produced by the decapitated heads of sixty-two persons, the last of which is Butler himself. So far, so good: Butler and Duffy have done the same thing – putting words into the mouths (dead or alive) of various mythical / historical / fictional figures. Butler’s gruesome set-up is intriguing for a while, but I’m afraid it palls very quickly, not least because of the secondary fixation with 240 words delivered in 90 seconds: this means that all the prose poems are rapid stream-of-consciousness affairs with very little punctuation so after a while you feel as if you’re reading the same breathless monologue over and over, especially when most of them seem to run along a theme of How Much I Liked Sex When I Was Alive. Here’s the whole thing:

dreaming, surely I dream now: I can still shake my hair down long and billowing like waves upon the sea, how tender I am how fair I can see in the reflection of water and shield and a man’s eyes, and this softer hair makes no difference I still turn a man to stone who looks at me, the part of him that snakes inside me, a clefting of stone, and my body weeps the sea, pours forth the thickest sea for my god-man Poseidon who smells of brine and the great swimming creatures who attend him scaled and heavy wet limbs about me and that bitch Athena thinks her temple defiled but it was he who came to me and leaned his trident upon her marble face and dripped upon her floor, she tries to hurt me but I love my living hair these serpents whisper when men come close each strand with a split tongue hissing my desire for them I shake my dear children my tresses down and they curl back up their black eyes flashing and the man cries out at my beauty and then his tongue and face and chest and arms and thighs and his toad-headed serpent all turn hard forever the clearing before my cave is thronged with them my admirers, but my children are my true loves rooted in my brain and gathered sleeping against my face muttering sibilant dreams of love

For Butler, Medusa’s snakes are not vindictive thoughts, but penises. Of course. It’s taken me this long to get around to mentioning the phallic qualities of the snake, although I could have mentioned it when I was discussing the pornographic Medusas earlier. Butler’s Medusa is surrounded by stone admirers who are permanently hard for her. Poseidon is now a former lover rather than a rapist, and Medusa’s voice is not an angry one: she believes herself still beautiful and she is full of love for her children, the snakes. I could be generous and say this poem is a celebration of female sexuality, but frankly, it reads more like a love-affair with the penis that a male writer would imagine women to have. Poseidon even has a (phallic) trident that he leans against Athena’s marble face in the temple – but I must admit, I quite liked that bit.

So, Duffy’s Medusa is a woman rendered hideous and vindictive by long-standing neglect and ill-treatment, and Butler’s Medusa is in love with men’s trouser-snakes. Medusa was always a figure that was going to divide the sexes, and we have a perfect example of it here. For me, I will always cherish the terrifying monster of 1981, because let’s not forget, in that film Medusa’s severed head destroys the Kraken – thus saving the lovely Andromeda. Hooray!

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Butler, Robert Olen (2008). Severance. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.

Duffy, Carol Ann (1999). The World’s Wife. London: Picador.

Ovid. Metamorphoses. Translated by A. D. Melville (1986). World’s Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [Roman names in Ovid, Greek names used in this post.]