by Michael Woods
The wife of Lazarus, the man who was raised form the dead by Jesus, is shocked at the reality of his revival as she has since married someone else.
Mrs Lazarus tells of how she observed a decent period of mourning and followed all the protocols associated with widowhood. Through careful detail Duffy presents a convincing picture of a woman who 'howled, shrieked, clawed / at the burial stones' (lines 3-4) but gradually recovered from the initial shock following bereavement until his 'dwindling' (line14) presence is finally 'gone' (line 21). The repetition of 'going' in stanzas two and three leading to the word 'gone' almost recall an auctioneer's use of the terms where chances may be seized as long as he or she is uttering the word 'going'. Mrs Lazarus feels cheated as she thought the 'last hair on his head' had gone. Unwittingly and ironically she is echoing the promise of Christ as recorded in Luke 21:18 'But a hair of your head shall not perish', telling of the possibility of resurrection for everyone. In Catholic theology everyone who is in a state of grace will be given back their bodies on the last day. Lazarus will be returned to her in totality even though she thought all that remained of him was 'the small zero' of her gold wedding ring.
What makes it harder for Mrs Lazarus is the fact that she has just started to build a new life after her husband is 'legend, language' and 'memory' he is suddenly a concrete reality again. Her sense of being 'healed' (line 27) with time to watch 'the edge of the moon occur to the sky' (line 28) is starkly contrasted with the 'barking dogs' (line 31) and the hullabaloo surrounding her being dragged to see the resurrected Lazarus. He is a 'cuckold' because she has been rendered unfaithful be his coming to life; it would have been better if he had remained dead. This is not a selfish response but the reaction of a woman 'faithful / for as long as it took' (lines 24-5) but who found herself in an impossible predicament. The villagers seem to take delight in her situation as they simply see the event as sensational. The 'sly light /on the blacksmith's face' (lines 32-3) and the 'shrill eyes of the barmaid ' (lines 33-4) emphasises this and the fact that in a small community nothing can be kept secret.
The story of Lazarus occurs in the Gospel of Saint John (11:18, 30, 32, 38). He was raised from the dead after he had been entombed for four days. Duffy uses poetic licence to increase the length of time between his death and revivification in order to make his wife's remarriage more credible. His name, from the Hebrew 'Eleazar' meaning 'God has helped' is heavily ironic in this context since his wife is not helped at all.