King Herod is infamous for the ‘slaughter of the innocents’ in the New Testament. Traditionally, the bible story reports that the three Magi (Wise men/Kings) stopped at his court on their journey following the star, to ask if Herod knew the whereabouts of ‘the new-born king’. This alarmed Herod, who did not want a rival king setting up against him, so he entertained the Magi lavishly and pretended he wanted to visit the new baby, begging them to return and tell him when they had found the child. After they had taken their gifts to the infant Jesus, however, they returned home by a different route and Mary and Joseph, warned by an angel of Herod’s murderous intentions, took the baby and travelled into Egypt. Meanwhile, Herod, thwarted of his revenge, ordered that all male children in Bethlehem, of the appropriate age, should be killed.
It should be noted that this massacre of the innocents has little foundation in historical facts relating to Herod or the period in which he lived.
Duffy uses the story to give a feminist slant by using the viewpoint of ‘Queen Herod’ and by making the Magi three Queens, rather than Kings. There are also some echoes of T.S. Eliot’s famous poem ‘The Journey of the Magi’, which would make useful background reading for this poem.
The first stanza tells of the arrival at Herod’s palace of the three Queens in the middle of Winter (December 25th occurs around the Winter solstice). They are dressed in furs, riding camels and have foreign accents. Like the biblical Magi they bring gifts, but this time for the King and Queen, who entertain them royally in return "Ice in the trees."
With the first line, Duffy sets the scene and conveys a picture of snow frozen on the bare tree branches, informing the reader immediately of the season and the atmosphere. The rest of the stanza is a single sentence, which links together all the ceremonial aspects of the Queens’ arrival, the metre provided mainly by the use of alliteration and the listing of what was provided for the guests – "sunken baths, curtained beds / fruit, the best of meat and wine / dancers, music, talk" – until the rhyming triplet that links Queen Herod to the visitors
"as it turned out to be
with everyone fast asleep, save me
those vivid three" where ‘vivid’ tells the reader that the guests are both lively and exotic.
The stanza is brought to an end with the end of the night, abruptly, "till bitter dawn"
The second stanza begins by linking the wisdom of these female Magi to their age and experience
"They were wise. Older than I.
They knew what they knew."
They wait until the males are in a drunken sleep and then ask to see ‘the baby’. This is not the baby Jesus, however, but the daughter of Queen Herod. At this point the poem becomes associated with the fairy tale, ‘Sleeping Beauty’ as the Queens…