The poem's title lets the reader know that this poem is based on the Greek myth of King Midas, who was granted a wish that everything he touched would turn to gold. However, as the title makes clear, this poem will be about Mrs. Midas—the wife of King Midas, and a perspective not told in the original story. Also note that it's not Queen Midas—a clue that the poem won't take place in the ancient past, unlike the myth, and that it will be reimagined in a typical domestic setting.
The opening lines of the poem then establish that setting clearly. “It was late September,” the speaker says, placing the poem in a time of year on the cusp of winter. Symbolically, this season suggests that the speaker and her husband, too, are at the end of their blissful early days and about to enter a period of loss.
The speaker’s descriptions of her immediate surroundings and her diction (such as the contemporary phrase "unwind"), meanwhile, let the reader know that this poem is set in a modern context. “I’d just poured a glass of wine,” the speaker says, “begun / to unwind, while the vegetables cooked.” These lines suggest that the speaker and her husband live a conventional, domestic, middle-class life; it is an ordinary evening in late September, and Mrs. Midas is making dinner.
At the same time, several aspects of the opening lines introduce an element of strangeness into the poem:
- First, the speaker personifies the kitchen, saying that it “filled with the smell of itself” and, like her, “relaxed,” while “its steamy breath / gently blanch[ed] the windows.” This long sentence, which extends over three lines, enacts what the speaker describes, a moment of relief after a long day.
- These lines also introduce moment of humor, a pun, since the steam is said to “blanch” (which means both to turn white and to lightly cook) the windows of the kitchen. The personification of the kitchen suggests that not everything is as it appears, or that something, within this world, is slightly off.
- The speaker then heightens this sense of strangeness as she continues to personify her surroundings: she says that because the windows were fogged over with steam, she opened one and “wiped the other’s glass like a brow,” as though the window were a person’s forehead.
From the outset, then, the poem establishes a sense of normalcy or conventional life, and an element of strangeness, as the inanimate kitchen seems to be alive. These opening descriptions, which are rendered conversationally, almost casually, give way to a single sentence in the stanza’s last line: “He was standing under the pear tree snapping a twig.” Several aspects of this line are notable:
- First, it is the first line in the stanza that is also a complete sentence, and the first line without a caesura, or pause, setting it apart from the preceding lines.
- Second, it is the first moment in the poem where the speaker mentions a “he.” Although the reader might intuit that this is Mr. Midas, the speaker’s husband, the speaker doesn’t say this directly; this absence of a formal introduction establishes a kind of intimacy with the reader, as though the speaker is describing these events to herself.
- Third, the actions of this man in the garden are markedly different from the speaker’s actions. Where she seems to be in harmony with her environment, he is “snapping a twig” off “the pear tree”—breaking apart a living thing.
Finally, taken in total, these lines convey a powerful sense of whom, within this relationship, is seen. To “see” another means, literally, to observe them; yet it also means to recognize and understand who they are, to value them. Within this opening moment of the poem, it is the speaker who looks out into the yard and sees her husband; he, however, does not look at her or see her at all. This dynamic will be important in the poem as a whole.