‘Mrs Sisyphus’ by Carol Ann Duffy is a three-stanza poem that is separated into uneven sets of lines. The line lengths in a number of words are as follows: five, fourteen, five, and eight. When considering the rhyme scheme of ‘Mrs Sisyphus’ there is a lot to think about. The main focus for Duffy when composing the piece, and selecting a pattern of rhyme, was repetition.
With one glance over the endings present from the first line to the last, there are a large number of lines that end with the “-rk” or “-k” sound. These range from “jerk” to “dirk,” “mark” and “work.” Some are full rhymes and some are only half, resetting entirely on their matching consonant sounds.
In total, twenty-four of the thirty-two lines end with either “-rk” or “-k.” These words are not confined to the ends of lines either. They are present within a number of stanzas. So much so, that they create a feeling of unity when reading. One is carried from line to line on the back of these sharp, cracking, consonants.
The choice to put so many of these words ending in “-k” into the text is an interesting one. It relates directly to the subject matter and the task that Sisyphus is set. According to Greek mythology, he was a king, known for his deceitful attitude and cruelty. The gods punished him by dooming him to roll a huge boulder up a hill, to only have to roll back down, for the rest of time. The story is always 100% about the plight of Sisyphus. It is often referenced within the contemporary culture in relation to impossible tasks.
There is another aspect of the story that Duffy was hoping to draw attention to, Sisyphus’ wife, known only as “Mrs Sisyphus.” She was at the receiving end of a great deal of disrespect. He was determined to complete his task no matter who he hurt and Duffy uses this tale as a metaphor for contemporary relationships between modern partners. The fact that Duffy is able to use a tale from so long ago, to make poignant commentary about today makes clear that things have not changed as much as one might have expected. You can read the full poem Mrs Sisyphus here.
Summary of Mrs Sisyphus
The poem begins with the speaker, Sisyphus’ wife, reminding the reader of the struggle her husband is engaged in. She sees the absurdity of his, and therefore her, situation and there’s nothing she can do about it. Her husband is determined, and cursed, to push the stone up the hill. She thinks he’s a “jerk” and a “berk” for his stubbornness. He is unable to admit defeat even though the boulder continues to roll down the hill.
In the second section, the speaker gives the reader an idea of what her own life is like. She is alone every day, lost to her contemporary world, and to history. Her husband is dedicated to his work, just like men throughout time, and she is suffering in his shadow.
Analysis of Mrs Sisyphus
That’s him pushing the stone up the hill, the jerk.
I could do something vicious to him with a dirk.
In the first lines of ‘Mrs Sisyphus’ the speaker, who is the wife of the mythical king Sisyphus, points out her husband. Her speech is straightforward and easy to understand. She is reporting on her husband who is “pushing the stone up the hill.” This is a reference to the main myth that surrounds Sisyphus, that he was doomed by the gods to spend eternity pushing a boulder up a hill, only to watch it fall back down again. She ends this phrase with a derogatory name for her husband, “the jerk.” Already it is clear that she has as much disdain for the man as the gods.
In the next line, she gives some more details about his situation, and most importantly, her own perspective on it. The stone is pushes is more like the “size of a kirk,” or small church. This is an interesting choice of metaphor. Perhaps she is suggesting religion, belief, or morals have something to do with the situation he is in.
She goes on to describe the beginning of this ordeal. At first it,
[…] just used to irk,
but now it incenses [her], and him, the absolute berk.
She again uses a nickname, this time meaning foolish or stupid. The speaker clearly believes that it was entirely her husband’s fault that he got into this situation. She has grown more and more irritated with him and his daily (albeit forced) routine. The last line of the first stanza indicates that she’d be willing to “do something” to him with “a dirk.” This is a short dagger utilized by Scottish Highlanders.
Think of the perks, he says.
Folk flock from miles around just to gawk.
In the second stanza, the speaker recalls what her husband said to her. At one point, he asked her to consider the “perks” of their new situation. It is unclear what he meant, but the speaker was not taken in by his attempts at making his fate easier to deal with. She was upset by his suggestion and “shriek[ed]” at him. Mrs Sisyphus is angry because now all of his time is going to be spent with his stone. He won’t have time to,
[…] pop open a cork
or go for so much as a walk in the park
The speaker calls him a “dork” and mourns over the fact that now people are just going to find them and “gawk” at his attempts to push the boulder. These onlookers won’t understand what’s going on.
They think it’s a quirk,
all the way down.
Those who come to watch the proceedings will think that it is “just a quirk” that this man spends all day pushing a boulder. It will seems amusing to them, “a bit of a lark.” This is irritating to the speaker as to her it is far from amusing. The whole situation is a, “load of old bollocks.” She knows there’s no way that her husband is going to be able to complete the task that the gods have set for him.
The speaker compares her husband’s plight to attempting to “bark / at the moon.” They are similar in their ridiculousness. She adds that the,
[…] feckin’ stone’s no sooner up
then it’s rolling back
all the way down.
She uses the word “feckin’” to show her exasperation over the situation but also stops herself from cursing. She still has some kind of image to maintain.
And what doe he say?
The third stanza leans heavily on repetition. These lines are used to emphasize how irritated the speaker is with her husband and the rules he has placed on her. He tells her that he “Mustn’t shirk” his duty of rolling the stone. He also must remain as focused as a “hawk” and as fit as “a shark.”
The fact that these lines are repeated shows the frequency in which Sisyphus says them to her. It mirrors his task, which is always the same and never-ending. She is very unhappy with her situation, as will be seen even more clearly in the last stanza.
While her husband works day in and day out, trying to accomplish his impossible task, his wife is stuck “alone in the dark.” She feels,
[…] like Noah’s wife did
When he hammered away at the Ark;
like Frau Johann Sebastian Bach.
She is relegated to a position behind the scenes where her job is to not interrupt her husband. Sisyphus expects his wife to wait there for him and until his task is done, therefore— forever. She compares her situation to that of Noah’s wife and the wife of the composer Bach. All three are women the world never considers. It’s all the more depressing that the speaker recognizes herself as one of these women forgotten by history while, in this narrative, she is still alive.
In the last four lines, she describes how her voice which used to shriek is “reduced to a squawk” and her smile to a “twisted smirk.” She suffers alone in the dark while her husband is giving “one hundred per cent and more to his work.” She has no part in his life, his job, his goal, or his story. Nor does she have her own. History did not deem her important enough to write stories about.
While this narrative focuses on Sisyphus and his wife, it is meant as a metaphor for the larger inequality in relationships, particularly male/female ones. Duffy wanted to say something about her own time by using this story from the ancient past.