‘Penelope’ is one of many popular poems published in Duffy’s well-loved volume, The World’s Wife. It was her fifth collection of poetry, published in 1999 by Anvil Press Poetry. All the poems focus on women from history or mythology and present their stories through a new, feminist lens. They are always the counterparts of famous male figures/characters. Other poems in this collection include ‘Anne Hathaway’ and ‘Medusa,’ and ‘Demeter.’ In this particular poem, the poet focuses on the story of Penelope.
In the first lines of the poem, Penelope mourns for her husband. This doesn’t last long, though. After six months, she’s tired of playing the role of the widow and movies onto a new pursuit, sewing. She turns her attention to it entirely. As she sews, she creates a new world that she has control over. It’s beautiful and mirrors her own in a few significant ways. She also speaks about how she put off choosing one of the many suitors who came to her home. She did what she could to deter them. But, this was less out of loyalty to Odysseus and more out of a desire to keep her new life the way it is. Her husband returns at the end of the poem, but it doesn’t appear that Penelope is going to change her life for him either.
The Myth of Penelope
Penelope features in Homer’s ‘Odyssey’. She is a minor character who is only part of the story because her husband, the King of Ithaca, is the protagonist. The original tale follows her husband’s travels to Troy and his return home. Her role is that of a faithful wife who, despite her large number of suitors, remains loyal to her husband. She waits twenty years for him to come back, doing what she can to deter her 108 suitors. One of the most important parts of her story involves a shroud she’s weaving. She tells her suitors that she’ll choose one as soon as she finishes weaving it. But, every night, she secretly undoes the weaving she completed during the day, making sure it’s never completed.
Structure and Form
‘Penelope’ is a five-stanza, dramatic monologue that is divided into stanzas of nine lines. The poem is written in free verse. Meaning that it does not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. But, that doesn’t mean that the poem is entirely without either. For example, “trees” and “knees” rhyme in the first stanza at the ends of lines three and five. Plus, “bee” and “tree” end stanza two.
- Allusion: throughout the poem, the poet alludes to the Greek myth of Odysseus and the story of his voyage home from the Trojan war.
- Caesura: seen when the poet inserts a pause into the middle of a line. It can be through meter or through punctuation. For example: “under a single star—cross-stitch, silver silk.”
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point—for example, the transitions between the first three lines.
- Personification: seen in the first stanza when the speaker describes the dog as “mourn[ing]” Odysseus.
At first, I looked along the road
hoping to see him saunter home
among the olive trees,
I sorted cloth and scissors, needle, thread,
In the first lines of ‘Penelope,’ the speaker, Penelope herself, begins by describing what she did for the first six months that her husband was gone. She’d look down the road hoping that he’d come sauntering through the trees and whistle for the dog. This is a clear image taken from experience. It’s obvious she’s thinking back on happier times hoping to see her husband come back to her as he always did before. There is also an example of personification in this stanza when she describes the dog as “mourn[ing]” his master. This suggests that everyone has been brought down by Odysseus’s absence.
Finally, as time moved on, she realized that she was no longer taking notice of the days that passed and the fact that her husband was gone. She immediately transitions into talking about sewing, an important part of her narrative during this period of her life. She’s moved through the period of mourning for her husband and is now distracted by something else.
thinking to amuse myself,
but found a lifetime’s industry instead.
I sewed a girl
I threaded walnut brown for a tree,
Penelope has found a new hobby, sewing. It’s something that amuses her. She’s excited about it and the fact that it gives her something else to think about. She describes sewing a “girl / under a single star.” She’s running after a “childhood’s bouncing ball.”
Most readers will be able to imagine the childhood happiness that is depicted in this image. The fact that Penelope is sewing suggests that this is something she’s dreaming about. Perhaps she lived this moment, or she wishes she could’ve.
The following lines bring in some of the colours that she used for the image. This brightens the poem significantly, especially juxtaposed against the initial mourning images. She’s making her own decisions, exerting control over this sewn world even if she can’t control her real life. Readers should also take note of the use of alliteration in these lines with “greens,” “grass,” and “grey.” “Snapdragon,” “show,” “smokey,” and “shadow” are other examples.
my thimble like an acorn
pushing up through umber soil.
Beneath the shade
into the loose gold stitching of the sun.
There is a good simile at the beginning of stanza three when the poet’s speaker compares her thimble to an acorn. This is again another example of her adorning her normal world with happier images. She continues to embroider, making the scene more and more emotional. There is an oak tree, a maiden, and “heroism’s boy.” The fact that “heroism’s boy” goes unnamed and undefined suggests that this could be Odysseus or perhaps a better version of him. But, the boy sails away as her own husband did. He disappears into the “loose gold stitching of the sun.” This beautiful line suggests that she knows that there’s a chance her husband is going to forget about her and maybe never return.
And when the others came to take his place,
disturb my peace,
I stitched it.
Grey threads and brown
In the fourth stanza, the “others came to take his place.” This is an allusion to the 108 suitors she dealt with while her husband was gone. They disturbed her peace, and she did what she could to keep them busy and at a distance. By describing herself as wearing a “widow’s face,” she suggests that she doesn’t actually feel like a widow. She’s not mourning. Penelope describes “unpicking” her work at night and making sure she never finishes the embroidery. This is a way of making her happiness last as long as possible. Her stitching is the only thing she has control over.
pursued my needle’s leaping fish
to form a river that would never reach the sea.
I tried it. I was picking out
the smile of a woman at the centre
and aimed it surely at the middle of the needle’s eye once more.
In the final stanza, the poet uses a metaphor to depict the movements of Penelope’s needle and how she was never going to “reach the sea,” or a point of completion. This also represents her wait for her husband and how it goes on and on without any sign of coming to an end.
Finally, Duffy presents the reader with an image of a woman who is content with her life and is no longer truly waiting for her husband to come home. She’s “self-contained, absorbed, content” in her life. It’s just after this that Odysseus comes home. His “tread” is “far-too-late” and “familiar.” It’s not welcome now after so many years. She’s a different person than she was when he left.
In the final lines, she licks her thread and stabs it back into the needle’s eye as if saying that she’s determined in her new life. She’s not going to go back to the person she was before. Nothing is changing now that Odysseus is home.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Penelope’ should also consider reading some other Carol Ann Duffy poems. For example:
- ‘The Map-Woman’ – uses a metaphorical depiction of the female body to describe how inescapable identity is.
- ‘Beautiful’ – focuses on the damage beauty can cause. Duffy speaks on Helen of Troy, Princess Diana, and others in these lines.
- ‘The Light Gatherer’ – explores motherhood and the happiness a child can bring. The latter is represented by light.