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Penelope by Dorothy Parker

“Penelope” by Dorothy Parker was first published in Sunset Gun in 1928. This poem is about the queen of Ithaca and the wife of the hero Homer’s epic Odyssey, Penelope, who had to lead a solitary life filled with meaningless abstractions in order to be a devoted wife, caring mother, and ideal woman. Her husband Odysseus went to fight in the Trojan War and stayed out for twenty years. During this long period, Penelope had to undergo several psychological challenges that were overshadowed by her husband’s glory in the epic. Through this piece, Parker raises this issue in order to justify that Penelope was no less heroic than Odysseus.

  • Read the full poem “Penelope” below:
Penelope
by Dorothy Parker

In the pathway of the sun,
   In the footsteps of the breeze,
Where the world and sky are one,
   He shall ride the silver seas,
       He shall cut the glittering wave.
I shall sit at home, and rock;
Rise, to heed a neighbor's knock;
Brew my tea, and snip my thread;
Bleach the linen for my bed.
       They will call him brave.

- from Sunset Gun (1928)
Analysis of Penelope by Dorothy Parker


Summary

In this poem, Parker gives voice to Penelope’s unheard words, her pain, and lonely suffering due to the lack of mental support and her husband’s absence. His prolonged stay makes the speaker think about what she actually does in the house. Indeed, she is concerned about her husband’s well-being while he is out, but she is not sure if anyone sympathizes with her or not. She draws several images of the sea where Odysseus might be wandering upon his return to Ithaca. There is glory in his quest, not in her mental unrest. Thus, in the ending, she says, “They will call him brave,” not her, even though she fights inwardly.

Form, Rhyme Scheme, & Meter

Form

Parker wrote the poem “Penelope” using the quintain form and a set rhyming pattern. Each section ending with a full stop forms a quintain or a stanza consisting of five lines. There are two movements in the poem. The first includes Ulysses’ heroic voyage and the second one includes the snapshots from Penelope’s monotonous life. Parker wrote this poem in first-person from the perspective of Penelope.

Rhyme Scheme

The rhyme scheme of “Penelope” is ABABC DDEEC. It means the first four lines rhyme alternatively. Lines one and three ends with the rhyming words “sun” and “one,” and lines two and four end with the pair “breeze” and “seas.”

In the second section, lines six and seven and lines eight and nine, form two rhyming couplets, ending with similar rhyming words, “rock” and “knock,” “thread” and “bed.”

Lastly, the fifth and tenth lines have an interlocking rhyming pattern, ending with the rhyme “wave” and “brave.” So, these lines are connected according to the rhyming used by Parker.

Meter

This poem also has a regular meter. Lines one to nine consist of seven syllables and the last line has five syllables. It is two syllables marking the speaker’s agitated mood. Let’s have a look at the scansion of the poem in order to chalk out the metrical pattern:

In the path/-way of/ the sun,

In the foot/-steps of/ the breeze,

Where the world/ and sky/ are one,

He shall ride/ the sil/-ver seas,

He shall cut/ the glit/-t(e)ring wave.

I shall sit/ at home,/ and rock;

Rise,/ to heed/ a neigh/-bor’s knock;

Brew/ my tea,/ and snip/ my thread;

Bleach/ the li/-nen for/ my bed.

They/ will call/ him brave.

So, the poem is composed of iambic trimeter and iambic tetrameter. The first six lines begin with anapestic feet (unstressed-unstressed-stressed) marking the speaker’s longing and sadness. The last four lines begin with acephalous feet (containing only a stressed syllable). Parker uses a stressed foot at the beginning of these lines in order to depict the frustration of the speaker at her daily tasks of rising from sleep, brewing her own tea, and bleaching. Finally, “they” call her husband brave, not her for her sacrifices.

Literary Devices & Figurative Language

Parker’s “Penelope” showcases the use of following the literary devices:

Allusion

One of the important literary devices of this poem is allusion. Parker alludes to the story of Penelope from Homer’s Odyssey where she rejects her own desires in order to remain a devoted wife while her husband was out for several years. She particularly depicts the voyage of Odysseus to return to Ithaca.

Metaphor

The first two lines contain metaphors. In the first line, the “pathway of the sun” is a metaphorical reference to the sky. The phrase “footsteps of a breeze” in the second line contains an implicit reference to the land or world.

Hyperbole

Through the first five lines, the speaker uses exaggerated, epical language in order to glorify the journeys of Odysseus. She does it in the fashion of Homer to contrast his life with the monochromatic life of hers.

Anaphora

The first two lines begin with the same phrase “In the …”, and lines four and five begin with “He shall.” It is a use of anaphora. Parker employs it for the sake of emphasis.

Alliteration

The repetition of the similar sound at the beginning of neighboring words can be found in the following phrases:

  • silver seas” (alliteration of the “s” sound)
  • shall sit” (alliteration of the “s” sound, also called sibilance)
  • neighbor’s knock” (alliteration of the “n” sound)

Besides, Parker also uses consonance in the last three lines. There is a repetition of the “b” sound at the beginning of “Brew,” “Bleach,” “bed,” and “brave.”

Irony

The irony occurs in the sixth line, “I shall sit at home, and rock.” Then it continues to the last line of the poem. In these lines, the speaker deliberately understates her household roles and finally intensifies the ironic effect by saying, “They will call him brave.”

Line-by-Line Analysis & Explanation

Lines 1-5

In the pathway of the sun,

In the footsteps of the breeze,

Where the world and sky are one,

He shall ride the silver seas,

He shall cut the glittering wave.

One of Dorothy Parker’s best-known poems, “Penelope” produces the central theme through its structure, rhythm, tone, and figurative devices. The presence of such complex layers not only encourages various interpretations but also enhances the reading. From the very first lines, Parker’s speaker grips readers’ hearts with an exaggerated tone. The grandiose expressions “In the pathway of the sun” and “In the footsteps of a breeze” signify something of great importance is going to be told.

It is important to mention the speaker is none other than Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, as the title hints. She tries to imagine how her husband leads an amazing life out at the endless seas, under the open sky, and with the zeal of the uncontrollable wind. The indentation of the lines alongside a set meter and rhyme scheme hint at his varying experiences and freedom.

Similar to an epic, Parker spends the first three lines just painting the background and then introduces the action of the central male figure, Ulysses. He rides all day long until the finale of the night when the moonlight paints the sea silver. Like a warrior, he cuts the glittering wave. Parker uses synecdoche to refer to the part (Odysseus) in place of the whole (ship).

On top of that, the use of “shall” in the last two lines signifies what a hero is destined to do. It is his destiny to fulfill. But, what is required of the speaker? What does society demand of her or expect her to do? She clarifies the requisites in the following lines.

Lines 6-10

I shall sit at home, and rock;

Rise, to heed a neighbor’s knock;

Brew my tea, and snip my thread;

Bleach the linen for my bed.

They will call him brave.

In these lines, Penelope’s voice reflects a sense of pain and sadness addled with anger. The use of strong verbs in succession and caesura (the use of commas to hinder the flow) hint at the speaker’s frustration as well. She directly draws a contrast to the heroic actions performed by her husband. Line six begins in the same way as the previous lines. She says, his husband is destined to perform his heroic duties whereas, she is required to perform household tasks diligently.

The common actions such as sitting idly at home or rocking in a chair seem like tasks to be performed under strict observation. Alongside that, rising to attend to a neighbor’s knock feels monotonous as there is no change in her lifestyle. In contrast, her husband rides the seas with adventurous zeal.

Parker uses another juxtaposition in the eighth line. The speaker says she brews her tea and snips the thread, whereas Odysseus voyages through the waves. There is an allusion in “snip my thread.” When her husband was out at the Trojan War, Penelope devised a plan to delay remarriage and kept the suitors waiting for an indefinite period. For three years, she weaved a burial shroud for her father-in-law and snipped the threads at night. Thereby, the shroud was never prepared. Alongside that, she bleaches the linen of her bed. The idea of bleaching is related to cleansing or whitening; thus a symbolic reference to protecting one’s chastity.

The indentation of lines five and ten are the same and so is the rhyme. These lines are integral to the theme of the poem, that is how women’s sacrifice is largely unrecognized and only the male feats are given due importance. Similarly, Odysseus’ wandering is highlighted in Homer’s epic and Penelope’s inward struggle is taken for granted. That is what she is required to do. Even though she fulfills the criteria, society (“they”) calls “him” (men in general) brave.

The last line also stands apart from the rest. It contains five syllables, two syllables shorter than the preceding lines. So, Parker deliberately cuts the line short marking the speaker’s frustration. This exclusion also breaks the metrical regularity in order to describe how the fact affects the speaker deeply. It seems the speaker is going to say, “not me” at the end of her statement, “They call him brave [not me].” But, she refrains from doing so as she knows even if she places her concern in front of readers, “they” still will refuse to admit her bravery.

Theme

The theme of “Penelope” by Dorothy Parker deals with how women’s suffering and sacrifices are largely unrecognized. In contrast, men’s feats are highlighted in popular culture. With reference to the story of Penelope in Homer’s Odyssey, her lonely tale of longing, loathing, and lamentation is given less importance than the central male character Odysseus’ sea wanderings and feats at the Trojan War. He has his destiny to fulfill and he successfully does so. In return, he receives praise. When his wife fulfills her role as a wife, mother, and woman, society neither stoops to praise her courage nor sympathizes with her mental state. It is deemed as a duty performing which one cannot expect anything in return.

Tone

The tone or attitude of the poem is subjective, dealing with the experiences of Penelope, contrasted with the feats of Odysseus. Her tone to the subject matter is resigned, sad, angry, and emotive. In the first five lines, the attitude is objective. There is no sense of association with the husband’s role as a warrior-king. She describes his journey in a distant and less sympathetic tone. In the following lines, her tone reflects a sense of anger, frustration, boredom, and dejection. Filled with irony, the last line hits directly the readers’ conscience.

Historical Context

Dorothy Parker’s poem “Penelope” was first published in the collection Sunset Gun (her second collection of poetry) in 1928. Parker’s first poem appeared in Vanity Fair in 1918. She began her literary career as a critic and was a prominent figure of the Algonquin Round Table. In 1925, she became associated with The New Yorker as an editor. The following fifteen years were the most productive period of her life. Her poetry stands out for its cleverness, sensitivity, and emotions. She focused on the power dynamics of gender as evident in her poem “Penelope.”

Questions & Answers

What is the poem “Penelope” by Dorothy Parker about?

“Penelope” by Dorothy Parker is a poem about Penelope’s frustration over the life she has to lead when her husband Odysseus is out for twenty long years. She describes how her husband rides the seas cutting the waves. Whereas, she has to undergo immense pain in order to perform her role as a devoted wife. The irony lies in the fact that society calls him brave, not her for the sacrifices and suffering. Edna St. Vincent Millay also alludes to the same story in her poem “An Ancient Gesture.”

What is the meaning of “Penelope” by Dorothy Parker?

The underlying meaning of Parker’s poem “Penelope” deals with a woman’s sacrifices and inward struggles in order to carry out her gender roles. This poem centers around Penelope’s suffering caused by her husband Odysseus’ prolonged absence. Through this story, Parker features the place of women in society and how their personal feats are largely unrecognized in comparison to their male counterparts. A paired reading of “I’m “wife”—I’ve finished that—” by Emily Dickinson would help readers to understand the speaker’s inner tensions caused by social norms.

Who is the speaker in “Penelope”?

The speaker of this poem is none other than Penelope herself, the wife of King Odysseus of Ithaca from Homer’s epic Odyssey. Dorothy Parker uses the first-person point of view to give a voice to Penelope’s story.

What is the purpose of the poem “Penelope”?

The purpose of this poem is to highlight how society largely neglects women’s roles. They are required to perform some tasks if carried out diligently attracts no praise. If men perform their role as required by society, they are given due importance.

When did Dorothy Parker write “Penelope”?

Dorothy Parker wrote “Penelope” somehow between 1925-1928. It was first published in Parker’s collection, Sunset Gun in 1928.

What does the poem “Penelope” by Dorothy Parker symbolize?

In Parker’s poem, Penelope is a symbol of women’s lifelong sacrifices and sufferings. She represents an ideal wife adorned with the features developed by patriarchal society.

What inspired Dorothy Parker’s poem “Penelope”?

The story of Penelope’s lonely suffering in Homer’s epic Odyssey inspired Dorothy Parker’s poem. Parker wrote some other poems dealing with the theme of the power dynamics of gender.

Point out the literary devices in “Penelope” by Dorothy Parker.

The major literary devices used in “Penelope” by Dorothy Parker include allusion, metaphor, hyperbole, anaphora, alliteration, and, last but not least, the irony.

What is the poetic device which has been used throughout the poem “Penelope”?

Throughout the poem, Parker uses allusion and irony.

Determine the rhyme scheme used in the poem “Penelope” by Dorothy Parker.

The rhyme scheme of “Penelope” by Dorothy Parker is ABABC DDEEC. It means the first four lines rhyme alternatively, lines six to nine form two rhyming couplets, and the fifth and tenth lines rhyme together.

What was Dorothy Parker famous for?

Dorothy Parker is famous for her witticism, wisecracks, and satire. Her poetry features her clever style of versification and powerful emotions.

What is Dorothy Parker’s most famous poem?

Dorothy Parker’s most famous poems include “A Certain Lady,” “The Choice,” “One Perfect Rose,” etc.


Similar Poems about Women’s Suffering

  • An Ancient Gesture” by Edna St. Vincent Millay — This poem is about a speaker thinking about Penelope’s silent suffering for Ulysses while wiping her eyes with her apron.
  • Advice to Women” by Eunice de Souza — This piece is about the otherness of lovers and deals with the poet’s advice of keeping cats to deal with the pain of separation.
  • The Woman” by Kristina Rungano — It’s about a woman’s life in rural Africa and the tiresome household duties.
  • I’m “wife”—I’ve finished that—” by Emily Dickinson — In this poem, Dickinson’s speaker describes her life after she rejected being a wife.


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