Millay and Parker

1175 words | 4 page(s)

There are certain subjects that work to move different people in similar ways, serving as the muse for the creation of other works, as in the case of ‘An Ancient Gesture’ by Edna St. Vincent Millay and ‘Penelope’ by Dorothy Parker. In each of these poems, the women writers indicate the ways in which they relate to Penelope’s situation. Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, referred to as Ulysses in the Roman context. In both texts, emphasis is placed on the female’s world, a deviation from the traditional presentation of Greek and Roman mythos. In seeking to understand the similarities between the two poems through the different literary devices employed, it will become possible to gain a greater insight into how the authors perceived Penelope’s world.

Penelope refers to the wife of Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s The Odyssey. Odysseus left Penelope to fight in the Trojan War. However, due to a series of adventures and misadventures on his way, it took him ten years to return to his wife and his home. During this time, a series of suitors arrived at his home to try to win the hand of his wife in marriage. They lived in his home and ate his food. Many assumed that Odysseus was killed in the war or during his trip home, yet in spite of this commonly held belief, Penelope remained faithful to her husband. She refused to believe that he was deceased. The suitors demanded that she choose and she finally stated that would choose one after she finished weaving a tapestry in her husband’s honor. She weaved by day and undid her work by night. In this way, she would never complete the tapestry. In spite of the situation in which she was placed, she kept a strong face to the public, as befitting a queen’s position. Both of these poems reflect this strong persona and both writers employ different tactics to present this strength of women in a world that does not recognize it.

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In Millay’s work, the lyrical voice is heavily employed, employing the cadence of the words as a means of raising and lowering the tone of the poem, ensuring that the reader is able to understand the wearying quality of the situation that Penelope found herself in while at the same time conveying the strength required. Millay is able to convey this through the use of an unnamed female narrator, most likely herself, who struggles with similar personal tragedy. The tone is one of weariness and seemingly almost tapped strength, but not hopelessness. Like Penelope, the narrator too endures.

Millay adheres to more traditional stylistic devices, something that was never Parker’s strong suit. In this, as in Parker’s other works, she does not attempt to sugarcoat that which she is attempting to convey. Unlike Millay’s work, Parker’s alternates rhyming schemes and is presented using Penelope’s own narrative voice. Millay’s poem offers hope, while Parker’s poem simply references the fact that when such an event is discussed, it is her husband’s achievements that will be focused on, not that which she has worked to endure.

Differences in the symbolism used by the two women are likewise present. Millay points out how her narrator ‘wiped [her] eyes on the corner of [her] apron’ and indicates the seemingly impossible task of ‘weaving all day/ And undoing it all through the night’ (Millay 1; 3-4). In this, Millay keeps her symbolism to the natural symbols of a woman’s work, attempting to draw on the strength of the female tasks necessary to keep a household functioning. Parker takes a different tactic, discussing how Odysseus ‘shall ride the silver seas’ (Parker, 4), making an almost ironic comparison to the fact that though she believes it is only his trials that will be remembered, it is all that she places an emphasis on as well, almost discrediting herself and all that she is going through in the process.

Millay also engages in an unusual rhyming pattern with this poem. She does not force the rhymes. Rather, if a rhyme can occur, such as ‘light,’ ‘tight’ and ‘night,’ Millay utilizes them (lines 4-6). Parker does not engage in such a free type of rhyme. She sticks with classic rhyming patterns throughout the poem, rhyming lines one and three, lines two and four, lines five and ten, six and seven and lines eight and nine with one another. This is interesting because Millay’s poem appears more of the lyrical poem that one would expect to have a strict rhyming pattern. Parker’s poem actually seems quite open to understanding. In spite of this, in both instances, the rhyming patterns remain unforced, ensuring that the poems remain pleasing to the ear.

The imagery conveyed by Millay’s poem is designed to convey sadness and concern, presenting the picture of the female wiping a tear on her apron and discussing the weariness that the tasks of weaving and unweaving bring in her statement that ‘Your arms get tired and the back of your neck gets tight’ (Millay 5). When the narrator bursts into tears, it is out of weariness and exhaustion. The language indicates that her exhaustion is real; the emotional toil is tremendous, yet still she moves on. In Parker’s poem, however, the tone is almost one of wistfulness. The imagery of the seas and the vibrancy of the adventure that she imagines her husband on is such that the reader can see that Penelope would rather be out on the open water than dealing with the situation she faces. She describes the journey of Odysseus as one a god would take, ‘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’ (Parker 1-5). The imagery here is stark and beautiful. Perhaps more importantly, the imagery serves to convey the fact that her existence is not the same as her husband’s existence. Parker declares that Odysseus will be honored for his bravery, an honor that she herself will never receive.

In the poems ‘An Ancient Gesture’ by Edna St. Vincent Millay and ‘Penelope’ by Dorothy Parker, the authors use the story of Penelope, the wife of Odysseus to indicate that women engage in simple, daily struggles that often go unnoticed while at the same time providing insight into the desires of women for a more adventurous life, one that is more glamorous than that which is their lot in life. Both poets indicate that there is a difficulty in the lives of women that should not be ignored. Through the tale of Penelope, the women are able to honor those difficulties and the little daily struggles that are faced, some large, some small, and triumphed over, allowing life to continue as normal and ensuring that the daily course of life is not disrupted in the process. While men may have their adventures, such adventures would not be possible without the continued upkeep of daily life by women, regardless of whether they be queen or commoner.

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