"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Friday, September 28, 2012

Penelope, Who Really Cried

Penelope Unravelling Her Work At Night, 1886
by fabric artist Dora Wheeler, 1856 - 1940
(daughter of Candace Wheeler)
for Associated Artists (New York City, 1883–1907)

There are many beautiful depictions of Penelope, loyal wife of the wandering Ulysses, who weaves by day and unravels by night, buying time until her husband reappears. I've chosen the above rendering because, as a silk weaving sadly becoming undone with time, it seems so appropriate; but, in truth, I've picked it primarily because I cannot find the picture that I really want.

What I'm looking for is the "Study for The Nights of Penelope," that once hung in the Snite Museum of Art at the University of Notre Dame. I admired it many times during the 1980s and often required my students to view it, as did others, according to archived course outlines. Had I looked more carefully, I might have seen that it was on loan from somewhere in Ohio, but the thought that it was not part of the permanent collection never crossed my mind . . . until I visited recently in hopes of seeing it once again.

Not only was it not on view in the Snite, but it has thus far eluded me on the web as well, aside from this former catalog entry, confirming its existence --

Pierre-Paul Leon Glaize (French, 1842 - 1932)
oil on canvas
On loan from Mr. and Mrs. Noah L. Butkin

-- and a passing reference in a late 19th - century guide to artists and artworks, vaguely establishing the whereabouts of the final version somewhere in Brussels.

Two other intricate interior paintings by Pierre-Paul Leon Glaize, are similar in setting and detail to what I recall of the small "Study for The Nights of Penelope," though both of these appear more light - hearted in tone than the subject of long - suffering Penelope, weary and vigilant.

The Sandal Makers


The Bird Charmer

Also by Pierre-Paul Leon Glaize
La Femme de Soldat

This heroine, determined in stance yet subdued in hue also brings to mind the nocturnal vigil that Leon Glaize captures in his "Nights of Penelope" . . . if only I could see it once again!

To accompany the numerous paintings of Penelope, there are also many poems. My favorite, as so often happens to be the case, is by Edna St. Vincent Millay. Her poem is about Penelope waiting for Ulysses to come home -- but also, in my interpretation, about any of us whose arms are getting tired and whose necks are getting tight from waiting for that better world to come. It can wear a body out. In this almost - sonnet, she describes the "ancient gesture" of wiping the corner of your eye with the corner of your apron; it could just as likely be a handkerchief perhaps or a Kleenex, but the apron places Penelope in the heart of the home, the oikos. Not that she does a lot of cooking -- mostly, it's weaving. As subtly as Leon Glaize, Millay implies a constellation of gestures: hands busy at the loom; arms stretched for relief above one's head; rubbing a stiff neck with one hand while clinching a tired back with the other; bursting all at once into tears; and finally the silent weeping, discreetly wiping the tears away.

"An Ancient Gesture"
by Edna St. Vincent Millay

I thought, as I wiped my eyes on the corner of my apron:
Penelope did this too.
And more than once: you can't keep weaving all day
And undoing it all through the night;
Your arms get tired, and the back of your neck gets tight;
And along towards morning, when you think it will never be light,
And your husband has been gone, and you don't know where, for years.
Suddenly you burst into tears;
There is simply nothing else to do.

And I thought, as I wiped my eyes on the corner of my apron:
This is an ancient gesture, authentic, antique,
In the very best tradition, classic, Greek;
Ulysses did this too.
But only as a gesture,— a gesture which implied
To the assembled throng that he was much too moved to speak.
He learned it from Penelope...
Penelope, who really cried.
(ellipses in original)

In this next brief poem, Parker's message is similar -- Penelope really cries; Ulysses steals the show. Penelope waits courageously; Ulysses gets the kudos.

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.

Another favorite of mine is the self - composed Penelope envisioned by Wallace Stevens. As I mentioned last month on my daily blog ("Blue Moon, Blue Heart"), this contemplative Penelope wants nothing that Ulysses "could not bring her by coming alone." No diamond rings, no fancy pearls, no souvenirs from afar or treasures from the deep. Her essential exercise is meditation.

"The World As Meditation"
by Wallace Stevens

J’ai passé trop de temps à travailler mon violon, à voyager. Mais l’exercice essentiel du compositeur — la méditation — rien ne l’a jamais suspendu en moi … Je vis un rêve permanent, qui ne s’arrête ni nuit ni jour.
~ Georges Enesco

It is Ulysses that approaches from the east,
The interminable adventurer? The trees are mended.
That winter is washed away. Someone is moving

On the horizon and lifting himself up above it.
A form of fire approaches the cretonnes [curtains] of Penelope,
Whose mere savage presence awakens the world in which she dwells.

She has composed, so long, a self with which to welcome him,
Companion to his self for her, which she imagined,
Two in a deep-founded sheltering, friend and dear friend.

The trees had been mended, as an essential exercise
In an inhuman meditation, larger than her own.
No winds like dogs watched over her at night.

She wanted nothing he could not bring her by coming alone.
She wanted no fetchings. His arms would be her necklace
And her belt, the final fortune of their desire.

But was it Ulysses? Or was it only the warmth of the sun
On her pillow? The thought kept beating in her like her heart.
The two kept beating together. It was only day.

It was Ulysses and it was not. Yet they had met,
Friend and dear friend and a planet's encouragement.
The barbarous strength within her would never fail.

She would talk a little to herself as she combed her hair,
Repeating his name with its patient syllables,
Never forgetting him that kept coming constantly so near.

A few more to look at:

by Carol Ann Duffy

A poem in which Penelope, "self-contained, absorbed, content, / most certainly not waiting," stitches the story of her own life into the tapestry and, somewhat shockingly, licks her "scarlet thread /and aim[s] it surely at the middle of the needle’s eye once more."

"Penelope's Song"
by Louise Gluck

In Gluck's "song," Penelope sends her "little soul" to the top of the spruce tree to watch our for Ulysses -- with a warning: " . . . shake the boughs of the tree . . . carefully, carefully, lest / His beautiful face be marred / By too many falling needles." Pine needles, yes; but also an allusion to Penelope's handiwork? How interesting that both Duffy and Gluck portray or suggest that Penelope is sewing with a needle rather than weaving . . . and those needles can be dangerous!

by Robert Graves

The prolific Robert Graves is always worth noting, especially when it comes to Classical Mythology. Here he catalogs the complicated romantic liasons of the "much - tossed . . . love - tossed" Ulysses.

"Calypso's Island"
by Archibald MacLeish

A beautiful love song from Ulysses to Penelope. His words are addressed to the immortal nymph Calypso, who offers him the possibility "To hold forever what forever passes, / To hide from what will pass, forever." But he chooses his mortal wife, "a woman with that fault / Of change that will be death in her at last!" He leaves Calypso's charmed paradise for the isle of Ithaca where Penelope "wears the sunlight for awhile."

"Penelope for her Ulisses sake"
by Edmund Spenser

For Spenser, the tapestry represents his quest for romance. He is the weaver, like Penelope, but also a suitor. Unlike the opportunists who pursue Penelope, his love is pure; yet even so, it is unreturned. His beloved unweaves his suit with a single word, a mere look.

by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

And lastly, Tennyson's tour de force, filled with so many memorable and oft - quoted lines. In this poem, despite his advanced age, the ever - restless Ulysses charts out yet another adventure. No matter that he is only recently reunited with Penelope after twenty long years; he does not intend to stay put.

Lines 1 - 7: "It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Matched with an agèd wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees.

Line 12: . . . always roaming with a hungry heart

Lines 18 - 23: I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!

Lines 31 - 32: To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

Lines 50 - 53: Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.

Lines 56 - 70: Come, my friends,
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world
. . . my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die. . .
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."

Penelope, 1849
by John Roddam Spencer Stanhope (1829 - 1908)
Penelope, like Ulysses:
"Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."


P.S. One more that I must add in full . . .
with grateful thanks to my friend and professor Jim Barnes
(and to Maureen E. Doalles for this blog post).

Ithaka 2001

Hope all your Ithakas are good ones.

Seems ages on the hill above the rocky point
I have kept my eyes on the horizon where sky
drops to sea. No sign of any ship I do not
recognize, just the ragtag worn-out fishing fleet
about to sink. No single sail grabbing the wind
and fifty men at oars to tell us you are back.
This is no Ithaka now you would own up to,
your old wife mad, your queer son gone, your dog
years dead. The old men gathered here like the food
and wine, but do not give a hoot about the place.
You might as well have gone down in the fishy sea:

this is no Ithaka you would want to rule. Still we
hope for your long return, the foolish old friends of
the foolish king who went away to war for fear
of losing what we have lost anyway, although
you, somewhere landbound or adrift on the deep, still
may dream of coming back to stony Ithaka,
to a faithful wife and infant son. Wherever
you are, I send you these heavy words on a wind
that has treated us all badly: there is little
use for you to come back home old and mortified.
Ithaka is not the Ithaka it was. For god's

sake, be strong. We have grown even older hoping.
Perhaps you have found another Ithaka elsewhere
in the wide world, a soft and welcome country that
nourishes you in a way we never can again.
I wish you well, but I must keep on hoping that
you will come back again. You could teach us a way
at least to cope with the thing that has befallen
us. The tourist's shops and the garish touring boats
prosper, but they are in the hands of foreigners.
The breeding cattle prized by Philoitius bankers
in Pylos hold for the debts Penelope incurred.

The suitors had no staying power when the booze
ran out. No one manned the presses nor tended vines.
Pirates from Samos got the last of goats and sheep
when we tried to take the herds across to Argive
lands. Hardly any of us are left who give a damn
about the state. I am here every day, though hope
runs thin. I know you will return sometime. It is
no Ithaka to brag about. Hope you will bring
our salvation in some form. Yellow gold would help
and medicine that would somehow cure all the pain
of mind and body. We are ill in Ithaka.

By Jim Barnes
Published in The North American Review
and also in Visiting Picasso, 2007


  1. Beautiful, as always, Kit. And the Edna St. Vincent Millay so particularly moving. The Dorothy Parker was unknown to me. Carol Ann Duffy--the poet laureate and a good Scots lass.

  2. Penelope's Song ~ by Louise Gluck

    Little soul, little perpetually undressed one,
    do now as I bid you, climb
    the shelf-like branches of the spruce tree;
    wait at the top, attentive, like
    a sentry or look-out. He will be home soon;
    it behooves you to be
    generous. You have not been completely
    perfect either; with your troublesome body
    you have done things you shouldn’t
    discuss in poems. Therefore
    call out to him over the open water, over the bright water
    with your dark song, with your grasping,
    unnatural song—passionate,
    like Marie Callas. Who
    wouldn’t want you? Whose most demonic appetite
    could you possibly fail to answer? Soon
    he will return from wherever he goes in the meantime,
    suntanned from his time away, wanting
    his grilled chicken. Ah, you must greet him,
    you must shake the boughs of the tree
    to get his attention,
    but carefully, carefully, lest
    his beautiful face be marred
    by too many falling needles.

    From MEADOWLANDS (The Ecco Press, 1996)


    ~ Constantine P. Cavafy

    "As you set out on your journey to Ithaca,
    pray that your journey be a long one,
    filled with adventure, filled with discovery.
    Laestrygonians and Cyclopes,
    the angry Poseidon--do not fear them:
    you'll never find such things on your way
    unless your sight is set high, unless a rare
    excitement stirs your spirit and your body.
    The Laestrygonians and Cyclopes,
    the savage Poseidon--you won't meet them
    so long as you do not admit them to your soul,
    as long as your soul does not set them before you.
    Pray that your road is a long one.
    May there be many summer mornings
    when with what pleasure, with what joy,
    you enter harbors never seen before.
    May you stop at Phoenician stations of trade to buy fine things,
    mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
    and voluptuous perfumes of every kind--
    buy as many voluptuous perfumes as you can.
    And may you go to many Egyptian cities
    to learn and learn from those who know.
    Always keep Ithaca in your mind.
    You are destined to arrive there.
    But don't hurry your journey at all.
    Far better if it takes many years,
    and if you are old when you anchor at the island,
    rich with all you have gained on the way,
    not expecting that Ithaca will give you wealth.
    Ithaca has given you a beautiful journey.
    Without her you would never have set out.
    She has no more left to give you.
    And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not mocked you.
    As wise as you have become, so filled with experience,
    you will have understood what these Ithacas signify.”

    ― translated by Barry B. Powell, Classical Myth
    tags: cavafy, greek, ithaca, myth, odysseus, odyssey, tra