Tuesday, August 21, 2018


Penelope and the Suitors, by John William Waterhouse

Most women lacked first-hand experience of the battlefront, but it’s impossible to deny that women had first-hand experience of the Great War.  While trench poets wrote of the physical realities of the front lines, women who wrote of the war were more likely to describe its psychological effects.  In her examination of French, English, and German poetry of the First World War, Marsland notes that English criticism has privileged “realism as a protest device” so that “poems that do not present the ‘observable realities’ of the Front” have been dismissed and ignored.*

Dorothy and Eddie Parker
The writings of American author Dorothy Parker are rarely discussed in the context of the First World War.  Dorothy Rothschild married Edwin Pond Parker II in the spring of 1917, and shortly after the wedding, her husband joined the American Expeditionary Force, enlisting with the 33rdAmbulance Company. Eddie Parker, a heavy drinker before the war, returned home addicted to morphine. After a four-year separation, Dorothy Parker was granted a divorce in 1928 on the grounds of “intolerable cruelty.”** Eddie Parker remarried within months, but died five years later of what was deemed an accidental drug overdose.

Dorothy Parker’s poem “Penelope” explores the psychological scars of war, the wounds it inflicts on marriages, and the unrecognized sacrifices it demands of women, using the story of Odysseus—the Greek king and warrior—and his faithful wife Penelope, who waited twenty years for her husband’s return while being harassed by men who wished to marry her and gain control of Odysseus’s lands.
Penelope, by Thomas Seddon

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. 
            — Dorothy Parker

The poem breaks into two halves: the action-driven world of men and the confined, solitary world of the waiting wife.  Gill Plain has argued that “The single most characteristic feature of these women’s experience of the war was isolation.” ***

As the Second World War drew to a close, Dorothy Parker published a short story about another waiting wife. “The Lovely Leave” tells of a woman’s desperate attempts to bridge the impassable gulf that war has erected between the couple:
Dorothy Parker
To keep something, you must take care of it.  More, you must understand just what sort of care it requires. You must know the rules and abide by them.  She could do that. She had been doing it all the months, in the writing of her letters to him.  There had been rules to be learned in that matter, and the first of them was the hardest: never say to him what you want him to say to you. Never tell him how sadly you miss him, how it grows no better, how each day without him is sharper than the day before. Set down for him the gay happenings about you, bright little anecdotes, not invented, necessarily, but attractively embellished. Do not bedevil him with the pinings of your faithful heart because he is your husband, your man, your love. For you are writing to none of these. You are writing to a soldier.†
It’s fascinating to speculate and impossible to determine how much of the fictional story is drawn from Parker’s own experiences as a twenty-three year-old abandoned bride during the First World War. She died in 1967, and her ashes are buried in Baltimore, where a memorial plaque reads, “Here lie the ashes of Dorothy Parker, 1893-1957, humorist, writer, critic, defender of human and civil rights. For her epitaph she suggested, ‘Excuse my dust.’”

In an interview, Dorothy Parker once commented that she “was following in the exquisite footsteps of Miss Millay unhappily in my own horrible sneakers.”††  Ironically, Edna St. Vincent Millay seems to have followed in the footsteps of Dorothy Parker with her poem “An Ancient Gesture.” Just over 20 years after Parker published “Penelope,” Millay published her poem using the same Greek story to recognize the courage of war-time wives who wait. 

An Ancient Gesture

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.
            —Edna St. Vincent Millay
* Elizabeth A. Marsland, The Nation’s Cause: French, English and German Poetry of the First World War, Routledge, 1991, p. 177.
** “Dorothy Parker Granted Divorce,” Boston Globe, 9 April 1928, p. 5.
*** Gill Plain, “‘Great Expectations: Rehabilitating the Recalcitrant War Poets,” Feminist Review, 1995, p. 41.
† Dorothy Parker, “The Lovely Leave” Portable Dorothy Parker, Viking 1944, p. 24.
†† Dorothy Parker, quoted in The Critical Waltz: Essays on the Work of Dorothy Parker, Rhonda S. Pettit (ed.), p. 17


  1. This was an eye opener didn't know either poem though I am a great fan of Edna St Vincent Millay - another underrated poet

  2. I love both these poems!!! Thank you for finding them.

  3. marvelous post. thank you. now I have one more book to read.

    1. I love Millay but didn't know this poem,thank you. Parker poems new to me also. I love this blog.

    2. Thanks for reading and replying. And Tom, there's always one more book to read... ;)

  4. What was the original publication date for Penelope? Where can I find it in print? Thanks!

    1. The poem first appeared in 1928 in Parker's anthology THE SUNSET GUN. It's available in a number of Parker's collections, including her COLLECTED POEMS (published by Penguin).

    2. Thank you for the post. There is a revival of interest in Millays work as evidenced by a reading at the new school organized by Alicia Ostriker. I plan to get copies of both poems.

    3. Thanks, Dorothy, for reading and replying. Where will the Millay reading be held and when?

  5. My post is,above, Dorothy Friedman August

  6. Thanks for the great insights. Parker's a literary hero of mine, and the Millay poem is a treasure.

    1. Thank you for reading and responding. The two poems are an intriguing pair, aren't they?

  7. This post is amazing - wow I had no idea about DP - what she says about letter writing is exactly what I found in all the letters my grandmother wrote my grandfather during WWII - I know she was suffering from worry and his absence, along with anxiety of having their first child without him there...thank you!

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, Jennifer. Will you be publishing your grandmother's letters? (I'd love to read your research and thoughts on them.)