"Penelope" is Scottish poet Carol Ann Duffy's feminist take on a classical heroine. In this poem, Penelope (wife of Homer's Odysseus) takes up embroidery to distract herself from her grief while her husband wanders the world, only to find that she's stumbled onto her life's passion. The artistry of sewing gives Penelope joy, power, and independence, offering her a world of her own rather than a life dependent on a husband. The poem first appeared in Duffy's 1999 collection The World's Wife.
At first, I ...
... on my knees.
Six months of ...
... lifetime’s industry instead.
I sewed a girl ...
... childhood’s bouncing ball.
I chose between ...
... through umber soil.
Beneath the shade ...
... of the sun.
And when the ...
... night unpicked it.
I knew which ...
... I tried it.
I was picking ...
... outside the door.
I licked my scarlet ...
... eye once more.
Select any word below to get its definition in the context of the poem. The words are listed in the order in which they appear in the poem.
An Interview with Duffy — Watch an interview with Duffy in which she discusses her election as Poet Laureate and the importance of women's poetry.
Penelope in the Odyssey — Learn more about the fictional character Duffy gives voice to in this poem.
Duffy's Recent Work — Read an article in which Duffy discusses her Pandemic Poetry project, an effort to offer artistic comfort in troubled times.
Duffy's Influence — Read an article by novelist Jeanette Winterson on her love of Duffy's poetry.
A Brief Biography — Learn more about Duffy's life and work at the Poetry Foundation.
1At first, I looked along the road
2hoping to see him saunter home
3among the olive trees,
4a whistle for the dog
5who mourned him with his warm head on my knees.
6Six months of this
7and then I noticed that whole days had passed
8without my noticing.
9I sorted cloth and scissors, needle, thread,
10thinking to amuse myself,
11but found a lifetime’s industry instead.
12I sewed a girl
13under a single star—cross-stitch, silver silk—
14running after childhood’s bouncing ball.
15I chose between three greens for the grass;
16a smoky pink, a shadow’s grey
17to show a snapdragon gargling a bee
18I threaded walnut brown for a tree,
19my thimble like an acorn
20pushing up through umber soil.
21Beneath the shade
22I wrapped a maiden in a deep embrace
23with heroism’s boy
24and lost myself completely
25in a wild embroidery of love, lust, lessons learnt;
26then watched him sail away
27into the loose gold stitching of the sun.
28And when the others came to take his place,
29disturb my peace,
30I played for time.
31I wore a widow’s face, kept my head down,
32did my work by day, at night unpicked it.
33I knew which hour of the dark the moon
34would start to fray,
35I stitched it.
36Grey threads and brown
37pursued my needle’s leaping fish
38to form a river that would never reach the sea.
39I tried it. I was picking out
40the smile of a woman at the centre
41of this world, self-contained, absorbed, content,
42most certainly not waiting,
43when I heard a far-too-late familiar tread outside the door.
44I licked my scarlet thread
45and aimed it surely at the middle of the needle’s eye once more.