Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
Although she was writing a lyric poem, Millay chose a title, “An Ancient Gesture,” that would signal her intention of speaking about more than an emotional state, however powerful an emotion it might be. The title itself serves as a kind of gesture, indicating to the reader that the topic will be not the tears themselves but the act of wiping them away. Although gestures are often seen in a negative light, as in the common phrase “an empty gesture,” Millay never does other than emphasize the importance and positive value of the gesture: “There is simply nothing else to do.” The gesture is valid unto itself, a pure act arising out of social and cultural traditions. It is “authentic, antique,/ In the very best tradition, classic, Greek.” In recognizing this validity, Millay suggests that people need the gesture, because of those times when “there is simply nothing else to do.” Being the only response to a situation, it becomes the necessary response.
In a real sense Millay is talking about the inheritance of culture in “An Ancient Gesture.” Evoking Penelope’s use of the loom, one of the most important tools in domestic culture from ancient times, signals that she is speaking of the gesture as being similarly central to social culture. By revealing that her speaker’s gesture is “in the very best tradition,” she reaffirms this. She then shows how the tradition came to be passed down: Ulysses learns it from “Penelope, who really cried”—from Penelope, who gave the gesture its meaning. While the speaker identifies first with Penelope’s use of the gesture, the reader is left with the impression that she also identifies with that of Ulysses.
“An Ancient Gesture” is important in demonstrating the possible range of the lyric poem. It shows how the form not only can carry emotional content but also be a vehicle for the exploration of deeper themes. As a specific literary work, “An Ancient Gesture” commands respect for its effective combination of structural rigor and informal yet musical language, as well as for the compelling development of its theme. It remains one of the capping works of one of America’s most lyrical poets.