"An Ancient Gesture" is a rather sad poem which describes a woman, who is also the speaker of the poem, weeping and thinking of Penelope and Ulysses—figures from Greek mythology. Penelope was the wife of Ulysses and was for many years alone without her husband. During this period many suitors, assuming Ulysses to be dead, propositioned Penelope, but she refused every one of them and told them all that she would not consider remarrying until she had finished weaving a shroud for her husband's father. At night, Penelope would unravel the shroud so that she could delay its completion. The speaker of the poem imagines Penelope crying every night as she unraveled her shroud and thought of her absent husband. In the second stanza of the poem, the speaker imagines that Ulysses feigned his tears when he did eventually return, in contrast to Penelope, "who really cried."
It is not clear why the speaker of the poem weeps, but the allusion to Penelope and Ulysses suggests that perhaps she is weeping for her husband or for her relationship with her husband. Perhaps the speaker's husband, like Penelope's, is absent, either literally or metaphorically. Penelope is said to have waited faithfully for twenty years for Ulysses to return to her, so it seems likely that, should Penelope be able to offer any advice to the speaker of the poem, it would be to be patient and to remain faithful.