What are the similarities and differences of the speakers in the poems "Siren Song" and "An Ancient Gesture"?

Expert Answers
rmhope eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Both of these poems are written in the first person in a woman's voice. In both poems the women cry; they appear to be lonely and thus evoke sympathy; they are stuck doing something meaningless that they don't enjoy; and they mock the male of the human species. Despite these surface similarities between the two speakers, they really are quite different from each other.

The speaker in "Siren Song" is a siren, one of the winged companions of Persephone who lured male sailors to crash on the rocks because of their sad but beautiful song. In this poem, the mythic creature cries and complains, saying she doesn't like sitting "with these two feathery maniacs" and singing the fatal song. However, her complaint turns out to be a ruse. She is playing a damsel in distress in order to tempt a gallant sailor into her snare. In fact, we must infer that she is truly happy and likes what she is doing; she only pretends to be unhappy with her state. In the end, she is deceitful, and she takes pleasure in capitalizing on the gullible gallantry of the sailor she attracts to come to her aid. This all becomes clear in the final line when she divulges, "It works every time." 

In contrast, the speaker in "An Ancient Gesture" is a human, not a mythical creature, and lives in modern times, as suggested by her "apron" and the fact that she refers to Penelope as being "ancient." She also cries, but her lament seems to be legitimate; her husband is gone, she is alone, and "suddenly you burst into tears; / There is simply nothing else to do." She is doing something she doesn't enjoy--she likens it to Penelope's weaving during the day and undoing the strands at night. Penelope put off her suitors by saying she would consider their marriage proposals when she finished weaving her tapestry; thus she undid at night what she did during the day in order to remain faithful to her husband during his 20 year absence. In this poem, the speaker complains about how hard it is to live the lonely life waiting for her husband who "has been gone, and you don't know where, for years." Thus this speaker is truly alone, unlike the siren, who has two companions and pretends to not like them. This speaker seems to sincerely miss her husband, yet she takes the opportunity to besmirch the reputations of men by pointing out that Ulysses also cried, but "only as a gesture." She belittles men--not because they are gullible, like the siren believes, but because they lack the depth of sincere loyalty and emotion that women possess--or at least that the speaker possesses.

Thus although the first-person speakers in these two poems have some similarities, their situations, messages, and tone are quite different from each other.