Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “An Ancient Gesture” gives the reader a glimpse into a world of personal distress and a reflection on a tradition related to that distress. While the exact nature of the distress is never revealed, the poem’s meditation on a motif from a classical story suggests its outlines.
The “I,” or speaker, of “An Ancient Gesture” tells only one detail about the present moment of the poem: “I wiped my eyes on the corner of my apron.” On this one detail, the reader must base all understanding of the thoughts that follow and must guess the speaker’s dilemma. The reader assumes the poem’s speaker to be of the feminine gender, not from the poet’s own gender, nor from the association of the apron with housework, which was more often the exclusive province of women at the time of the poem’s composition, in the middle years of the twentieth century. The assumption comes from the classical and literary association that arises in the speaker’s mind. She thinks of Penelope, wife of Ulysses. Although the connection is never stated, the poem implies that Penelope’s situation might parallel the situation of the similarly distressed speaker. Penelope is keeper of a household, she is surrounded by people who want from her what she will not give, and she is awaiting the return of a long-absent husband, of whose whereabouts she has no clue. Her wait has been a long one.
Penelope’s distress has not reached the point of despair. Her faith remains unshaken that her husband will eventually return. Patience, courage, and fortitude are certainly among her traits. Yet still she feels distress and sorrow at her situation. Her distress is represented in part by the gesture she shares with the speaker of the poem: the wiping away of her tears. It is also expressed by her act of weaving by day and undoing those same labors by night. She does this because she is daily tested, being surrounded by suitors who want her, or want her estate. She weaves, then unweaves, as a means of holding these unwanted men at bay. Were she to finish her weaving, it would be a sign to them that her waiting had ended.
While the poem’s speaker makes one gesture, she thinks of Penelope, who makes two, first in the wiping of the tear, and second in her act of weaving. The first is a true gesture, since it reflects her inner state. The second is a false one, to deceive the men courting her in the absence of Ulysses.
That the speaker in Millay’s poem finds herself reminded of both truthful and deceptive gestures deepens the significance of the occurrence in the second stanza, when Ulysses does return, for he employs a gesture himself. He, too, wipes away a tear. The gesture was a truthful one when used by Penelope, and presumably also when used by the poem’s speaker. It may be a truthful one for Ulysses as well. He may be using it to express his own feelings. Yet Ulysses is by reputation a trickster and a canny employer of falsehoods to accomplish his ends. His appropriation of Penelope’s gesture, his public use of it before “the assembled throng,” and the poet’s final emphasis that Penelope “really cried,” as if to imply that Ulysses did not, leads the reader and perhaps the poem’s speaker to the realization that the original gesture has changed. Gestures, arising from the need for personal expression, are a combination of outward sign and inward significance. Ulysses demonstrates that the sign can be removed from its significance.
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removed, moreover, that sign can be passed down through time, as a part of social culture. The poem’s speaker establishes this through the sheer act of association: She engages in the gesture and finds the past rising to her, unbidden. The realization of this tie to the past seems a reassurance to her. In using the gesture she is no longer alone, because Penelope and Ulysses did this too.
In writing “An Ancient Gesture,” Millay followed the traditions of lyric poetry in limiting herself to a single, emotional theme and in using language that is conspicuously musical. In both focus and language, however, she exercised great subtlety. The predominant emotional mood—of distressed sadness—goes unstated, being suggested only through a parallel from classical literature and through the rhetorical technique of stirring in the audience what the speaker of the poem may be feeling:
Your arms get tired, and the back of your neck gets tight;And along towards morning, when you think it will never be lightAnd your husband has been gone, and you don’t know where, for years,Suddenly you burst into tears.
The musicality of the poem’s language also receives deft treatment. Unlike in most traditional lyrics, the rhythmic length of the lines and the placement of their end rhymes are irregular, giving the reader the initial impression that “An Ancient Gesture” might be an example of unusually graceful free verse. At least in part, this gracefulness does arise from a rhythmic structure, however. This structure lies hidden, clothed in language that is not heightened with literary tricks. As is the case with much free verse, the poem’s lines have a relaxed, natural, and conversational flavor. The lines contain either five stresses or three, with five-stress lines predominating and pairs of three-stress lines closing each of the two stanzas.
While the rhymes are used in an irregular pattern, they are used purposefully. The succession of the three rhymes “night,” “tight,” and “light” in the first stanza gives a sense of building toward the poem’s most emotional moment, which is itself emphasized by rhymes (“. . . for years,/ Suddenly you burst into tears”). The last line of the poem, “Penelope, who really cried,” is also given weight by rhyme, especially because the line with which it rhymes, “But only as a gesture,—a gesture which implied,” is central to understanding the poem as a whole.
Millay used the repetition of words and phrases for emphasis and to enhance the unity of her work. The initial line of the first stanza, “I thought, as I wiped my eyes on the corner of my apron,” reappears at the beginning of the second stanza, with the simple addition of an initial conjunction. The repetition creates an illusion of duration and of depth. To the reader, the distress appears to be of the sort that will not quickly pass.
Two lines in the poem, the only three-stress lines not placed at the ends of stanzas, are clearly parallel: the second line of the first stanza, “Penelope did this too,” and the fourth line of the second stanza, “Ulysses did this too.” These two short lines effectively cement the stanzas, and their separate thoughts, firmly together. Their parallel assertions also reinforce the importance of their message, affirming the speaker’s connection to tradition through her use of a gesture.
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Freedman, Diane P., ed. Millay at One Hundred: A Critical Reappraisal. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1995.
Milford, Nancy. Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay. New York: Random House, 2002.
Nierman, Judith. Edna St. Vincent Millay: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1977.
Thesing, William B., ed. Critical Essays on Edna St. Vincent Millay. New York: G. K. Hall, 1993.