The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 685 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 489 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Brittin, Norman A. Edna St. Vincent Millay. Rev. ed. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982.

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.