An Ancient Gesture Poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay Summary, Notes and Line by Line Explanation in English for Students


An Ancient Gesture” is a poem written by Edna St. Vincent Millay in the year 1949. It was published after her death in the collection named “Mine the Harvest” in 1954. Through this poem, Millay tried to describe the mental pain and suffering of women after their husband left. Even the poet Millay wrote this poem after the death of her husband. So, she incorporated her own emotions in the poem. But to create interest she has chosen the character Penelope from Homer’s Odyssey. She stood as a voice for women who suffered after the lost of their loved ones.

About the Poet:

Edna St Vincent Millay is an American lyrical poet and playwright.She is a renowned feminist. Under the pseudonym Nancy Boyd she contributed much of her prose and verse. Millay was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for her poem “Ballad of the Harp-Weaver“. Millay was the second woman to win the “Frost Medal” for her lifetime contribution to American Poetry.


The poem “An Ancient Gesture” consists of two stanzas. The first stanza consists of 9 lines. Meanwhile, the second stanza contains 8 lines. Thus, the poem has 17 lines in total. It is a free verse poem.

Free Verse:

Free verse is a form of poetry, which dont have have a particular rhyme scheme or metre. Yet, it conveys the ideas clearly.

Point of View:

The poet writes the poem from the first point of view. It is evident by the following lines.

I thought, as I wiped my eyes on the corner of my apron:

Penelope did this too.


The poem is written from the first point of view. So, the speaker of the poem compares the situation of Penelope. Throughout the poem, she has tried to provide the space for the pain and sufferings Penelope faced. The poem talks about Penelope who waited for her husband’s return for twenty long years. In the meantime to avoid the marriage proposals she chose to follow a way of weaving. But no one noticed the pain of Penelope. The poet is worried as even Ulysses failed to show empathy for her wife’s helplessness. The Poem is a symbol for women like Penelope.

Poetry Analysis:

Stanza 1:

Lines 1 -2:

"I thought, as I wiped my eyes on the corner of my apron:

Penelope did this too."

The Speaker of the poem is doing some work, maybe dusting or cutting onions which irritated her eyes. So, she wiped her eyes with the corner of the apron. The speaker is not crying or shedding tears, but wiping her eyes. That’s when she remembered about Penelope. 

Lines 3 -5:

"And more than once: you can’t keep weaving all day

And undoing it all through the night;

Your arms get tired, and the back of your neck gets tight;"

Penelope, the wife of Odysseus waited for her husband’s arrival during the Trojan War.  She remained faithful to her husband for twenty long years. Here the speaker is describing the state of Penelope. She was in a situation to choose a suitor because her husband didn’t return. So, she declared that she will choose a suitor after weaving a shroud for the funeral of father in law Laertes. So, she continued her weaving process in the daytime. But in the night secretly she started undoing it. She repeated this process for 3 long years and deceived the suitors. Here, the speaker of the poem is describing the pain behind the life of Penelope.

Lines 6 -9:

"And along towards morning, when you think it will never be light,

And your husband has been gone, and you don’t know where, for years,

Suddenly you burst into tears;

There is simply nothing else to do."

The speaker of the poem says, Penelope has no other choice. So every other morning she chose to weave. When the thought regarding her husband flashes in her mind, she has no other choice but to burst into tears. 

Stanza 2:

Lines 10-11:

"And I thought, as I wiped my eyes on the corner of my apron:

This is an ancient gesture, authentic, antique,"

So, in the second stanza, the speaker is again repeating the same line, ‘”And I thought, as I wiped my eyes on the corner of my apron:” to bring back the readers towards the voice of the speaker. The speaker informs the readers, this is an ancient and authentic gesture. The woman had no other choice. She cannot explain her feelings to everyone in her life after her husband left her. So, she chose to continue her everyday chore to escape from the questions.

Line 12 -15:

"In the very best tradition, classic, Greek;

Ulysses did this too.

But only as a gesture,—a gesture which implied

To the assembled throng that he was much too moved to speak."

The speaker of the poem says, even in the Classic Greek “Odyssey” Ulysses, Penelope’s husband did this same gesture. He only with a gesture conveyed his feelings to the crowd, that he is moved too speak. 

Lines 16- 17:

"He learned it from Penelope …

Penelope, who really cried."

But, the speaker is saying Ulysses has learnt this gesture from Penelope. It is only Penelope who cried during his absence. Ulysses chose to control his feelings. Because, he had a thought that crying in front of a crowd can make him an emotional person. So, he refused to show empathy towards her wife’s helplessness.