I thought, as I wiped my eyes on the corner of my apron:
Penelope did this too.
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;
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.

And I thought, as I wiped my eyes on the corner of my apron:
This is an ancient gesture, authentic, antique,
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.
He learned it from Penelope…
Penelope, who really cried.

Analysis, meaning and summary of Edna St. Vincent Millay's poem An Ancient Gesture


  1. brad says:

    In the story odysseus has been gone for about 20 years and penelope is being pestered to choose a new king and she tells her people that as soon as she finishes the quilt she will choose a king so by day she quilts and at night she undo’s it. Thought id throw that in

  2. the man says:

    Ha! you have this for AP? im a freshman and im doing this in our 2nd six weeks and have to have a resource paper for it. Still a good poem.

  3. sara says:

    ulysses is another name for Odysseus, it is his name in roman language learned that from english teacher

  4. Akram Abdallah says:

    Does anyone know what the theme of this poem is? Please help me out someone

  5. Frank says:

    Ulysses is our 18th president, not the husband of Penelope. This mut be referring to his reaction to the civil war. Odysseus’s only name is Odysseus.

    • Ella H says:

      You’re not wrong but Ulysses is the Roman name for Odysseus. This poem is in fact talking about “The Odyssey”.

  6. Jacqueline says:

    I think she recognizes that the gesture is ancient and universal; as such, it has become a symbol of a woman’s grief. At the end of the poem, she realizes that it is, nonetheless, authentic. She is acknowledging that her gesture of grief is beautiful and timeless because it’s real.

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