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. Ginny says:

    Let me get this straight, is Ulysses just another name for Odysseus?

  2. Lex says:

    I just have one question, what is the MEANING of this poem?

  3. Susan says:

    I always thought this poem was about the nature of making art. Who was it that said that poetry is “emotion, recollected in tranquility?”

    Millay is crying in the first stanza, but even as she cries, she notices her own emotion, her own attitude. The crying becomes self-conscious, a gesture that indicates grief.

    Penelope though, is like most of us, going through the day without producing anything of lasting value, going through the motions the endless routine (weaving, unweaving, weaving, unweaving) and for what? Poetry, like Millay’s, or the epic of Ulysses, is what endures.

    Yet something is lost to the poet, the directness of the emotion, of being Penelope “who really cried”

  4. Mary says:

    I have to do an analysis of this poem for an AP english class. If anyone knows of any good sources for critical essays or analytical papers over this particular poem it would be greatly appreciated.

  5. hannah says:

    The gesture is Odysseus’ crying. The author is obviously trying to show that Penelope’s crying is real while when Odysseus cries, it is just a gesture or formality. The poet uses words like tradition and gesture to describe Odyssesus’ crying. The “assembled throng” is the crowd of people that gathered to see their king and queen together. Ulysseus’ crying is just for the crowd.

  6. Anca says:

    I really enjoyed every comment and I do belive is ok to disagree without calling people names. Next, please analyze the title and look at the figurative meaning of this poem. Everybody went for the literary meaning. It is an “Ancient” gesture. And that is that women are ment to tend for their husbands. It is an “Ancient” tradition. “The apron” symbolizes the domestic nature of women who were content to tend to their husbands. Considering Milay’s sexual orientation one might conclude that she wants to break the traditions and not follow the “ancient” ones.
    The poem is a symbolic poem that relates to the family life. One can always try to speculate but unless you are the poet that is all one can do.

  7. Brittani says:

    I agree with Martha in that the gesture is the wiping of her eyes on her apron, but I think it’s a little more than that too. It’s the fact that she IS wiping them, not just sitting there and sobbing in utter hopelessness and misery. Penelope is very strong–not knowing if her husband is still alive or not, but determined to stay faithful to him. Imagine having to weave all day and unweave all night for three years; I think I’d go completely crazy.
    The point is, I don’t really think that the author was referring to a lost husband in her poem. Rather, she was referring to the fear you get when you are fighting something that seems inevitable, and don’t know if your efforts are ever going to pay off. Penelope really didn’t have any idea if Odysseus was going to make it back or not; she operated for ten years in uncertainty. There are times when the struggle just seems to crash down on you all at once, and you cry because you just don’t know what to do. But the strength of Penelope, and of the author, is shown by the gesture of wiping their eyes on their aprons. You cry, you wipe the tears and you keep fighting. It’s a kind of strength Odysseus did not possess. And that, I believe, is what the poem is really about.

  8. MArtha says:

    The gesture is wiping tears from your eyes on your apron. Women have done this since forever. Penelope cries because Ulysses has been gone for 20 years and she is alone at home, raising a son, ruling a kingdom and keeping away suitors who want to force a marriage on her.She does this by weaving a shroud during the day and unravelling it at night. Her life has been hard without her husband. While she is struggling and not even knowing if her husband will return, Ulysses, her husband, is off fighting monsters and enemies, but he is also having adventures and women are loving his heroic image. He is the hero of the poem, but when he cries, he often cries for show. Ulysses likes being the center and will take advantage of any situation to make himself look good. The question posed by the poem is who has the more difficult position during war; is it the man who is away risking his life, but living glories and receiving adulation, or is the woman who stays at home waiting, worrying, and keeping the homeland together? To me, Millay thinks that Penelope and all women suffer the most and get the least credit. Wiping your eyes on your apron is an ancient getsture, and taking an ill-deserved secondary role to the hardship of a warrior is also an ancient role. Penelope, and all women in wartime, really cried and still dry today; not knowing what is happening is worse than being there.

  9. bob wallace says:

    mage’s critique of this poem is right on the money.

  10. Maddy says:

    Characters: The woman who is crying(Penelope) and the man who made her cry(Odysseus)
    Theme: Every gesture is made by a cause and an effect~ Cause is Odysseus leaving effect is Penelope crying
    Setting: Not positively sure but probably Ithaca
    Symbols: The way “Penelope” crys is smbolic to how everybody cries and also the way she wipes her eyes on her dress(or whatever)

    By the way Kyle, your the stupid one

  11. codes says:

    I think there is more to the gesture than love or crying. The poem mentions “Ulysses did this too./ But only as a gesture”. If the gesture is love, than Ulysses is simply doing it as if it is no big deal–I don’t think the poem is trying to get a message across like that. A gesture most nearly means a movement of the part of the body, esp. a hand or the head to express an idea or meaning. Ulysses is very much in love with Penelope–thus why he returns home after all the sumptuous temptations he encounters on his voyage, so why would he show just a small movement of his love to appease the throng? Or maybe I am just not understanding the poem.

  12. Kathy says:

    Like Melanie, I believe the ancient gesture is one of crying, or maybe love. However, I think that this refers to the scene of the Odyssy, reflecting Penelope’s loyalty in hoping that Odysseus will come home one day.

  13. Melanie says:

    The gesture she refers to is the act of crying. However, I don’t think this poem implies that the modern-day husband is at war…perhaps he just left, or perhaps they are divorced. I would even suggest that Ulysses represents all men and Penelope all women.
    She is really commenting on a universal pattern which is unfortunately tied to gender roles: those who leave, and those left behind.

  14. Gianna says:

    What is the gesture she is talking about?

  15. sade says:

    Hey, I have to memorize this poem and recite it in school tomorrow i only know all of it! Isnt that terrible!!!!!!

  16. Mage says:

    Well, Millay is comparing her husband going off to a present-day war to Penelope, King Ulysses’s wife. The bit about weaving all day and undoing it all night refers to when she promises her suitors to consider marriage when she completes her tapestry. She obviously doesn’t want to marry any one of them, so she undos all of her work. Hope that helps…and hope it wasn’t too late. If you need any more info, just email me.

  17. Hena says:

    Kyle, you think that you could elaborate on how exactly Ulysseus has been involved in the story line of this poem? I have an analysis paper due in a few days on this poem.. I absolutely love it, but need a bit more info in order to go in depth with it. Would be appreciated really. Thanks..!

  18. judy says:

    To Kyle, why so negative? Even if the girl didn’t understand the poem fully, she was moved by it and that counts for quite a bit. Calling her “stupid” is not cool.

  19. Kyle says:

    Srry but this poem is not about violence…geese where did you get that? He is sleeping with other women and he cries but not with feeling. She cries because she misses him and she truly cares about him. Nowhere does it talk about violence. Odysseus (Ulysses) is a nice guy, he would not hurt Penelope. He came back to be with her again, not to hurt her. stupid

  20. Samantha says:

    This Poem es very good because it has alot of thruth in it. Alot of women suffer of domestic violence but the men is the one how suffers thats not right and this poem is very good.

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