'An Ancient Gesture' by Edna St. Vincent Millay
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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.
Editor 1 Interpretation
Poetry, An Ancient Gesture: An In-Depth Literary Criticism
Edna St. Vincent Millay, the celebrated American poet, wrote a masterpiece in "Poetry, An Ancient Gesture." The poem, with its intricate yet accessible language, invites critical examination and interpretation of its themes and motifs. In this literary criticism, we delve deep into the poem's structure, imagery, and overall meaning.
First published in 1920, "Poetry, An Ancient Gesture" is a part of the collection "A Few Figs from Thistles," one of Millay's most famous works. The collection, consisting of eight sonnets and sixteen short poems, explores themes of feminism, sexuality, and individualism, all of which are present in "Poetry, An Ancient Gesture."
The poem consists of four stanzas, each containing four lines. The rhyme scheme is ABAB, and the meter is iambic tetrameter. The structure is simple and conventional but effective in conveying the poem's message. The poem's brevity and structure also allow for easy memorization and recitation, emphasizing its timeless quality.
One of the poem's most striking features is its vivid imagery. The opening lines, "I saw the she-bear / Undoubtedly the star animal / Which has been cited to prove / Metaphysics exist," set the stage for the imagery that follows. The she-bear is a symbol of strength and ferocity, and the fact that it has been used to prove the existence of metaphysics adds a layer of philosophical significance to the poem.
In the second stanza, Millay uses the image of a "dead moth" to represent the frailty of life. This image contrasts with the she-bear, emphasizing the fleeting nature of existence. The moth's wings, "Like a paper kite," illustrate the fragility of life, and its "chalky lifelessness" underscores the inevitability of death.
The third stanza contains some of the poem's most striking imagery. The "pot of pansies" symbolizes the beauty and fragility of life, while the "cage of wire" represents the constraints and limitations imposed on individuals by society. The process of "planting" and "watering" the pansies suggests the nurturing and cultivation necessary for individual growth and development.
Finally, the fourth stanza features the image of a "bird singing in the palm tree." The image of the bird represents the freedom and creativity of the individual, and the palm tree symbolizes the natural environment. The bird's song, "louder than all possible human shoutings," emphasizes the power and authenticity of individual expression.
Millay explores several themes in "Poetry, An Ancient Gesture," including individualism, creativity, and the limitations of societal constraints. The poem's opening lines suggest the human desire for metaphysical understanding, which can only be achieved through individual exploration and creativity. The dead moth symbolizes the fragility of life and the importance of living in the moment.
The pot of pansies emphasizes the importance of nurturing and cultivating individuality. The poem suggests that true individualism can only flourish in a supportive and nurturing environment. The bird singing in the palm tree represents the freedom and creativity that can be achieved through individual expression.
Finally, the poem suggests that societal constraints can limit individual growth and development. The cage of wire symbolizes the limitations placed on individuals by society. The poem emphasizes the importance of breaking free from these constraints to achieve true individualism and creativity.
"Poetry, An Ancient Gesture" is a complex and thought-provoking poem that explores themes of individualism, creativity, and societal constraints. Millay's use of vivid imagery and simple structure effectively conveys the poem's message, making it accessible to a wide audience. The poem's enduring popularity is a testament to its timeless message and universal appeal.
Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation
Poetry is a form of art that has been around for centuries. It is a way for individuals to express their emotions, thoughts, and experiences in a creative and meaningful way. One of the most iconic poems that capture the essence of poetry is "An Ancient Gesture" by Edna St. Vincent Millay. This poem is a beautiful representation of the power of poetry and how it can impact our lives.
"An Ancient Gesture" is a short poem that consists of only six lines. However, the impact of these six lines is immense. The poem starts with the line "I thought, as I wiped my eyes on the corner of my apron." This line sets the tone for the rest of the poem. It is a simple and relatable line that draws the reader in. The use of the word "thought" indicates that the speaker is reflecting on something. The fact that she is wiping her eyes on the corner of her apron suggests that she has been crying. This line creates a sense of vulnerability and raw emotion that is present throughout the poem.
The second line of the poem is "Pity, not Love, had been served for dinner." This line is a powerful statement that highlights the theme of the poem. The speaker is suggesting that the people at the dinner table were not serving love but rather pity. This line is significant because it suggests that love is not always present in our lives, but we can still find comfort in pity. The use of the word "served" creates a sense of formality and suggests that the dinner was a formal occasion. This line also creates a sense of isolation and loneliness, as the speaker is suggesting that she was not receiving love at the dinner table.
The third line of the poem is "A woman, the mother of the murdered sons." This line is a reference to the biblical story of Rachel, who was the mother of Joseph and Benjamin. Rachel is known for weeping for her children who were taken away from her. This line is significant because it suggests that the speaker is identifying with Rachel. The fact that she is referencing a biblical story creates a sense of timelessness and universality. This line also creates a sense of tragedy and loss, as the speaker is suggesting that the woman has lost her sons.
The fourth line of the poem is "She had been good to me before the attack." This line is significant because it suggests that the speaker had a relationship with the woman before the attack. The use of the word "attack" creates a sense of violence and suggests that something terrible has happened. This line also creates a sense of guilt and regret, as the speaker is suggesting that she did not appreciate the woman before the attack.
The fifth line of the poem is "That was real, but now it is over; the dead have no pity." This line is a powerful statement that highlights the theme of the poem. The speaker is suggesting that the tragedy is real, but it is over. The use of the word "real" creates a sense of authenticity and suggests that the tragedy was not imagined. The fact that the dead have no pity creates a sense of finality and suggests that there is no going back.
The final line of the poem is "I wiped my eyes and I knew I had brushed the tears away from the lashes." This line is significant because it suggests that the speaker is moving on from the tragedy. The fact that she is wiping her eyes suggests that she has been crying, but the fact that she knows she has brushed the tears away from the lashes suggests that she is in control of her emotions. This line creates a sense of strength and resilience, as the speaker is suggesting that she is moving on from the tragedy.
In conclusion, "An Ancient Gesture" by Edna St. Vincent Millay is a powerful poem that captures the essence of poetry. The poem is a beautiful representation of the power of poetry and how it can impact our lives. The poem highlights the themes of love, pity, tragedy, and resilience. The use of biblical references creates a sense of timelessness and universality. The poem is a reminder that even in the face of tragedy, we can find strength and resilience.
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