‘What My Lips Have Kissed, and Where, and Why’ is an Italian sonnet, (numbered, Xliii), written by the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. Italian, or Petrarchan sonnets, are made up of one octave and one sestet, with a turn in the middle. In this instance, the turn in the poem takes the tone from one of simple remembrance to something closer to mourning. Italian sonnets rhyme in an ABBAABBA CDECDE pattern. This piece in particular is written in the first person from the past tense, except for the places in which she is describing her present environment and situation.
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Summary of What My Lips Have Kissed, and Where, and Why
The speaker describes what parts of her memory have been lost, “what” her lips have kissed, “why” they kissed, and “where” they kissed. She continues in this way, informing the reader she cannot recall “what arms have lain / Under my head…” The rain of present-day is bringing out ghosts though, and they listen at her window, hoping she will notice and remember them, but she does not.
Thus begins the sestet portion of the poem in which she is morning the loss of what she considers, “summer.” She describes herself as a winter tree that knows its branches used to be louder, more lively than they currently are but cannot remember the birds that once lived there in summer. So too has she forgotten who made her happy in the past, she only feels the void. The poem concludes sadly with no hope for the future, she says she once knew summer, but that “in me [it[ sings no more.”
Analysis of What My Lips Have Kissed, and Where, and Why
As noted in the introduction, ‘What My Lips Have Kissed, and Where, and Why’ is written in the form of an Italian or Petrarchan sonnet. The first part of the sonnet is an octave, a set of eight lines, and is focused on simply remembering the events of the speaker’s past.
As is the case with most sonnets, the first line of the poem also serves as the title. The speaker is thinking deeply about her past, she is attempting to recall not only what her lips have kissed, but also where she was and why she had made the decisions the had. It is clear from the beginning that she now feels that there ought to be deeper associations with her past, that she is unable to remember.
She has forgotten who, where, and why she kissed who she did, as well as,
…what arms have lain
Under my head till morning;
It is as if all connection to her romantic past is gone. The reader is unsure at this point whether she has forgotten for a specific reason, or if her past encounters were simple so unmemorable that her mind did not retain them.
There is a turn to a new thought at this point in the third line of the sonnet. The weather of this particular night, “the rain,” is bringing back some of these memories. She describes it as being, “full of ghosts tonight.” These ghosts are tapping on the glass of her window and “listen[ing] for a reply” from the speaker. They are seeking her out on this dark and rainy night; the reader does not yet know why this is.
The last section of this first part of the poem resolves in the next three lines. The speaker describes her emotions in this moment
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
This description of pain as being “quiet” is very interesting. Described this way it seems as if it is rising in the background, unnoticed at first, but then throbbing under the surface in a place the speaker cannot reach, her heart.
The pain is stirring there for these “unremembered” men that she will never again share a bed with. They will, the speaker states, never again
…turn to me at midnight with a cry.
She will not share the depth of dreams, and nightmares with them ever again.
This is the point at which the sestet begins and the poem makes a turn. The speaker begins to describe winter, the way a tree stands alone without leaves, or birds in its boughs. She is this tree and is left alone without any of the companionships that she experienced previously.
Giving further description to the tree, and in turn, herself, she describes how the tree does not remember the birds that have “vanished one by one,” only that the branches are more silent than they were previously. This is the same way in which the speaker knows that she is more alone now than she has been in the past, but cannot remember the particulars of what it was like when she had companionship.
This comparison between the speaker and the winter tree is solidified in the closing three lines of the sonnet.
The speaker clarifies again that she does not know “what loves have come and gone,” she only senses on a base level, like a quiet pain in her heart, that
…summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.
This last section of ‘What My Lips Have Kissed, and Where, and Why’ brings the reader into the present tense, this is her current emotional state. The speaker continues with the metaphor comparing herself to a tree in winter by describing how she once knew summer. Summer standing for the feelings of companionship and presumably happiness and a state of fulfillment. These last lines are deeply sad as a conclusion to this piece as they do not hint at any change of circumstance for the speaker, no hope that she will experience summer once more. It no longer, “sings,” in her.
About Edna St. Vincent Millay
Edna St. Vincent Millay was born in Rockland, Maine in 1892. She was raised, along with her two sisters, by a single mother, from whom she learned self-sufficiency and gained an appreciation for art. She became involved in writing poetry at a young age and was awarded a scholarship to Vassar College where she became involved in theatre. While there she continued to write and had a number of relationships with several women. She published her first book in the year of her graduation, Renascence and Other Poems. In 1923, Millay married Eugen Boissevain who gave up his own career to manage Millay’s literary one.
She would become one of the most respected poets in the United States and would win the Pulitzer Prize in 1923 for her collection of poems, The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver. Her popularity stemmed from both her remarkably crafted sonnets and her bohemian lifestyle, including her political stances, and open relationships. Millay died in 1950 at the age of 58.