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“What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why” is a sonnet written by American poet Edna St Vincent Millay. The speaker of the poem is the poetess herself. The speaker remembers her past lovers with whom she had a happy life. Though she has distanced herself from.them the tapping of rain drops makes the speaker recall the memories.
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.
“What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why” is an Italian or Petrarchan Sonnet. The Italian sonnet is named after the great Italian poet Francesco Petrarca. The sonnet has 14 lines and a slightly flexible rhyme scheme. The sonnet divides its lines between an octave (eight lines) and a sestet (six lines). Usually the first eight lines follow the “ABBAABBA” rhyme scheme, which slightly varies from that of the sestet.
The sonnet is written in the metre of iambic pentameter. The term iambic pentameter refers to a line of poetry with ten syllables, made up of alternating stressed and unstressed syllables.
The speaker of the poem is in a state of nostalgia. The rain outside makes her remember her past lovers who had physical intimacy with her in the past. The speaker now misses that phase of life. She compares herself with a lonely tree in the season of winter. The lonely tree misses the voice of birds in the winter season, similarly the speaker of the poem misses her past lovers. The memories make her feel sad.
What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why, I have forgotten, and what arms have lain Under my head till morning;
The speaker of the poem talks about her past lovers. She tries to recall the moments that she had spent with her past lovers. She has not mentioned the names of past lovers. Yet, she talks about the closeness with them in the octave section. She says she has forgotten when and where her past lovers kissed her lips. She cannot recall the arms in which her head laid till the morning in the past.
but the rain Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh Upon the glass and listen for reply,
Now the poet shifts from the past to present. The speaker is trying to remember her past life when it is raining outside. Now, this rain is making her recall all the faded memories in her mind. The word “ghost” represents the people who lived with her during the past. The phrase “upon the glass” represents the mind of the speaker. Thus, the rain makes the speaker recall her past lovers in her mind.
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain For unremembered lads that not again Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
The rain drops make the speaker get sad. Though she couldn’t remember her past lovers, yet she could remember certain instances like a certain lad who tried to meet her in the middle of the night. Now, the raindrops make the speaker feel the pain. Now, she is missing them, their care towards her. She decides to remain quiet and feel the pain.
Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree, Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one, Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
Now, the speaker is shifting her image from rain to a lonely tree. In these lines the speaker has depicted the picture of a lonely tree in winter. The tree does not know that the birds have vanished one by one. Yet, it could feel that the boughs are more silent than before without the voices of birds. Here, the speaker compares her with a lonely tree in winter. Though she knows the people have left her life as the time passed. But she couldn’t get out of her past life.
I cannot say what loves have come and gone, I only know that summer sang in me A little while, that in me sings no more.
In the previous lines, she compared herself with a “tree” and her lovers to “birds”. Now, she says she cannot remember when they came and went from her life. But, she could only remember the phase of summer in her life. It is the phase where she experienced the beautiful love in her life. In the last line, she again shifts to the previous tone, while she says, those lads are not in her life anymore.