What Lips My Lips Have Kissed

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AP Literature and Composition


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What Lips My Lips Have Kissed...
What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
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.
Edna St. Vincent Millay
In Millay’s poem, the speaker laments the loss of the touch of her former lovers. The conflict stems from the speaker being haunted and in pain for the “unremembered lads” that she will neither experience nor meet again. The speaker is a woman, one can infer by the “lads” referred to as former lovers and by the gender of the poet. One can also infer by the melancholy tone and the metaphor of the speaker being compared to a “lonely tree” in winter that summer sings in “no more” that the speaker is aging more than she would like to be. The speaker begins by stating “what lips” her lips have kissed and “where and why.” These are not phrased as questions, but are paired with the second line “I have forgotten” to cause the reader to assume these are queries that the speaker is asking in order to remember these sensual experiences and to whom to attribute the memories. The speaker then states the haunted nature of these memories with the line “the rain is full of ghosts tonight” (3-4) and her frustration in the fact that the ghosts wait for a reply from her heart where “stirs a quiet pain” (6) as she is having trouble remembering these former lovers. The speaker then compares herself in a metaphor to a “lonely tree” (9) in winter that cannot remember the birds that once sat on its limbs, much like the speaker cannot remember the limbs of the lads who came in contact with her limbs. When the speaker comes to the realization in line 11 that her “boughs are more silent than before,” the reader sees now that the pain of loss the speaker is feeling comes less from the fact that these lovers are gone and more from the fact that she cannot remember them. The poem concludes with the speaker stating that the only memory that does remain is that “summer sang in me a little while and sings in me no more” (13-14) summarizing for the reader that the joy the speaker once felt in the arms of these former lovers is gone and the feeling may never be retrieved or recovered. The action of the poem occurs at night, which can be interpreted in the line “the rain is full of ghosts tonight (3-4) and appears to take place at a time in the speaker’s life when her glory days of numerous lovers in her life has passed. Although not stated directly, one can infer that the speaker is in her own house, perhaps in her bedroom listening to the ghosts “tap and sigh upon the glass” (4-5) of most likely her window. The motivation of the speaker to compel her to speak of these lost lovers is the melancholy nature of a rainy, perhaps lonely night, haunted by memories of her past.

Millay’s poem is an Italian sonnet that contains fourteen lines of iambic pentameter. It does, however, defer a bit from the traditional rhyme scheme of abbaabbacdcdcd when it gets to the sestet (the last 6 lines of the sonnet). The last words in the last lines are placed in the following order:






In tree and me, the poet chooses true rhyme but uses slant rhyme in her choices of one and gone. Additionally, although before and more are also true rhyme, they are placed in such a way that the rhyme scheme does not match the prescribed Italian sonnet recipe for rhyme. Before is placed in the C line and more in the D line which throws off the rhyme and also the balance of the reader when finishing the poem. It’s as if the forgotten sensations lamented in the subject matter of the poem have made their way into the structure of the poem and translate into forgotten patterns of rhyme that reflect the confusion and loss of the speaker. The rhetoric of the poet includes devices of sound such as her use of alliteration “what lips . . .where and why” (line 1). Beginning with the phrase “what lips” carries with it the connotation of perhaps a questions and perhaps a declarative statement as in “what lips!” which would bring to mind a commentary of a fond remembrance. However, it soon becomes apparent in the rhetoric that follows including diction such as “forgotten what arms have lain” and “ghosts” and “pain” that this is not a declaration of remembrance, but a lamentation of what has been lost.

The poet’s choice of words includes much figurative language in her use of metaphors, imagery and personification. “The rain is full of ghosts tonight” is a metaphor for the speaker being haunted by the forgotten lovers. “Will turn to me at midnight with a cry” contains powerful imagery of the attempt to bring back the sensation and take the reader to the moment as well. When the poem shifts with the use of a semi-colon and the word “but” in line 3 the reader’s focus shifts to one that feels empathy for the speaker who cannot remember the owners of the lips she has kissed. The natural shift in a sonnet from the opening octave to the closing sestet is clued by the choice of the word “Thus” as a transition word. This is where the poet shifts to the extended metaphor of comparing herself to a “lonely tree” (9) in winter that can no longer remember “the birds” (10) that have rested on her “boughs” (11). The reader makes the natural assumption that the birds are a metaphor for the forgotten lovers and the boughs a metaphor for the speaker’s own limbs. In the final unrhymed couplet, the poet uses personification and metaphor in the lines “I only know that summer sang in me a little while” (13-14) wrapping up the speaker’s lament that this “summer” a metaphor for joy is now lost to the speaker forever. The natural construction of a sonnet works well for this poem as the poet sets up the conflict with the octave (the first 8 lines) which dramatizes the anguish of the speaker and her lonely situation. The natural resolution of a sonnet occurs in the sestet, or last 6 lines, where the conflict is “resolved” in the metaphor of the lonely tree in winter longing for the feel of summer again, which is accentuated in the closing couplet.

The use of iambic pentameter lends itself to the tone of this poem as well, as the natural rhythm of regular patterns of speech give this poem an air of the confidante, as if the speaker is confiding her emotion to the reader in an intimate conversation. The heightened dramatic nature of the rhyme of course makes this more poem more formal than conversational, but the rhythm, rhyme, and melancholy tone when used in harmony, connect with the reader in such a way as to elicit appropriate pathos but leave the appropriate amount of distance in which to not cross the line into over sentimental melodrama.

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