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Interpretation of Poem “What Lips My Lips Have Kissed and Where and Why” – Edna ST. Vincent Millay

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In Edna St Vincent Millay’s Petrarchan sonnet “What lips my lips have kissed”, the speaker talks about past lovers that are in her life no more. Millay uses a variety of poetic devices such as, imagery, tone, and metaphor

She uses imagery of pleasure, intimate love, and nature. Her tone alters throughout the poem from feelings of wistfulness in the octave, to loneliness and abandonment in the sestet. The sestet signifies a shift from the speakers internal to external perspective.

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This poem is about numerous loves approaching a close, and the tribulations brought about by said conclusion. The main theme in the sonnet is focused on the transition that occurs in the Millay’s life; such as, the seasons changing. Edna St. Vincent Millay uses the difference between summer and winter to represent the utter contrast she goes through. Millay uses summer to correlate with a period of contentment, brightness, and affection; however, winter is used to correlate with monotonous, misery, and an emptiness. The changes in the seasons mirror the emotional state of the central figure of the narrative before and after the ménage à trois. The sonnet also uses personification, in lines nine to eleven, to reinforce Millay’s feeling of sadness in connection with her past

“Thus in winter stands the lonely tree, nor knows what birds have vanished one by one, yet knows its boughs more silent than before”. Millay, more or less, indicates that she is the “lonely tree” and that she has solitarily endured summer and winter, while lovers, affection, and cheerful experiences have come and gone. Essentially, Millay conveys the heartache she feels using a leafless tree in the midst of winter to that formerly had ample with birds singing in harmony, which symbolize the pure enjoyment that once was.

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Furthermore, the vocabulary the speaker uses stresses the speaker’s sadness with words like “forgotten” (Millay 2), “ghosts” (Millay 4), “pain” (Millay 6), “lonely” (Millay 9), “vanished” (Millay 10), and “silent” (Millay 11). From the beginning all of these words convey an overall gloomy, secluded feeling. In addition, the sounds the words make help enhance the overall gloomy feeling with lines like: “What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why, / I have forgotten, and what arms have lain” (Millay 1-2). Here, the calm, smooth w sound is repeated constantly. The quiet sounds this alliteration makes is only broken by the harsh k sound in “kissed” (Millay 1). This cut into an otherwise monotonous line may have been done to make the word “kissed” (Millay 1) stand out. After all, the sonnet is about a speaker who is recalling how he or she does not remember past lovers he or she has kissed. With such a melancholy tone, depressing vocabulary, and the calm, quiet sound of words used it is evident that the speaker wants the reader to really suffer the same sadness he or she is feeling through the text

Additionally, the figurative language, primarily metaphors, really brings the poem to life.

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All in all, in the poem, a speaker looks back on her previous loves and lovers whom she has forgotten. The speaker is tormented by the loss of her memories of love and regrets having loved at all

Millay purposefully uses the form of an Italian sonnet, a form that traditionally honors and exalts love, to question whether it is worth it to love at all.

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The Norton Introduction to Literature. Ed. Allison Booth and Kelly J. Mays. 10th ed. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2010. Print.

Millay, Edna St. Vincent. "What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why." Collected Poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1956. Print. .

The Norton Introduction to Literature. Ed. Allison Booth and Kelly J. Mays. 10th ed. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2010. 841. Print.

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