What Lips My Lips Have Kissed, And Where, And Why (Sonnet XLIII)

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.

Analysis, meaning and summary of Edna St. Vincent Millay's poem What Lips My Lips Have Kissed, And Where, And Why (Sonnet XLIII)

27 Comments

  1. Bridgette says:

    I cried with this poem. It’s so moving, so dramatic.

  2. Elaine says:

    We should always cherish the people around us,including own lovers.

  3. Deborah says:

    I burst into tears when i first read this poem. So sad!

  4. olivia says:

    it can mean so many things!!!!!!!

  5. walt m wally martin says:

    A hundred individuals could read “What Lips … ” , and there’d be a hundred perspectives , and probably ,at least , half as many interpretations . Surely , many would appreciate the insightfullness , depth , and “suggested” abject finality that is , at once , an expression of both unearthly joy and all too earthly pain . Personally , from a metaphysical view , I find the expression to be very much an introspective , “open-ended” , loving of current Self , fully as much as the perceivable (and acknowledged) “timely loss of others” … a reflection , in addition to a grasping recognition , which has resulted in a “letting go” .
    Not to wax esoteric in the extreme , but , for any student of the physical sciences , there is the suggestion of a “mind / brain” interface (contemporary ref range from W.Penfield to S. Grof) . Though by no means an expert on the poet , I do dearly enjoy her poetic openness as offerings ; these a product of her unfettered creative and expansive mind .
    As far as I’m able to ascertain , she was prone to a certain moodiness , in addition to use of at least one chemical substance which can further alter both perception and mood . These may have proved somewhat “dulling” in later years , but , I believe , not at the time of this writing . Despite what some may consider with regard to the aforementioned , I , nevertheless , find this sonnet to be both brilliant in presentation , and ever so touching in emotionality .
    So many times at autopsy , I’ve held the roughly three and one half pounds of tissue that comprise the human brain in my hands , and wondered as to it’s collective sensory input , and complex data processing as demanded during life ; and yet somehow come to know same as an empty vessel of sorts . As marvelously complex an organ as the human brain happens to be , somehow I’ve managed to make a distinction between the physically concrete , and the mentally ethereal . As fact , we all are susceptible to tangible influences upon the brain such as physical or chemical insult . As an opinion , there is a separate and distinct conscious / spiritual aspect which interfaces with the brain . To what extent these factors influenced the poet and this sonnet are open to individual conjecture . Though some would disagree , my feeling is that such influences , at this time , are nil .
    At this point , my obvious opinion is that the poet was beautifully gifted in the spiritual realm of creativity and sensitivity , and that “What Lips My Lips Have Kissed … ” is not to be viewed as any hopeless and despairing expression of a “life wasted” , “lost” , and tearfully unrecallable , but rather a recognition , an acceptance , a “loosening of spirit” , and a “letting go” . ESVM’s “emerging thought” and sentiment were captured wonderfully , and expressed so succinctly , at the time of this composition . Perhaps a few days prior , or a day or two later , and “What Lips … ” may have never been . That would have been such a loss indeed .
    Thankfully , walt

  6. Teri says:

    I hadn’t known until I found this site that the date of this poem coincided with the date of Millay’s marriage, and the interpretation that this is her “goodbye” to her past life makes a certain amount of sense, though her marriage was an open one and she and her husband both had multiple affairs over the course of it. The interpretation of this poem that I was first exposed to, that I think also makes sense is that she is commenting on WWI. The poem came five years after the end of the war, but it is not uncommon to comment on events after they happen, and the way she speaks of the loss of her lovers (“the rain is full of ghosts”, ln. 4, and “vanished” ln. 10) suggests that they may have not left of their own accord but were, instead, taken from her, perhaps by the draft or by death in the trenches. Just throwing that out there for consideration.

  7. nbm says:

    thanks to my grandmother and gowing up on a small island in northern maine and not a lot to do – my love for longfellow is something i have always carried with me- the childrens hour & the wreck of the hesperus are two of my favorites (even though the latter still brings me to tears )- i was buying stamps at the post office the other day and saw the new longfellow stamp that is coming out in march and started reciting the children’s hour and i asked the po clerk if she had daughters and had read this to them she did not know who longfellow was or the poem i mentioned to her – it is too bad that in todays world we are so busy that people do not have time to read these wonderful poems to their children – i am happy that i was able to pass some of these wonderful poems and stories i learned from my grandmother to my children.

  8. Dan Drumm says:

    I have felt this poem, despite its appeal, was inauthentic. Millay may have been ahead of her time sexually, but what of it? That is nothing to poetry, and her sexual antics of any stripe add nothing to the depth of human experience. What do I care what she did in bed? She was shallow, nasty and vicious which a glance through “Savage Beauty” will tell you. And her attitudes toward sex, with their cheapening of other’s feelings, most likely made her that. Renascence is good, and her work can be good, but come on… alot of this woman’s poetry is posing, and this one is no exception. She thinks she is a free spirit, a libertine, and a poetess. As Nietszche points out it is precisely these “free” spirits who are the most bound.

  9. Berenice says:

    I have loved this poem since I was 18 and at college and it still touches my soul in an inexplicably tender way today, even more so, now that I am 60. “What lips my lips have kissed”…all those she has loved, fleetingly, lingeringly, passionately, or casually…where and why, who knows…but she wonders where they are, and in her heart there is a quiet pain of longing for those moments of tenderness and passion.
    For they have all gone, and she is alone…in the winter of her years, a tree barren of its foliage, it’s beauty faded and bare. No birds singing in the branches. She feels the pain of silence and solitude. But yet, despite the loneliness, she remembers that once summer sang in her, that she was vibrant, desired alive and loved…and these memories sustain her to the end.
    I came across Edna St Vincent Millay’s poems as a teenager and nobody in my circle had ever heard of her, then…but I loved her energy and sensuality and still do today. This is my favourite poem.I am amazed that there is so much interest in her work today.

  10. Micheal says:

    she talks about the lads, last to my knowledge there were no women that were lads.

  11. Joy says:

    I was enthralled with this poem when I first read it. Millay excells at nostalgic verse. If anyone cares to discuss her poetry with me, feel free to email.

  12. Sam says:

    I understand for the most part the symbolic meaning of the pems and i presume that the mood/feeling is a flashback memeory type of feeling but is this poem written in iambic pentameter and does line eight have a sexual allusion: “turn to me at midnight with a cry” supposed to be an orgasm????? Can anyone also help me understand and interpret the poem and tone better?
    Plz email if someone can help: pynklady@sbcglobal.net

  13. Sarah Mathers--lol says:

    This is a poem obviously on her bisexual feelings… I mean, “What lips have I kissed”? or whatever? I get it. Me, being a bisexual myself gets it.

  14. Sandra says:

    What is the imagery in his poem?
    I’m so confused…

  15. Sarah says:

    I need to write an essay on the defamiliarization of this poem any ideas??

  16. Matt says:

    I think this poem by Edna is remembering her promiscuous youth and contemplating her free-spiritness. The poem describes Edna as a ‘lonely tree’ who’s companions have vanished over time. Edna speaks of her past lovers as ‘ghosts’ and refers to them as ‘lips’ – showing no concern as to who she was with.
    At the time the poem was written, Edna was 29 years old. I think that because of her young age, Edna must have considered her marriage, later that year, to be spelling the end of her unconditional ‘fun’. I think she wrote the poem with an ‘this is the end of my life as I know it’ attitude. And she acknowledges the fact that she may no longer be desirable to the people she once shared a bed with.

  17. Topher Hemann says:

    Millay’s life and activism are extraordinary, but they should have little impact on our reading of this poem. Inserting biographical information into a poem is like wondering if Tom Cruise and Nichole Kidman’s real relationship was on the rocks when they made Eyes Wide Shut: it doesn’t matter to the performance. The speaker in a sonnet is much like an actor delivering a dramatic monologue.

    Here, the focus of the poem is simple, deep and devastating. An older woman is haunted by the lovers of her youth because she no longer feels desirable, and she cannot have them back again. Around this simple focus is a complexity of sexual views and relationships. The quest for true love doesn’t enter the picture — the boys have no identities and no single one made a deep impression on the speaker, and the speaker is not bothered by this. What she is haunted by is not the absence of love, but rather the absence of lovers. She has had her conquests — (and at this point we might reflect on what a bold social statement this was in the 1920’s) — but her conquests are behind her.

    In addition to Herrick’s “To the Virgins”, check out the passages in The Waste Land about the hyacinth girl and the typist.

  18. Coleen says:

    Millay writes in her journal, “What life I have lived I have lived doubly, actually and symbolically” (Epstein 91). At that time, Millay was living two lives, the grown up life with Arthur Hooley and her school life with the women she was sexually involved with. Epstein writes, “Then there was her sex life on campus, which she pursued with gusto, with ingenuity, with a vengeance. Does that sound like a strong, independent woman to you? Yes! How many women in that time would have been so open with their sexuality? Not many. I find that Millay must have been torn though, between her two lives. The two lives she was living were very different, but I believe that Millay liked it that way, because it was risky. Millay lived on the edge of her time.
    Millay in her youth loved her life. She had relations with men and women. Millay looks back on her past life in the poem “What Lips My Lips Have Kissed.” No wonder she says, “And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain / For unremembered lads that not again” (6-7). She remembers the sexual experiences of her past and realizes that they are past, and may not come again. She is sorrowful, feeling a “quiet pain.” I read that Millay was married in 1923, the same year that she wrote this poem. Maybe Millay was sad because she was going to say goodbye to the excitement of her past. It then raised the question, if she is so sad to leave her past behind, why is she? Was it the pressure of society? I can’t imagine lesbianism being accepted in her time, so was she marrying to please society? I also can not see Millay doing this. In her poems and journals you see a strong and independent woman, someone who doesn’t conform to society, so then why would she?

  19. Shay says:

    This poem is very symbolic of the authors life. She is indeed just getting married, but it is because at the time of her lifestyle (1923) she cannot do what she wants as a female author. She needs a financial head as well as a male head so she will be more accepted socially.
    The poem seems to say that she is trying to find true love. Because her parents divorced when she was eight years old, she has never had the opportunity to find love and is always looking for it in sex with females or males. Having many lovers does not bring happiness, especially when the glorious life fades away and all she is left with is the memories that haunt her. She is desperately alone when she is first married, and is still alone when she dies in 1950, drunk, at the top of her staircase in Steepletop. Sexual love dies, as she says, and so does the soul.

  20. Brian says:

    Wistfully looking back on one’s youthful promiscuity—this must have blown their minds in 1923. I found it intensely moving, for how many of us wasted our youth and failed to see that a sexual wasteland might lie ahead. I think the image of the poet as a lonely tree, “boughs more silent than before,” puts this poem up with the great sexual sonnets of the 17th century. This is not a plea to young people, but the dreadful warning is there. For a man’s comment on this age-old dilemma, see Robert Herrick’s “Gather Ye Rosebuds”, and the delicious 1909 oil painting of the same title by RW Waterhouse.

  21. Dan Nguyen says:

    Ok, after reading this poem sever hundred times, I have fully believe that this poem is about a woman reminiscing on her promiscuous youth and how she misses the feelings of being free spirited in her relationships without commitments and understands the past is gone and learns to cope with the changes.
    Key notes of interpitations:
    First couple of lines is about her past, her reminiscing on her past. “ghosts”,”birds”,= past lovers. Also she uses metaphors of the changing seasons to the changes of her life. Summer = her promiscous youth, Winter = herself now,being alone with all her lovers gone and forgotten. And last She learns to accepts the changes.. “summer sang in me a little while” “that in me sangs no more.”= the good times have come a little while and gone now.
    **I hope this helps all of you last minute students like myself**

  22. Al says:

    I believe this poem not only expresses a “good-bye” to youth but also it shows an anticipation of the future—a “I’m not going to go back down that road again” attitude. I think it also is a yearning for the “simpler” times and a regret that things change, people change, love changes…..

  23. Yvonne says:

    It’s an original italian sonnet, written in iambic pentameter.
    And, as everybody can see, the speaker is female.
    Millay used metaphors, like “the lonely tree”(–> she/ her heart is the lonely tree) or the “birds that vanished one by one”(–> all her lads that have gone now).
    She also uses allusions. In line eight, there’s a sexual allusion: “[…]turn to me at midnight with a cry[…]” –> that’s supposed to be an orgasm.
    In line nine, we have a turning point: “[…] Nor knows what birds[…]”. The speaker changes her mood. She recognizes her sadness about the silence and the lonelyness that surrounds her.

    I found out, that Millay, in her younger years, had many affairs and relationships to both sexes, male and female.
    She realy seemed to enjoy her life.
    On the 18th of July 1923, she got married. This poem is also written in 1923. To my mind, this poem is a kind of “good by” to her earlier life. Now that she will marry soon, there will be no more men/women than just one in her life. The summer that she felt, before is leaving and the cold winter rests in her heart now.

  24. Kimmie says:

    I Think it was very well done, and its speaks to me in some way!

  25. Jackie says:

    The poem is about being old, physically old or metally jaded, and thinking back to the torid love of one’s youth. The “ghosts” that haunt her are the many lovers of her past. She’s trying to specifically remember them all, but she’s just experiencing that vague terrain called memory. She remembers the passion she experienced and how there was a certain feeling within herself, a summertime of life, that is there no more.

  26. adam phillips says:

    i need to analiysis too its doingmy head it i also need to compare it witheaster monday by

  27. salima says:

    i need help with this poem analiysis.(wht lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why.)also i need to write an essay.

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