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.

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