Cover image featuring Poet Edna St. Vincent Millay for the poem what lips my lips have kissed

Analysis Of “What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why” By Edna St. Vincent Millay

“What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why” is an Italian Sonnet written by Edna St. Vincent Millay which was first published in 1923. In the poem, the speaker tells us how she cannot recall the memories of her past lovers. The speaker is agonized by the loss of her memories and by her decision to love at all.

“What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why”

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 the 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

Meaning and Summary 

The poem “What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why” by Edna St. Vincent Mallay is a sonnet where the speaker tries to remember her past lovers who she seems to have forgotten.

The memories she had of her lovers and the arms she had rested upon till morning knocked at the glass of her window just like ghosts. They haunt her memories and make her realize that she is alone. 

She feels a quiet pain in her heart as the lovers do not turn up to her window for the fear of rejection. The speaker thus compares herself to a tree of winter that is lonely.

It does not remember the birds that once came and sang there, but the branches are aware of the silence. She remembers that there was a time when she was loved too, but the time has passed now. She thinks that she can no longer be loved.

Analysis of the Poem

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,

I have forgotten, and what arms have lain

Under my head till morning;

In the first lines of the poem, the speaker wonders about the lips she has kissed, where she has kissed them, and the reasons for kissing them. The speaker tries to recall the past experiences of her love, and the “lips” refer to the past lovers of the speaker.

The speaker’s problem is not that she is experiencing unrequited love, but rather she seems to have forgotten all the lovers of her past. The fact that the speaker does not differentiate one lover from the other suggests that everyone was the same to her, or maybe she did not feel differently for anyone. 

The poet indirectly implies that even the physical closeness made the speaker seem distant from them, and did not result in a long-lasting relationship. Just as she has forgotten how the lips roamed her body, similarly she has forgotten the “arms” of her lovers that lay under her head, while she slept till morning.

It can be interpreted as that maybe her past lovers did love her, but she never really understood the language of love which makes her sad and upset now.

but the rain

Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh

Upon the glass and listen for reply,

The speaker reflects upon the loss of her memories at night, but there is a shift in the subject matter marked by “but”. The tapping of the rain on the window reminds her of her past lovers. The “ghosts” can be a metaphor for either her memories or her past lovers, which wait for her attention and answers.

The “glass” could be a reference to her mind and the “ghosts” are likely to be the raindrops that tap on the window, representing the memories of her lovers.

The speaker does not know the reasons behind these memories. “Rain” here also symbolizes the mood of the speaker which is gloomy and disturbed by the memories.

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 sound of the raindrops or the memories stirs “a quiet pain” in the speaker’s heart. The pain is described to be “quiet” as if it is slowly rising within her and then increasing with each tap on the glass. She misses their presence or the way they paid attention to her.

The speaker can only respond with a feeling of heartache to all the lovers she has forgotten. She misses the time when her lovers would turn to her at midnight with a proposal hoping that she might accept their love. But, her rejection made them cry. Hence, she knows that it is never going to happen again.

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:

In these lines, the “lonely tree” is a metaphor for the speaker as she stands alone in the winter. And, the “birds” are a reference to the past lovers of the speaker. She tells us that the “boughs” of the tree are silent now. No birds are sitting there.

All she knows is that she is lonelier than before. Just as the birds always sit on the branches of the tree, and not on the trunk. Similarly, the speaker’s previous lovers also connected with her physically, there was never a mental or spiritual connection between them. 

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.

The speaker cannot remember who loved her and who did not, all she can recall from her past is that she was someone full of life. There was a time when she had experienced pleasurable feelings of love in the past, but now all she has is a feeling of loss and nostalgia. 

Through these lines, she accepts that what she is now was not her before, she was a tree in summer where many birds came and sang. Perhaps, they never really made her feel what she wanted to feel. Hence, she is going through a time in her life where she can hardly recall any moments or memories with her past lovers.

Themes

The themes of the poem “What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why” are loneliness, heartache, memories, love, and youth. At the beginning of the poem, the speaker cannot remember and questions herself as to who did she kiss, where did she kiss them, and the emotional reasons behind it.

However, the only thing that the speaker feels is loneliness. The raindrops tapping at her window remind her of how lonely and miserable she is. There is no one to listen to or tend to her.

Moreover, she has a feeling of heartache because she knows that the people who turned up to her at midnight with love are never going to come again. After all, when they did she rejected their proposal.

She stands alone like a winter tree now, with no birds on it. She feels sad because she knows she is never going to be loved again like she was at the time. The isolation stirs pain in her heart.

One of the most important themes of the poem is memories because the speaker fears that she might have forgotten what those emotions felt like. The rain tapping on her window is like the ghost of her previous lovers or their memories and they ask for the speaker’s attention.

The window is like a division between the memories and the speaker’s present self. The memories are seen but cannot be fully remembered. The speaker is not just sad about the loss of her lovers, rather she is upset that she has “unremembered” them. 

Throughout the poem, the speaker has suggested that it would have been better if she never loved at all because now she is getting haunted by those memories. The speaker remembers her days of youth when “summer” sang in her when she was loved by many and she was not left alone. But, as she grows old, the days fade away and all she can hear now is not the birds chirping, but the ghosts knocking at her window.

Literary Devices

The literary devices used in the poem “What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why” are:

Metaphor– The poet uses metaphor to compare the sound of the raindrops falling against her window to the sound of ghosts tapping on the glass. Ghosts are associated with feelings of loss, nostalgia, pain, and sorrow. Similarly, the speaker is also mourning the loss of her past lovers. For example:

but the rain

Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh

Upon the glass and listen for reply, 

Alliteration- A few examples of alliteration from the poem are:

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why

Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh

Thus in winter stands the lonely tree,

Repetition– The poet repeats several words in the poem, like “lips”, “what”, “and”, “knows”, “one” and “sing”. 

Caesura– The poet uses caesura to keep a natural flow and also emphasizes the importance of the phrase by setting it apart from the other line. For example:

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,

I have forgotten, and what arms have lain

Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh

A little while, that in me sings no more.

Enjambment- A few examples of enjambment from the poem include:

I have forgotten, and what arms have lain

Under my head till morning; but the rain

And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain

For unremembered lads that not again

I only know that summer sang in me

A little while, that in me sings no more.

Personification– The poet has personified the tree and seasons in the poem. The tree is depicted as lonely and its branches are silent. The speaker tells us that summer once sang in her symbolizing that she was also happy and loved.

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 only know that summer sang in me

A little while, that in me sings no more.

Conclusion

The poem, “What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why” tells us that we are never going to stay young always, our days of youth are going to fade away and a time is going to come when we won’t be able to remember the people we have kissed.

The speaker of the poem feels the same too, she feels disheartened about the fact that she is slowly going to “unremember” those moments that she spent. 

She knows that she is never going to be loved again, no one is going to turn up at her window at midnight for a proposal of their love. She is desolate as a tree in winter.

She might have made physical connections with her past lovers, but she never made spiritual and emotional ones. I believe that even if she loved them, she never found stability. For the speaker, everyone is the same when she does not name any particular person but says “lips”. 

The speaker now realizes that as she is growing old, no one is really beside her. She is all alone with no company. It is silent where she sits. She knows that the chord of love is never going to play in her heart again.

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