What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why (Sonnet XLIII)
by Edna St. Vincent Millay
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's What Lips My Lips Have Kissed is a conventional Italian or Petrarchan sonnet and is the speaker's reminiscences of the numerous love affairs of her younger days and her regret that such amours were moments of days past that will not be repeated. This poem struck a particular chord with me, since the older I get and the more time I am single, I begin to wonder if my past amours are in the past, not to be repeated again, though hopefully, I am not too old to find love again. I certainly think I am still young enough to still find love again, but some days, I just have to wonder if it will ever happen and "summer will sing in me" once more.
In the opening quatrain Millay refers not to individual lovers but merely to lips that have met hers and arms that have supported her head. Millay admitted her free ranging sexuality and eventually entered into an open marriage with a man who managed her business affairs and was a dear friend. She complains not so much about her early promiscuity but about the passage of time. Her early loves are now "ghosts . . . that tap and sigh." In line 7 and 8 she refers to them as "unremembered lads that not again/ Will turn to me at midnight with a cry."
With the beginning of the sestet or concluding six lines, she creates a brilliant and evocative metaphor. She never says, "I am a lonely winter tree," but the identification of herself with the tree of silent boughs is inescapable. Similarly, the lovers of her youth are birds that "have vanished one by one" leaving her now leafless boughs (read arms) "more silent than before." Just as she had refrained earlier from identifying whose lips and arms had kissed and held her, she now "cannot say what loves have come and gone." However, those past days of passion were a "summer [that] sang in me/ A little while, that in me sings no more."
Certainly there is regret and "a quiet pain," but the sadness is not shame at her youthful promiscuity but a quiet melancholy that the onset of winter or age that has caused the leaves to fall and the birds to vanish. Were another summer season to come, she would welcome another succession of nameless lips and arms. But in human life we are not accorded renewed youth, renewed leafy boughs and more than one singing summer. This graceful sonnet renews and heightens one's appreciation of the poet about whom Richard Wilbur said of Millay, "She wrote some of the best sonnets of the century." That is a strong compliment from the second Poet Laureate of the United States.