Edna St. Vincent Millay – ‘“What lips my lips have kissed’


(No.60 of my favourite short poems)

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This Sonnet is by Edna St. Vincent Millay, an American poet and playwright who was born in Rockland, Maine, in 1892.  I find it a moving and poignant poem looking back on her more youthful days with regret and intense longing.  Her sonnet is written in the Italian form, divided into two parts – an eight-lined octet, followed by a six-line sestet, here presented as just two sentences.  It is both reflective and filled with remorse.

Millay’s first published poem, ‘Renascence‘ was particularly well received and launched her on her writing career.  For a large part of her life Millay lived and worked among her Bohemian friends in New York’s Greenwich Village milieu.  Known to her friends as Vincent, she was openly bisexual, and gradually accrued both fame and some notoriety.   In 1923, she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for ‘The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver’.   Edna St Vincent Millay died in 1950.

 

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“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,

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.

 

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