Friday, April 6, 2018

"What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why" - 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.

What an absolutely beautiful and devastating love sonnet from Edna St. Vincent Millay this is!  Millay, who had a number of great romances in her life, creates a stark and beautiful image of herself as a winter tree, with bare branches where birds once sang.  She knows that "summer sang in me a little while, that in me sings no more."  Love gone, it is winter, and she is a tree, numb, unaware of what loves she had, only knowing them to be gone.

The line that sings to me most is, "but the rain is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh upon the glass and listen for reply."  The insistence of memories of lovers past, the personification of nature as an outward manifestation of inner struggle, is beautiful and subtle, and ties in with Millay's own envisioning of herself as a "lonely tree" in winter.  Her heart "stirs" with "quiet pain" to think of the "unremembered lads" that no longer share her bed.  There's an intimacy to this detachment.  She cannot remember them (or perhaps cannot bear to remember them) and yet, she can remember that arms have laid under her head until morning, and that her lips have kissed.  Where and why?  Who can say.  She only knows that her birds have "vanished one by one" and that her boughs are "more silent than before."  There's a numbness here, the sort one feels after a heartbreak.  It's put into words so beautifully here, with the image of a solitary, empty tree in winter.

It's a heart-breaking poem, anchored, I feel, by its traditional structure.  This is a perfect example of a sonnet.  Largely in iambic pentameter (five feet, composed of alternating stressed and unstressed syllables), it follows a straightforward rhyme scheme as well, at least in the first stanza.  ABBA, ABBA. The line break can be thought of as the volta, or turn, of the sonnet, where the subject matter shifts.  Here, the rhyme become a little more complicated, and rather than ending on a rhyming couplet, the last stanza follows the pattern CDEDCE.  The lines rhyme, but there's an unease to it.  By playing against the expectation of the structure, the final line, wherein summer, and love, "that in me sings no more" stands out all the more. 

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