A Poetic Analysis: Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “What Lips My Lips Have Kissed”

Updated on July 16, 2016
Edna St. Vincent Millay in Mamaroneck,[7] NY, 1914, by Arnold Genthe.
Edna St. Vincent Millay in Mamaroneck,[7] NY, 1914, by Arnold Genthe. | Source

Poetry is an art form that one must take time to properly analyze for it to be accurately understood. Just like physical art work that is displayed in museums, poetry must be considered from all angles. Literary concepts, such as the speaker, structure, form, tone, vocabulary, rhythm, sounds of language, figurative language, and references and allusions, must all be considered when reading poetry because complex notions are brought to light when poetry is scrutinized.

For instance, a simple fourteen-line poem with some rhyme scheme may at first reading appear to be only that, but upon further inspection the poem becomes more than just a mundane poem and is seen to be a multipart sonnet.

There are two kinds of sonnets, the Shakespearean sonnet and the Italian sonnet. The latter consists of a fundamental break “between the first eight lines (called an octave) and the last six (called a sestet). Its “typical” rhyme scheme is abbabba cdecde” (832). An example of an Italian sonnet is Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “What lips my lips have kissed.” The poem follows the abbabba cdecde structure and provides several more examples of literary concepts. “What lips my lips have kissed” is a great example of how literary concepts combine to make a complex and meaningful sonnet.

Millay incorporates literary concepts, such as the presence of a speaker, tone, vocabulary, sounds of language, figurative language, and structure, to make the sonnet more intricate and significant.

The most obvious place to start analyzing the poem is with the speaker. The poem is written in the first person with the speaker recalling how he or she has forgotten “loves” (Millay 12) of the past. Since the sonnet is written in the first person, it is as if the reader is actually able to become the speaker. The tense is obviously noted because all lines except the last contain words in the past tense, such as “kissed” (Millay 1), “unremembered” (Millay 7), and “sang” (Millay 13). Upon reaching the last line, the poem instantly changes to the present tense with the word “sings” (Millay 14). This seemingly insignificant switch in tense means the poem is a reflection the speaker is having on the past and, judging by the melancholy vocabulary, the speaker is quite sad about how the past has affected the present.

This gloomy tone is emphasized in the use of sad words in the following lines:

And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain

For unremembered lads that not again

Will turn to me at midnight with a cry…

I only know that summer sang in me

A little while, that in me sings no more. (6-8, 13-14)

Although all of these lines are obviously depressing for the speaker, the last line is especially distressing because of the placement of the comma. Without stopping, the speaker says, “I only know that summer sang in me / A little while…” (Millay 13-14), slight pause, “that in me sings no more” (Millay 14). The short pause enhances the sad tone because the speaker is declaring that his or her happiness is gone and it appears it will not return.

Furthermore, the vocabulary the speaker uses stresses the speaker’s sadness with words like “forgotten” (Millay 2), “ghosts” (Millay 4), “pain” (Millay 6), “lonely” (Millay 9), “vanished” (Millay 10), and “silent” (Millay 11). From the beginning all of these words convey an overall gloomy, secluded feeling. In addition, the sounds the words make help enhance the overall gloomy feeling with lines like: “What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why, / I have forgotten, and what arms have lain” (Millay 1-2). Here, the calm, smooth w sound is repeated constantly. The quiet sounds this alliteration makes is only broken by the harsh k sound in “kissed” (Millay 1). This cut into an otherwise monotonous line may have been done to make the word “kissed” (Millay 1) stand out. After all, the sonnet is about a speaker who is recalling how he or she does not remember past lovers he or she has kissed. With such a melancholy tone, depressing vocabulary, and the calm, quiet sound of words used it is evident that the speaker wants the reader to really suffer the same sadness he or she is feeling through the text.

Additionally, the figurative language, primarily metaphors, really brings the poem to life. The reader is forced to visualize the past “loves” (Millay 12) as the constant tapping sound the rain makes on a window pane late at night. Then the speaker is equated to a “lonely tree” (Millay 9) from whom all the birds have fled for the winter. These metaphors, though maybe not observed right away, also portray the speaker’s feelings as wrought with sadness and loneliness.

Finally, the evaluation concludes by examining the poem’s structure. The sonnet has been constructed in a way that the octave is made into one sentence and the sestet is also one sentence. It is noteworthy to state that the two sentences are so packed together with detail that one may feel intense enjambment in the poem if it were not permeated with commas and other pauses. The break between the octave and the sestet also serve as a shift in the poem. Before the break, the poem is highly reflective and afterward, the poem becomes more remorseful.

Together all of these literary concepts allow the reader to convincingly become the speaker in only fourteen lines of poetry.

The sonnet, “What lips my lips have kissed,” becomes more complex and significant through the use of literary concepts that carry the speaker’s feelings of sadness and remorse from the page into the reader’s mind. These intensely gloomy emotions are emphasized by the presence of a speaker, the tone, vocabulary, sounds of language, figurative language, and structure used. Just like an artist may employ color, texture, medium, and space to bring their piece of art to life, a poet must use these kinds of literary concepts to bring their ideas, emotions, and story to life.

Works Cited

The Norton Introduction to Literature. Ed. Allison Booth and Kelly J. Mays. 10th ed. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2010. Print.

Millay, Edna St. Vincent. “[What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why].” The Norton Introduction to Literature. Ed. Allison Booth and Kelly J. Mays. 10th ed. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2010. 841. Print.

Questions & Answers

    © 2013 morningstar18


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      • profile image


        14 months ago

        This source was very useful so thanks !

      • profile image


        14 months ago

        Moringstar18 has skillfully introduce all the beautiful points of the poem and at the same time explain the merits of a sonnet. This piece helps me more than months of poetry classes. Thankyou!


      • profile image


        18 months ago

        the rhyme scheme is actually abbaabba cdedce

      • profile image


        2 years ago

        shame you did not post the piece here. thank u for this commentary

      • profile image


        2 years ago

        Where exactly is the "shift" between the octave and sestet? I'm having trouble locating this, closest I can tell is in line 12.


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