In Edna St Vincent Millay’s Petrarchan sonnet “What lips my lips have kissed”, the speaker talks about past lovers that are in her life no more. Millay uses a variety of poetic devices such as, imagery, tone, and metaphor. She uses imagery of pleasure, intimate love, and nature. Her tone alters throughout the poem from feelings of wistfulness in the octave, to loneliness and abandonment in the sestet. The sestet signifies a shift from the speakers internal to external perspective. This is shown in the different metaphors the poet uses to convey feelings specifically of her memory and absents in her life.
The form of this sonnet is a Petrarchan sonnet, the first eight lines being the octave and the last six lines being the sestet. The rhyming pattern is abbaabba cdedce, and the change of the rhyme pattern in this sonnet signifies a change in her perspective, along with a change in the imagery and tone of the poem. In the first line “What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why”(1) she repeats the sound of the first letters: W’s and the L’s. She is doing this to connect the repetition of the sounds, with the repetition of the lovers she has kissed.
Furthermore the poem has the effect of a personal story but also carries out a light formal rhyming pattern of echoes, signifying the echoes of her past lovers. In the Octave, the speaker expresses her feelings of intimacy she shared with past partners. She reminisces of numerous love affairs from her younger days. The speaker enjoyed her time with multiple men rather than actually being in love with one. She expresses her feelings from an internal perspective, almost as if she is speaking aloud. The speaker begins the poem by saying “What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why /I have forgotten. (1-2) She refers to multiple lips as opposed to individual lovers lips. This gives the reader imagery of pleasure and sets the wistful tone of the sonnet. The speaker uses a metaphor to elaborate on her wistful feelings when she states “The rain is full of ghosts tonight”(3-4). This signifies her longing her past and the lads that are now ghosts to her, and will no longer turn to her “at midnight with a cry”(8). When Millay speaks about her past from an internal perspective she uses deep passion to explain her past and the lovers she does not remember individually.
For example; “What arms have lain under my head till morning”(2-3), and “for unremembered lads that not again will turn to me at midnight with a cry”. (7-8) In addition to a strong image of pleasure there is also lack of specific memory. When she refers to the men as “Unremembered lads”(7). The tone of the sonnet is very much her wistful feelings and her longing her past “ghost” (4) lovers. The speaker states that “in my heart stirs a quiet pain. ”(L6) She is more so longing her past that she experienced then her lovers that she has had intimate encounters with.
It is in the sestet that the Volta is introduced. It is the most essential element in this poem. The speaker changes her perspective from internal to external to define her past and her thoughts. For example the first line in the sestet “Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree. ”(9) Here she uses this metaphor to make the connection between herself and a tree that stands alone in the cold winter. Although she never states “I am a lonely tree”, this connection is obvious to the reader. She then goes on to say “Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one”(10).
This is a reflection of her past lovers that have also vanished from her life and have left her “More silent than before” (11), like the boughs on the tree. Just like she does not know what birds have vanished, she also does not have memory of the lovers that have vanished as well. In addition, this sets the tone for the reader of abandonment and loneliness. The speaker refrains in the octave from allowing the reader to know whose lips she has kissed. She now states that she “Cannot say what loves have come and gone”(12) this validating her point of “unremembered lads” (7).
The metaphor of the lonely tree is very powerful as it is the key to altering the sonnet from her internal perspective to her external perspective. Instead of thinking aloud, the speaker now defines herself using examples of external things. The imagery is also altered with respect to this metaphor from pleasure to nature. Millay uses words such as; “winter”(9), “lonely tree”(9), “birds”(10), “boughs”(11), and “summer”(13) to change the imagery of the poem to external things and uses nature to refer to herself. In the final two lines of the sonnet she states “I only know that summer sang in me a little while, that in me sings no more. (13-14) These two lines give a small turn to the sonnet because it is the only time she actually “knows something”. The speaker doesn’t remember much throughout the poem. The central irony of the sonnet is that although she is talking about what she remembers, she doesn’t really remember anything at all. On the finally two lines she does “know” that summer sang in her. This expresses that once she was indeed happy, and remembers her own experiences. Although the speaker talks about these lovers throughout the poem, she is talking about herself more. She is never specific about the “lads” but more specific about how she felt.
Another thing to notice is how the imagery is altered here from winter to summer. This ends the poem in a more satisfying and humble way because the reader is used to the tone being dark, and cold. In Edna St Vincent Millay’s Petrarchan sonnet she uses a variety of poetic devices to help define her feelings of loneliness, abandonment, and her lack of remembrance of her past lovers. She uses deep passion of past experiences to educate the reader on her encounters with past lover. She also uses powerful metaphors to express her feelings and give the shift from her internal to external perspective on her past.