Today’s offering for A Millay a Day is one of Edna’s more famous sonnets ‘What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why’. You can read the full text of the poem here.
As the marginalia in the Yale Selected Poems notes, it’s interesting to compare the poem’s final sestet with the opening of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 (‘That time of year thou mayst in me behold….’). Birds leaving a tree serve as a metaphor for loneliness (even emptiness) after the departure of lovers. Though it’s sacrilege to say it, I prefer the nuance of Millay’s lines to Shakespeare’s image. In Millay’s sonnet, the tree does not know ‘what birds have vanished one by one / Yet knows its boughs more silent than before.’ There’s a poignancy in the anthropomorphism.
I love the brooding-but-controlled sadness in this sonnet. The reference to threatening weather (‘…but the rain / Is full of ghosts to-night’) always makes me think of Edward Thomas’ mournful masterpiece ‘Rain’:
…But here I pray that none whom I once loved
Is dying tonight or lying still awake
Solitary, listening to the rain….
Like Thomas’ ‘Rain’, Millay’s poem evokes a slow dissolving, an almost gentle loss of intimacy. But there’s also a defiance in the poem’s opening that I keep returning to:
What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten….
Though ‘forgotten’ implies the passage of time more than it suggests anything else, I always find a certain nonchalance in these lines too: ‘who cares how many lovers I’ve had’. There seems a particular significance in the narrator forgetting the ‘why’, a buried implication that it doesn’t matter. The men of the poem’s opening are later referred to as ‘unremembered lads’.
I always return to Millay’s sonnet when I’m in a bittersweet, reflective mood. It never feels dated, less relevant.