An Analysis of the Sonnet What My Lips Have Kissed, and Where and Why by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Categories: Literature

Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sonnet “What My Lips Have Kissed, and Where and Why” approaches this poetic form in a refreshing and sexualized way. Poetry and more specifically the Petrarchan form of the sonnet can be used to encapsulate all matters of themes, ideas, and emotions. One of the most prominent among these themes, is love, a fact that is particularly true when it comes to so called  lovers’ sonnets. Some of these older traditional lovers’ sonnets are celebrations of a specific kind of eternal, and wholly romantic love.

In fact, Francesco Petrarca’s conception of the Petrarchan sonnet form, “317” of his poems “were sonnets to an idealized lover, called Laura.”(Boland; Strand, 56) However “Lips” breaks away from these idealized origins through Millay’s usage of atypical romantic imagery and a dual natured and repetitive rhyme scheme that breaks away from Petrarchan form in it’s sestet. This rhyme scheme in turn with interconnecting rhyming sounds come together to suggest an intimate and sexual nature that is not dependent on one singular lover.

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This independence is interwoven with the sexual rhyme scheme and abnormal imagery as the speaker who seems to be Millay herself, takes active action in letting her past sexual partners fade into a world of ghosts and unanswered replies. This poem showcasing that there are many forms of love worthy of their own sonnent, even that of a love which relies entirely on the sexual to thrive.

The speaker in “Lips”, does not focus on an idealized image of some otherworldly lover.

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The fantastical images that can arise when a reader considers the traits of traditional lovers’ sonnets never seem to arise in “Lips”, instead the men showcased as lovers seem to be an afterthought that have been left outside of the speaker’s world. Traditional romantic imagery can be sappy and overpowering, with lines tending to focus on nature and a growing, life filled narrative of spring: be it blooming flowers, graceful birds, and other majestic powerful and primal sources of beauty. Compared to these sonnets, the imagery showcased in Millay’s “Lips” can be read as a rejection of this childlike and flowery narrative about idealized lovers. Using romantically atypical symbols such as ghosts, and the sheer pillow of physicality, her lovers represent to the speaker, hint at the bigger idea just behind the surface: A sexually charged, ephemeral look at the speaker’s relationships with men.

This speaker, most likely being Millay herself as  the poem uses “My” and “I” quite frequently in describing the state of mind that the poem seems to exist in. The speaker, and one could argue the author herself takes ownership not only of the “lips my”, meaning Millay, ” lips have kissed” but also in the ownership of the speaker’s “heart.” This usage of “my” in this context of ownership both in the physical and in the case of knowledge and actions, makes this poem seem to have a more personal and intimate slant than a poem wholly removed from the author’s own experiences (64). It is as if these “lads” Millay speaks about from the past are memories haunting her that wouldn’t go away until they were scratched onto the page. These hauntings or shimmering images of people no longer on this earth or “ghosts” are things usually reserved for campfire stories and haunted houses (64). However, these paranormal creatures take on an intimate and almost sexual nature in Millay’s octave, lines 3-5. These spirit’s can be read to illicit sexuality through the language choice and actions they take within the first stanza. These specters hover outside the window, where they “tap and sigh” eliciting the gentle touch and sounds of a lover. “Tap”, being a gesture, one would use on someone to get their attention, brings to mind a scenario where a person would tap someone if they suddenly saw an old friend walking down the street. Looking at this word choice through that scenario, these “taps” appear to be a nonverbal bridge to an intimacy that was grown in the past. In “Lips” these taps play a similar role, as these ghosts “tap” to try and get Millay’s attention, to signal their presence. The “sighs” to show a feeling of familiarity between these specters and Millay. “Sighs” being sounds usually inflicted by a lover in the throes of pleasure, this usage of the word suggests that these are the ghostly echoes of Millay’s past “lads” whom she had been physically intimate with (64). Much like some old friend who appears to be a stranger walking down the street, these ghosts, who are “[tapping] and [sighing] on…glass” are outside of Millay’s present world. Being “outside” these spirits are divided physically from Millay, but can still see into her space through the clear nature of the glass.

These unbodied touches and “sigh[s]”, can be seen as supplemental to the reading that these ghosts are indeed the lovers of the past, their traditional desire of a literally undying love rejected by the glass and Millay’s lack of “reply.” While they can still see what they once held, there are no longer able to break through the barrier Millay has placed herself within. It is here in these ghostly images Millay takes something chilled and creepy, such as the dead and firmly brings it into the land of the erotic, even if it’s an eroticism of days gone by.  For there was a time when these ghosts were flesh to her, such as when their “arms lain under [her] head till morning;” alluding that the lover, or lovers being hinted at in this poem, had been used by Millay much like a pillow, an easily replaceable object that lies beneath our head every night (64). These lovers are objectified as pillows, things that are so intimate to us, that few actual living beings can hope to compete with its closeness. Yet a pillow, and thus the men in Millay’s bed, are hardly objects of overt sentiment. They do gain a certain closeness with her, but much like the glass which keeps the ghosts at bay, or how once a pillow gets too lumpy they are tossed in the trash, so do these lovers get thrown away once they have served their purpose. Millay has little time for these “lads” beyond  the time they have spent “[lain]” beside her making her “come”. Their purposes in Millay’s life are pleasant, and desirable, but easily replaced by some newer person with ease (64). This narrative of sexual intimacy without the touch of the overly romantic continues through the rhyme scheme chosen by Millay throughout the piece.

Millay uses the rhyme scheme of a Petrarchan sonnet which is abbaabba in the octave and uses cdecde in the sestet to best fit her creative flow. While Millay takes advantage of the original octave rhyme scheme which embraces a repeating pattern of paired letters, she is able to create a fast paced and reciprocal feeling of intercourse for the first half of the poem. However, she breaks away from tradition by choosing to change the sestet to cdefce to continue this sexualized repeating pattern of pairs but in a much slower and relaxed fashion. This switching of tempo in Millay’s rhyme scheme choices serve to further the symbolism of lovers throughout the whole piece. By bending the traditional Petrarchan form in this way, Millay is able to escape any creative restrictions, which goes against the kind of instinctual and primal nature presented in this sexualized rhyme scheme she makes use of. By being confined to a set of rhyme form before the poet has even begun, their word choices are limited thus cutting off their creative flow. There is no such confinement when the author is free to choose the rhyme structure themselves, as Millay seems to suggest by treating the rules of Petrachan rhyme as mere suggestion in the way she breaks from it in the poem’s sestet.

The continuation of the traditional Petrachan paired lines found in the octave can be seen as weaving a consolidating wave of sound much like the rise and falls of sex. These lines and their repeating rhyme sounds seem to suggest the two lines coming together, as if they are one. These end rhyme pairs finding a shared sound based connection to become a larger whole, much like two lovers during intercourse.  With each matching line connecting and enmeshing with one another through end rhyme words, the very bones of the poem itself seems to suggest a relationship like nature. This also appears in the inherent coupled nature of a Petrarchan sonnet which Millay makes use of. By the poem being two parts of one total whole, an octave and a sestet, the poem itself presents this notion of sex. Sex, at its base level is about the reproduction that occurs between two members of an animal species. It is through this combining of bodies that differing DNA can be shared, and thus ensuring that animal’s offspring has the best chance of survival. Here too in the land of words, this poem benefits from this dual parted nature, being able to reflect and create a cohesive idea out of two rhyme independent stanzas. A dance between two different but thematically similar moments that naturally occurs in the Petrarchan sonnet form due to its structure containing two halves of a whole: an octave and a sestet. This dual imagery can be read as sexual in yet another way as well, as the octave has a faster paced rhythm than that of the sestet.

These differing paces as shown through, the frequency and the closeness of end rhymes can be seen as mirroring the crescendo and the eventual slowing and stop of intercourse. These relational and eager paced pairings of the octave are best shown through the end words of the A and B pairings. The line pairing of A, being both the catalyst for the start of the poem and the intimate dance of rhyme between itself and B, sets the stage for the continually increasing pace of the octave.  After A starts, B responds rapidly with two side by side rhymes of “lied” and “rain” in lines 2-3 which are held between the “sigh” and “why” of A’s lines 1 and 4, much like the “arms” of Millay’s past lovers. The octave reaches a peak as the end rhyme of the first A line “Sigh” directly rhymes and ends before the end rhyme of line 5, “reply” before bouncing back to B once more (64). This return to B bringing the rhythm back to the first four lines with a coupled set of rhymes that end in “pain” and “again” only to be closed off in A’s last lustful “cry.” This choice of the word “cry” is reminiscent of the vocalizations used at the conclusion of sex, as if it is signaling the end of the first stage of the poem, as well as the first stage of the relationship between the lines (64).

As this octave ends, the reader is met with quite an abrupt change as the first line of the sestet begins with the word “thus.” This can be read as if the whole octave was said in one fast paced breath, one organism that needs an abrupt change of tone, from the personal to the formal with words such as “thus” to bring it and the sestet into a greater whole. The abrupt usage of “thus” can also be read as a sort of brake to the fast and sexual pace of the octave as the more intimate style of “my” and “I” melts into a more distant and cooler formal use of language. After the split between the two stanzas is shown through “thus”, the end rhyme words slow, and move apart, much like lovers at the end of love making, or even near the end of a relationship (64). The lines of the sestet, unlike the octave, only contain 2 pairs of rhymes in line pairings C and E. These moments of connection are longer and not as quick paced and intimate as the octave, due to the rhymes becoming fewer and being spaced further apart. This widening between rhymes begins with the rhyme pair of  C, lines 9 and 13, which are spaced apart 4 lines from one another. These spaces serve as a textual form of slower breaths of rest provided by the non rhyme ending lines of D and F, as well as the beginning of the final rhyme pair of the piece. This ramping down of rhyme seeming to mimic the slowing of motion and breathing as two lovers caress and fall into a slumber. In conjunction with this image, the last rhyme pair of E in the words of “before” and “no more” seem to also be signaling that last moment of sexual closeness (64-65). These last moments of rhymes combining, an echo of  the closeness found “before” in the octave, that after this night will happen “no more.”  Not only are these pairs tied in rhyme, but they allude to a deeper idea that can be seen in this sexual reading of “lips.” A reading  that explores the idea  of a not committed  and independent relationship to sex, and one’s lover, which is subtly implied through this “no more” ending (64-65).

As brought up in this essay’s introduction, Petrarchan sonnet form has a history rooted in the idea of an eternal idealized love. However, this poetic pattern of writing of a love that will cease to fade or shatter, even at hells gate is rejected in the temporary nature of the relationships showcased in Millay’s “Lips.” The “lads” that Millay once “kissed” are  seen as “ghosts” and are actively “unremembered” as if a mere speck of dust on the breeze. Not lost to time or poor memory, but instead purposefully pushed away out of Millay’s space and “heart”, seeming to suggest that she prefers to stand strong as a “lonely tree.”  After all of the personal pronouns of the octaves, the speaker switches to the third person, introducing the reader to “the lonely tree.” This “lone… tree” seems to be Millay herself once more,  as she objectifies herself and her former lovers into objects of nature, as if trying to gain emotional space from the subject.  Despite this “tree” being alone in the cold and unforgiving “winter” it appears strong (64). This strength seems to be rooted in the line “Yet knows its boughs more… than before” due to the word choice of “bough” which means the main branch of the tree. This focus on knowing the main branch, or center of the self can provide a reading that Millay “knows not” of what will become of the “birds” whom have flown by all her life. Instead, she finds relief and freedom to let these people of the past “[vanish]” rather than letting their presences hang about like “ghosts.”  The symbols of “ghosts” and “birds”  throughout this poem  seem to stand for the lovers that had once “[laid]” by Millay’s side (64). The choice to use these words in place of “lads” or men provides a reading of the migratory and ephemeral place these lovers have held in Millay’s life. While “ghosts” are floating, weightless beings as if hinting at the very little weight they held in Millay’s life, it is in the actions of the “birds” do we get the clearest evidence for Millay’s wish to have these men  simply “come and [go].” As Millay, in her position as a “tree” does not “[know] what birds have vanished.” This not knowing, or remembering seems to be a repeating factor in the poem, can be seen as a clear action by Millay to have these men “not again” be by her “side.” (64)

This moment of reflection seems to not be regretful, rather it seems to be powerful and happy in its choice to “unremember” these men who have once provided pleasure. She has no emotional investment, no pains mentioned within these stanzas, rather the poem and so Millay’s relationship’s with men seem to be temporary, sexual in nature, and something that is not longed for after Millay has been satisfied with their interaction. These complex and deep ideas all seem to be buried in the rich language used here by Millay.  From the innuendo of “come” meaning to have arrived and also a deposit of sexual fluids, to the penetrative symbolism of “summer [singing] in[side]” of her, the focus on the physical is a far cry from ‘pure’ hand holding based romance (64-65). These “loves” Millay introduces to the reader instead seem to be of the purely physical nature, the period of sexual lust a “summer” time of heat, and pleasure that will always eventually turn to “winter.” (64-65) This use of the two opposing seasons of hot and cold, serves to even further deepen the imagery of pairs found within this poem, and adding another layer to Millay’s “long.. tree” in “winter.” This time spent alone, focused on her own nude branches is a purposefully taken period of reflection. One where she no longer needs to put energy into creating the fruits and perfumes of “summer.” This use of the seasons also implying that while, these loves might desire to “turn to [her]” at the darkest hour of “midnight with a cry” she will stay in solitude until she decides it is the time for her branches to bloom once more (64).

Much like the ghosts that dot Millay’s poem “What My Lips Have Kissed and Where and Why” focuses on ideas that have a momentary nature. Be it the fast paced moment of sexual intercourse mirrored in the slowing rhyme of the piece, or the chemistry shared with a lover, these things and people in our life must eventually entropy into a state of slumber. This slumber, an active choice on the part of Millay to not only take liberties within the Petrarchan form, but also in finding comfort in the solitude of a “lonely tree” away from the “lips” she once has kissed. In her abnormal romantic imagery, sexualized rhyme scheme and non committed style to her lovers,  Millay shows not only the power letting lovers slip past, but in highlighting a kind of love not as frequently showcased in the pages of poems or prose.

Works Cited

  1. Boland,Eavan,and Mark Strand.The Making of A Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms. W.W Norton & Company, 2001.

Cite this page

An Analysis of the Sonnet What My Lips Have Kissed, and Where and Why by Edna St. Vincent Millay. (2021, Sep 16). Retrieved from

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