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In the poem “What Lips My Lips Have Kissed” by Edna St. Vincent Millay, written in 1920, it speaks of a woman, probably Millay herself, talking about her past lovers and when they shared memories together. It is a bittersweet poem that speaks of love and heartbreak. This poem brings up many questions about life such as “What is heartbreak? And how do you describe heartbreak?” She answers these questions with the use of metaphors and imagery.

Edna St. Vincent Millay answers the question of what is heartbreak with the use of metaphors. When she says, “thus in the winter stands the lonely tree,” she is describing heartbreak as lonesome and cold. The juxtaposition in using a beautiful scene, like a tree in winter, to describe something so sad and somber as a heartbreak. Also, at the end of her poem, she says “I only know that summer sang in me/ a little while, that in me sings no more”. Again Millay uses imagery to describe her lovers as summer and as she forgets them, summer isn’t in her anymore. This means the heartbreak is like stepping from summer and warmth and having taken away. This poem has changed the way I view breakups. Because although it’s true that after some time you get over the pain when the person you liked leaves you, there are some that you can’t forget because they’ve impacted you.

In the fourth line of the first stanza, Millay tries to remember the people she has been within past relationships and she cannot remember. She writes, “but the rain/ is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh”. When you think of rain it’s like sad and gloomy, and ghosts could also be like souls. Souls don’t only have to associate with the occult and paranormal, they can also be referred to as one’s being. So perhaps the ghosts in the rain could just be mournful people. These people could be the people she has kissed before, her past lovers. The ghosts are metaphors for her sad past lovers that dwell in the rain. But not actual rain, the rain is used to represent sadness. People say that even if people leave, they always have a place in their heart. This could mean that she used to remember these people but gradually she’s forgetting them and they’re turning into ghosts in her heart, slowly fading away. A question raised for me was what is heartbreak? This poem answers this question by using images such as “and in my heart stirs a quiet pain” which shows us that heartbreak is painful and hurtful.

My first impression of this poem was that it was a well-written poem with lots of imagery.  It makes me feel serene, yet, at the same time, nostalgic. A line that especially evokes the first feeling for me is, “I only know what summer sang in me that in me sings no more.”  The other feeling of nostalgia arises when I read the line, “for unremembered lads that not again”. Perhaps because it seems like there are these men that she is forgetting.

She is remembering and reminiscing her past lovers, and their memories together. What I know about the speaker is that she had many lovers and that whenever she remembers them, more than remembering a specific person she remembers the memories as a whole. Like she relives her past relationships through memories and feelings. This is suggested by the words “I have forgotten, and what arms have lain under my head till morning.”   The speaker seems to be speaking to herself, St. Vincent Millay, perhaps to a friend. I say this because it sounds like a self-reflection. The poem doesn’t seem to spring from a particular moment in history. The poem revolves around several themes, including heartbreak and time. If this poem were a question, the answer would be “Not all wounds fully heal and memories and people can stay with you forever.” If it were an answer, the question would be “What makes you sad?” The title suggests that she has kissed and been with many people before.

The poem’s form is a sonnet. This form is a vehicle for the content of the poem.  If the poem were free verse, it would not guide me toward an understanding of the poem’s meaning.  By making it a sonnet, it gives the poem a steady beat to follow. Also, when she slightly changes the tone of the poem it gives it a break that accentuates her writing.

I think this poem is about a woman who in her earlier age has many men around her and now that she is older she is alone. It is about loss and change. It is written in iambic pentameter and it is a Petrarchan sonnet, you can tell because it is divided into two stanzas. An octave and a sestet. There is a little change between the octave and the sestet because at first, she talks about herself, her direct experience and in the end, she does a comparison with nature. She as the lonely tree and her past lovers as birds.

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CC BY-SA 4.0 What is heartbreak? by Mariam is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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