“What Lips My Lips My Lips Have Kissed”

NewYork_Wedding_Photographer_Kissing_219My vision of the speaker in “What Lips My Lips Have Kissed…” (by Edna Millay, in the Seagull Reader) is a woman who has spent her life looking for love and attention, but has never found it. After years of looking, her beauty has faded and her quest has been in vain. She is left forever alone, with no one but the rain to keep her company.

The speaker is overcome with sadness as she thinks of her past romances, and the lack of attention she sees from men now as she writes:

“What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,

I have forgotten, and what arms have lain

Under my head till morning” (pg 223).

One thing I actually enjoyed about this poem was that it was not hard to understand. The speaker has forgotten her past lovers, or even why they were together. I got the sense that she may be an older woman since the fact that she can’t remember them makes it seem like a long time ago. As she listens to the rain “tap and sigh, upon the glass and listen for reply” she feels all alone; and perhaps unloved. Listening to the rain is not necessarily something you do when you are among people, but rather something done when all is quiet. Perhaps the rain reminds her of the young men that used to metaphorically knock at her door, as it taps at the windows, as the lack of men doing so now. In turn she writes:

“And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain

For unremembered lads that not again

Will turn to me at midnight with a cry”.(pg 223)

I think, like the rest of this piece, this excerpt is pretty self-explanatory and really gets to the core of her loneliness. Not only are there no more “lads” coming to call for her, but she describes them as unremembered; which gives me the feeling like even when there were men wanting her it never really meant anything. Maybe, though she has had many men in bed with her but never really had true love. This is why the men seem to blur together and she doesn’t even remember what they look like. She uses the metaphor of a lonely tree to describe herself giving the reader an image of a single tree, perhaps in a meadow that all the birds have flown from. Although the tree doesn’t know what exact birds have come and gone, It does notice that its “its boughs are more silent than before” (pg 223). Like the tree she is all alone, and although none of the “birds” that used to come around her were particularly special, she misses at least having someone around. If a tree is not giving a home to animals, or where there are people to come and pick its fruit, then it is useless. The speaker seems to feel this way too. There is a great sense of hopelessness in her like she is of no use, and no one wants her anymore. The last lines of the poem are probably some of the saddest I’ve ever read…

“I cannot say what loves have come and gone,

I only know that summer sang in me

A little while, that in me sings no more”(pg 223).

Here again she reiterates the fact that she doesn’t even recall the circumstances of the loves she has had; which could also indicate that there have been many. Here we are reconnected to the lone tree metaphor as she hints back to it with the summer and singing reference. The brief time the men came to call on her was like summer for the tree, with birds singing in its branches. Yet, now that the winter has come the birds fly south and the tree is left alone. The idea of the seasons representing the stages of life reminds me of last weeks “Spring and Fall…” where summer is like when you are young and vibrant, and winter is like the end of your life.

Overall, the them of this poem seemed to be utter hopelessness and loneliness. She left no hope for the speakers future. It reminded me of a lot of women I know that search out that attention from men constantly with someone, but never really together.

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10 thoughts on ““What Lips My Lips My Lips Have Kissed”

  1. I agree that there may have been many lovers. The poem seems to support this especially in:

    “And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
    For unremembered lads that not again
    Will turn to me at midnight with a cry”.(pg 223)

    This struck me immediately as a “booty call”. Men coming calling in the night usually only have one thing on their minds, and the fact that she’s miserable about it not continuing made it seem to me that she was more promiscuous in her past. She’s confident in her conquests, however, at least in her youth, but seems more speculative about her choices when looking back from an older vantage point. She has had so many fleeting lovers to become complacent, only now realizing that instead of comforting her, they haunt her. She was thirty years old when she wrote this, and I imagine her views on courtship and relationships were changing as she left her youth behind.

    1. Although my views of this poem have changed now (since I’ve further analyzed it for my essay), at first I found it to be very lonely. Promiscuity does seem to be a reoccurring theme. I think that she is coming to the realization that her “Sex and the City” type lifestyle is not a reality now that she is older.

  2. I feel so sad for her and her loss. Her inability to remember all the men almost makes it a lesson that you should make sure the people who you let into your life are worth remembering. She seems to not have had much self worth.

    I related this a lot to “To the Virgins” by Herrick. He says to enjoy your youth and marry young because no one will want you when you are older and your beauty fades. It was like he was writing about her.

    1. I agree that it seems like she has little self worth because those who live their lives promiscuously generally don’t. However, I’m not sure if in the poem she has come to that realization yet. Its like she’s wishing she was as beautiful as she used to be so that men would still come calling.

      1. It’s helpful to historicize this poem — in post-WWI Greenwich Village, the free-spiritedness that the speaker evinces with her past would have been received as liberating and powerful more than a sign of low self-esteem (as it might be today).

  3. “The idea of the seasons representing the stages of life reminds me of last weeks “Spring and Fall…” where summer is like when you are young and vibrant, and winter is like the end of your life.”– I love this analysis and the seasons used as a comparison for the stages of life. This was a beautiful comparison. There seems to be a definite longing for the past from the speaker. My favorite line was “I only know summer sang in me A little while, that sings in me no more”. The longing for youthful days long past is bittersweet.

    1. Right! Im reminded of how every summer it gets hot and I think “Ugh, I cant wait for winter Im tired of being hot” and then in the winter I say “man i cant wait for it to warm up outside lol. There are good and bads aspects of every season, just as with the stages of your life. I dont think she hates the way her life is now. I think you can love the “now days” and still miss the “old days” too.

    2. I agree that this is one of the strengths of this analysis; the natural progression from summer to winter and the way the speaker grapples with the changes.

  4. I, too, really enjoyed this analysis: The idea of the seasons representing the stages of life reminds me of last weeks “Spring and Fall…” where summer is like when you are young and vibrant, and winter is like the end of your life.

    Though this poem definitely has a sexual/romantic tone, it also makes me think of the power of youth. When we’re younger – especially as teenagers – there’s there’s a certain power and control related to beauty and fresh energy that we don’t have when we’re older. It creates an invincible feeling where people are free to experiment; they are daring and adventurous. The first part of Millay’s poem reminds me of this time and feeling.

  5. I think as you age there is a certain amount of “what ifs” that a person has to work through, even if you were confident in your decisions at the time. The woman in the poem seems to be not so much regretting her past loves as wishing she had one currently. Even the most confident people have moments where they wish they were not walking through life alone. There is also an air of loss of vitality, maybe? Your insight about the seasons is definitely a great way to view this.

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