Theoretical Approaches

Theoretical Approaches to “What Lips My Lips Have Kissed”

For my blog post I thought it would be interesting to analyze “What Lips My Lips Have Kissed” (by Edna St. Vincent Millay in the Seagull Reader) since I have already looked closely at it from my own perspective. I thought that two approaches that might work well with this piece would be new criticism and feminist/gender theory.  

Using the new criticism theory entails looking at a piece without any sort of outside influences that effect the reader’s interpretation of the text. Things like personal experiences of the reader or historical and psychological background of the author are thrown out. The book (An Introduction to Literary Studies by Mario Klarer) describes it as looking at a piece as if it were a “message in a bottle without a sender, date, or address” (Klarer 81).  In this piece the author utilize paradox, metaphor and multiple meanings in order to describe her thoughts. For example, in the lines that read “but the rain is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh upon the glass and listen for reply” she uses the paradox of the rain containing ghost that are tapping to explain that the raindrops are stirring about memories for her (Millay  223). This segment also contains multiple meanings in that the rain is literally making a tapping sound but also that the tapping is like her memories nudging at her thoughts. The sound of the rain running down after its initial hit could be considered the “sigh” she describes, which could also mean that these memories seem to be sighing as if disappointed she is not answering; or in her words “listening for reply.” Next, when she says “in my heart stirs a quiet pain” she uses the term quiet to describe her pain to portray the message that these memories are only making her slightly uneasy (Millay 22). This play on words is interesting because the use of the word “quiet” instead of one like “small” is staying with the trend of sounds around her. She could in fact be saying that the tapping of the rain is a light tapping just as the memories are only slightly pulling at her heart. Next, she uses the metaphor of comparing herself to a lonely tree in winter in which summer once sang but now the “birds have vanished one by one” (Millay 223).  This comparison tells us two things: once she had many people around her like the tree did in the summer, but now she is all alone as a tree is in the winter.  Describing herself as a tree and her men suitors as birds gives would mean she is like the caretaker to these men since trees provide shelter for the birds that live within it. Trees are also rooted and unmoving while birds are almost in constant motion and utilize migration. Therefore, her use of this specific metaphor could be saying that these encounters took place on her terms in her own home and that she remains where she has always been (rooted) while the birds have flown away to where the sun still shines; or in other words where the women are still desirable.

            The second method I chose to look at was the feminist/gender approach. I thought this approach was very significant to this poem since its story is one reminiscent of feminism. The theme of this story is about the author’s view of men a vessel for fun and excitement but nothing more. She describes the feeling she gets while listening to the rain “tap and sigh” and a “quiet pain” because it is subtle. It is not loneliness she is feeling but rather a longing for the days when she was many men were at her disposal. This piece is quite interesting because the author portrays a view of men much like a man’s view of a woman. She could be seen as reluctant to comply with the expectations of women, and therefore chose to live her life much like a man. Not only does this piece emphasize independence from a man but also it reverses the stereotype; as if to say “how do you like it?”

            Looking at this text in these new ways has opened my eyes to many more layers of the poem. For example, the rooted tree and flying bird’s comparison to her stationary position and the men’s coming and going is something I never picked up on before. I also never considered the what now seems obvious undertone of female independence and power against male dominance. Although this exercise was quite difficult   its helped me to gain skills that will be useful in fully understanding different pieces.

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6 thoughts on “Theoretical Approaches

  1. I really liked using the new criticism method too. I loved the comparison of it being like a “message in a bottle”. “She could in fact be saying that the tapping of the rain is a light tapping just as the memories are only slightly pulling at her heart.” –this is a great observation, I like how you compare the tapping rain to tapping memories. I also liked how you used the feminist approach in your thoughts about the woman’s independence being significant.

  2. “Describing herself as a tree and her men suitors as birds gives would mean she is like the caretaker to these men since trees provide shelter for the birds that live within it. Trees are also rooted and unmoving while birds are almost in constant motion and utilize migration. Therefore, her use of this specific metaphor could be saying that these encounters took place on her terms in her own home and that she remains where she has always been (rooted) while the birds have flown away to where the sun still shines; or in other words where the women are still desirable.”

    I love this explication. It seems like you were able to get past the limited view these theories provided and still find meaning.

  3. “Although this exercise was quite difficult its helped me to gain skills that will be useful in fully understanding different pieces.”

    This is a great observation. In reality when you’re working with theory, you’ll have an actual theoretical piece to engage with and respond to as opposed to a “primer” on that particular theory. But I think/hope that practicing peering through the lenses Klarer describes will make the whole thing a bit less mystifying when you encounter it later.

  4. Although I enjoyed your entire blog, your second paragraph on new criticism is great! It really helped illustrate the theory and its purpose; and your analyses are so fun and enlightening.

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