The poem What Lips My Lips Have Kissed

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What Lips My Lips Have Kissed, and When, and Why is a poem of heartbreak, regret, and isolation. Edna St. Vincent Millay penned it. The author alludes to her younger days, when she had a plethora of lovers at her disposal, in the poem. She contrasts her former privileged status with the new impositions she faces as a result of isolation. To articulate concepts of loss and transformation, What My Lips Have Kissed, and When, and Why employs personification, metaphors, alliteration, symbolism, and sound.
Personification is an essential feature of the poem. In line 9, for example, the persona alludes to a lonely tree. She determines that “thus in the winter stands the lonely tree” (Millay 841). The allusion refers back to the persona. The personification of the tree provided the author with the medium through which the nature of the persona could be inferred. Personification of the tree allows an insight into the loneliness that the persona is forced to contend with in old age. The birds vanish from the lonely tree. The allusion to the vanishing birds emphasizes the loss of friendships that the persona suffered over the years. In examining the standing tree, through winter, the author conjures the image of a resilient individual despite her losses. Thus, even though the persona has lost friends over the years, she is still resilient amidst turbulent times.

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The next element of personification is provided by the person’s allusion to the summer. She contends that “I only know that summer sang in me, A little while, that in me sings no more” (Millay). The personification of summer was intended to convey the theme of change. Essentially, where as in the past the persona was happy, she is no longer happy. Summer provides a reflection of the speaker’s lover. Whereas the lover previously gave the persona joy, he is no longer there to inspire her happiness. Thus, the loss of the man marks the beginning of tribulation for the persona. Had the man (summer) been present, then perhaps the speaker might have experienced joy. The mention of summer conjures images of happiness while the absence of summer is often interpreted to reflect gloom.


The poem made pervasive use of metaphors to reflect the themes of change and loss (Booth and Mays 221). Mention of the lonely tree provides the first metaphor in the poem. In alluding to the lonely tree, the persona hoped to convey the loneliness that she suffers as a result of losses in her life. Essentially, it is the changes in her life that inspire sadness. Similarly, the birds in the poem reflect back to the men that left. The speaker determines that “thus in the winter stands the lonely tree, nor knows what birds have vanished one by one” (Millay 841). Through the statement, the persona hopes to convey the image that she suffers as a result of the losses. Winter and summer represent the persona’s shifting moods. While winter reflects her current turbulent life, which is occasioned by loneliness, summer is a representation of the joyful moments in the speaker’s life. When men leave her for other ventures, she becomes sad and lonely. Therefore, change inspires trepidation in the persona.

Rain provides the next metaphor in the poem. The mention of rain was intended to manifest the persona’s longing. Millay determines that “the rain is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh upon the glass and listen for reply” (Booth and Mays 221). The rain signifies the loss of warmth and love in the persona. It is a reflection of the constant gloom that hovers over the persona given the losses in her life. Alternatively, the ghosts refer to the men who left the persona. They haunt her memories and thus inspire restlessness in the persona. The loss of the men defines her current circumstances. Changes in life of the persona are the source of her emotional struggles.

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Symbolism plays a vital role in conveying the themes of change and loss in What Lips My Lips Have Kissed, and Where, and Why. To begin with, winter symbolizes loneliness and gloom as a result of change. The speaker determines that “in the winter stands the lonely tree” (Millay 841). Alternatively, summer symbolizes joy in the poem. Rain symbolizes trepidation while ghosts symbolize the men that left. Principally, the contradictory nature of the symbols enables the assessments of the shifts in persona moods (Mims 51). They facilitate insights into the influences that change had on the persona’s perspective in life.


The use of alliteration in the poem was intended to emphasize the themes of change and loss. Instances of alliteration are observed in the title of the poem: “What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why”. The quiet “w” sounds in the line emphasize the aspects of change. Such alliteration inspires the reader’s curiosity on the factors that might have been responsible for the changes that took place in the persona’s life to warrant her analysis of the what, the why and the where (Mims 49). The next element of alliteration is observed in the line: “I have forgotten, and what, arms have lain” (Millay). The “h” sound emphasizes the theme of loss in the poem. Through the reinforcement of words such as “have” and “what” enables the determination of the factors that inspired loss and the situation of the persona before the loss.

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Tone provides one of the critical tools that was used by Edna to facilitate the reflection of loss and change in the poem. The tonal transitions in the poem reflect the shifting persona moods overtime. The nostalgic tone that is assumed by the persona in the first stanza. She ponders over her past affairs and is grief-stricken by the demise of her lovers. Thus, in my heart there stirs a quiet pain, for unremembered lads that not again, will turn to me at midnight with a cry” (Millay). The statement is a reflection of the nostalgic tone in the poem. Essentially, the nostalgic tone projects the persona’s loss.


The poem What My Lips Have Kissed, and Where, and Why uses elements of personification, metaphors, alliteration and symbolism and tone to convey themes of loss and change. Metaphors are used to infer on the persona’s pain, symbolism enables the examination of transition in attitudes within the persona. Alternatively, alliteration and tone refer to the structural elements of the poem which emphasize the themes of loss and change. These elements collectively augment Edna St. Vincent Millay’s ability to examine the implications of lost love and shifting seasons on a grief-stricken woman.

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Works Cited

Millay, Edna St.Vincent. “What My Lips Have Kissed, and Where, and Why”. Poetry Foundation, 1920, Accessed Nov 27th, 2017.

Millay, Edna St. Vincent. “What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why.” The Norton Introduction to Literature. Ed. Allison Booth and Kelly J. Mays. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2010. pp. 841. Print.

Mims, Traci. Poetic Devices. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013.

Booth, Allison and Kelly J. Mays. (Ed.). The Norton Introduction to Literature. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2010. Print.

August 09, 2021

Art Life Literature

Subject area:

Symbolism Loneliness Poetry

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