Sonnet XLII

March 1, 2007 at 2:45 pm 3 comments

Edna St. Vincent Millay


What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply;
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in the winter stands a lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet know its boughs more silent than before:
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.

Time for some ear candy. There is, in my heart, a special place for poets whose poems can best be described as being easy on the ear. They aren’t great poems – in fact, if you spend too much time thinking about them they aren’t even particularly good poems – but they sound lovely.

Edna St. Vincent Millay is, to me, a perfect example of this type. With the exception of a few interesting phrases her poems strike me as mostly fluff – they’re cliched and sentimental and elegant though they are, they seem, somehow, posed for. The Victorians were insufferable enough in their heyday (with the single exception of Robert Browning) but to have to suffer one in twentieth century is decidedly too much.

Still, I have to admit Millay sounds stunning. Read aloud, her best poems have a sublimely passionate quality, they seem bathed in emotion, glowing with nostalgia. Half-remembered, her phrases take on the illusion of depth, so that reciting them to yourself you imagine a poem far more graceful and moving than the one on the page.

Sonnet XLII is a good example. As a poem, it has it’s points. The ‘tree in winter’ metaphor, though hardly original, is well executed, ditto the “rain is full of ghosts” bit. But I can’t help thinking that the sense is being subordinated to the sound. Take the first line, for instance – forgetting what lips you’ve kissed and where I understand, but why? I mean really, how many reasons are there to kiss someone? It can’t be that hard to remember. And then there’s this bit about all these boys turning to her at midnight with a cry. What are they, alarm clocks? Pumpkins? Are these the same lads whose arms had lain under her head till morning? Did they get pins and needles at midnight or something?

The line seems false, I suspect, because the image is too specific to be applicable to unremembered lads in the abstract. One lover turning to you at midnight with a cry I can understand, but every lover you’ve ever had making a regular habit of it, so that you can imagine the scene without associating it with one particular person, I find hard to imagine. Frankly, it’s a lazy line – Millay needs a one-line closing to her octet and it has to rhyme with why / sigh / reply, so she resorts to easy cliche.

That said, it’s still a beautiful poem to read aloud. The rhymes resonate without being obtrusive, the caesurae are exactly right, the tone of quiet pain is done marvellously well, and the shift between the octet and the sextet of the sonnet works perfectly. If you had to demonstrate what a good sonnet should sound like this poem would do as well as any other. It helps that it’s a poem about nostalgia, which is an emotion that Millay, with her backward-looking style, does extraordinarily well.


Entry filed under: Edna St. Vincent Millay, English, Falstaff.

Nazm Uljhi Hui Hai Seene Mein Spring

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Ria Escaño  |  August 20, 2007 at 3:06 pm

    Pls also help me with the Analysis of Sleep Forever in Latmian Cave by Edna mIllay and Andromeda by hopkins

    Sonnet LII (Endymion) by Millay

    Oh, sleep forever in the Latmian cave,
    Mortal Endymion, darling of the Moon!
    Her silver garments by the senseless wave
    Shouldered and dropped and on the shingle strewn,
    Her fluttering hand against her forehead pressed,
    Her scattered looks that troubled all the sky,
    Her rapid footsteps running down the west —
    Of all her altered state, oblivious lie!
    Whom earthen you, by deathless lips adored,
    Wild-eyed and stammering to the grasses thrust,
    And deep into her crystal body poured
    The hot and sorrowful sweetness of the dust:
    Whereof she wanders mad, being all unfit
    For mortal love, that might not die of it.

    Andromeda by Hopkins

    Now Time’s Andromeda on this rock rude,
    With not her either beauty’s equal or
    Her injury’s, looks off by both horns of shore,
    Her flower, her piece of being, doomed dragon’s food.
    Time past she has been attempted and pursued
    By many blows and banes; but now hears roar
    A wilder beast from West than all were, more
    Rife in her wrongs, more lawless, and more lewd.

    Her Perseus linger and leave her tó her extremes?—
    Pillowy air he treads a time and hangs
    His thoughts on her, forsaken that she seems,
    All while her patience, morselled into pangs,
    Mounts; then to alight disarming, no one dreams,
    With Gorgon’s gear and barebill, thongs and fangs

  • 2. claire  |  June 10, 2008 at 3:53 pm

    I always thought that turn to me at midnight with a cry was a reference to orgasm. Some of her sonnets are pretty frank.

    Although…the unremembered ‘lads’ made me think of soldiers going off to die as many of the ‘lads’ at the time she was in her teens would have done in the Great War. Sigfried Sassoon wrote of soldier lads as did others. Maybe the ghosts are a reference to this too – its possible that some of her lovers would have ended up dead (was living in the US so not necessarily so). I doubt sleep disorders would be uncommon amongst men returning from active service either. Millay wrote anti-war works so might be worth looking at this?

  • […] a handful of the sonnets (all untitled except with roman numerals: xxvii, xxix, xxxi, xli, xlii, xliv, xlix, lix, […]


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