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.