St. Valentine’s Day traces its origins to the priest, Valentine, who was performing Christian marriages when the Roman emperor Claudius II (not to be confused with the more capable Claudius I) ordered his execution. Valentine was arrested, beaten to death with clubs, and then beheaded.
The date? February 14, on or about the year 270. Valentine’s Day was off to a painful start. But the legend of Valentine started to spread with a story of a farewell note for the jailer’s daughter, signed “From Your Valentine.”
The Feast of Lupercalia, a pagan festival of love, held around mid-February, became entwined with the legend of Valentine. Lupercalia had been celebrated Hunger Game style by placing the names of young women in a box, and then pairing up with men who drew their names. The debauchery was halted by Pope Gelasius in the 5th Century.
Edna St. Vincent Millay’s What Lips My Lips Have Kissed, and Where, and Why (Sonnet XLIII) offers the perfect blend of Valentine’s pain and Lupercalia after-party regret. As a plus, it is a sonnet, one of the easiest ways to teach author’s craft: 14 lines of rhymed iambic pentameter that pose a problem and a resolution after the volta or “turn” in the final line(s).
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 winter stands the lonely tree, Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one, Yet knows 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.
So, what is the problem? I asked my students every year I taught this poem:
“The problem is she kisses everyone,” say some students.
“The problem is she cannot remember every lover,” say others.
“Was she a little ahead of her time?” asked one who noted her birthdate:
“She’s a slut…” or “She’s a little loose…” or “She’s a man-eater…no, a lad-eater,” they judge collectively.
“The problem is …she’s grown old, and cannot get love the same way,” they conclude.
Their responses have followed this poem’s pattern; from promiscuity to regret, they follow the sequence in the pattern created by Millay.
When I taught any sonnet, I would ask, “Why did the poet choose this format? Why not a lyric poem of four stanzas of 16 lines total?”
Questions like that always puzzled my students; poetry for many of them springs Athena-like from the mind of the poet without regard to form or word craft. Helping them to understand a poet’s choice leads to appreciating author’s craft, and in this case, Millay’s choice to bare her past using a sonnet.
The sonnet is Petrachan, the octave (first 8) lines with requisite abbaabba ryme scheme. This section is “haunting”, full of “w”s creating a whoooo sound, and to confirm how sound is related to the sense of the poem, the “rain if full of ghosts” that start howling at “midnight with a cry.”
The following part of the poem is the sextet (last 6) lines with the rhyme scheme cdedce dominated by images of winter and summer, the poet as the leafless and lonely tree. “I only know” marks the volta, the turn, into the resolution, where “summer sang” carefree love, but in winter “sings no more.” Two motifs, noise and time, connect the octave with the sextet.
One student suggested that Millay wrote this as sonnet for self-exploration, “Like she put herself on an analyst’s couch and worked her way to a solution.”
Another suggested she was a making poetic confession.
Several saw the poem as a warning, but they all agreed that understanding the structure of the sonnet helped them understand Millay’s message.