Tuesday Poem: Edna St Vincent Millay and World War One

American war cemetery, Colleville sur Mer

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.

Edna St Vincent Millay

Millay is considered romantic and has been out of fashion for a while.  But she is technically brilliant (this is a Petrarchan sonnet) and her sonnets are very moving, without slipping over into sentimentality.  This poem could be seen simply as an elegy for lost lovers until you realise that it was published in the period just after the First World War. Then the significance of the phrases 'the rain/is full of ghosts tonight'  and the 'quiet pain/For unremembered lads' becomes clear.  There is also the emotive image of the 'lonely tree' from which the birds have vanished, and the silent winter of the soul evoked in the last two lines. Without the context of the war the poem loses some of its power. It reflects the poet's Pacifist viewpoint at the time of WWI.  Millay herself was bi-sexual and had a number of lovers of both sexes.  She married Eugen Jan Boussevain in 1923 - the same year she was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. He was also a progressive feminist supporter and they had an open marriage. 

If you would like to hear Irish poet Eavan Boland reading Millay's poems and talking about her life and work, please click on the link below.  

The whole reading takes about half an hour, but is well worth listening to.

The Tuesday poets are an international group of 28 who try to post a poem every Tuesday. We take it in turns to edit the main website. If you'd like to see what the other Tuesday poets are posting, please click over to http://www.tuesdaypoem.blogspot.com


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