Week 441: “What lips my lips have kissed” by Edna St Vincent Millay

I mostly find the sonnets of the American poet Edna St Vincent Millay (1892-1950; see also week 96) rather too posed and literary for my taste, being on the whole one of that school who think that poetic diction should be ‘sort of like what you talk, only better’. But I’m not dogmatic about it, and I do think this one has an appealing plangency. Yes, it’s outrageously romantic, but if you happen to be in the mood for a bit of romantic melancholy, then this may be the poem for you.

“What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why”

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 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

Week 440: I Look into my Glass, by Thomas Hardy

This week one of the great poems of old age. It makes an interesting comparison with a quatrain of W.B.Yeats on the same theme: ‘You think it horrible that lust and rage/Should dance attention upon my old age;/They were not such a plague when I was young;/What else have I to spur me into song?’

Hardy’s poem is altogether gentler and more wistful. Yes, anger and lust may indeed be an element in those ‘throbbings of noontide’ but the predominant emotion is one of sadness and regret, coupled with a characteristic awareness of ‘life’s little ironies’ – in this case, that the frailty and general decline in vitality that comes with age should have not yet brought him any diminution of memory and desire.

Yeats’s lines achieve, as so often with Yeats, a powerful personal rhetoric, but Hardy’s come much closer to a universal human poetry.

I Look into my Glass

I look into my glass,
  And view my wasting skin,
And say, ‘Would God it came to pass
  My heart had shrunk as thin!’

For then, I, undistrest
  By hearts grown cold to me,
Could lonely wait my endless rest
  With equanimity.

But Time, to make me grieve,
  Part steals, lets part abide;
And shakes this fragile frame at eve
  With throbbings of noontide.

Thomas Hardy