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As some of you already know, I'm posting a sonnet a day here at Writing & Ruminating in celebration of National Poetry Month. We started with Shakespeare (a very fine place to start) and his Sonnet 116 ("Let me not to the marriage of true minds"), then "Letter to Mum" from me, and "January Aubade" from contemporary poet Bruce W. Niedt.

The sonnet has a long, long tradition of being used for poems of love, which includes, of course, poems about love that has been lost. Today's poem, by Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Millay published poems while still a minor, and had already achieved broad popularity and critical success by the time she was in her mid-20s, including the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1923. Millay led a colorful life, which included brushes with socialism, numerous sexual partners (her eventual marriage was an open one), alcoholism, patriotic propaganda work leading up to and during World War II, and a fondness for gardening in the nude. She died in 1950 after a fall down the stairs at Steepletop, her home in New York state (now part of a writer's colony). Whether her death was an accident or intentional is unresolved, but folks who've been at the house say that the staircase is decidedly dicey to navigate, and that with her propensity to drink heavily, it would have been extraordinarily dangerous.

In spite of - or perhaps because of - her life, Millay turned out some of the finest sonnets of the 20th century. She also wrote a series of poems she referred to as "figs", as well as plays and short works of fiction (sometimes under the pseudonym of Nancy Boyd). Today's sonnet was first published in 1923 in The Harp Weaver and Other Poems, and it is, in my opinion, completely stunning for its beauty, and love, and loss.

Sonnet XLIII (What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why)
by 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 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.

Discussion of form: It is an Italianate or Petrarchan sonnet, written in iambic pentameter (five iambic feet per line, where an iamb consists of one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one: ta-DUM ta-DUM ta-DUM ta-DUM ta-DUM). The rhyme scheme employed is ABBAABBACDEDCE. The volta or "turn" occurs (as is typical in a sonnet) after the first eight lines, where Millay shifts from speaking about being alone in her house on a rainy night to discussing a bare tree in winter, with a tying-together of the concepts in the final three lines of the poem. The wistfulness and loss in the poem is almost a palpable thing, isn't it?

To find other Poetry Friday posts, click the Poetry Friday box below. The roundup is being hosted by Robyn Hood Black:

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( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 5th, 2013 07:25 pm (UTC)
That is a lovely sonnet.
Apr. 6th, 2013 12:10 am (UTC)
Isn't it?
Apr. 5th, 2013 08:09 pm (UTC)
Wonderful post - thanks for sharing the poem and the rich history. I agree, a haunting, stunning piece- "the rain/
Is full of ghosts tonight"...

I'll circle back for more sonnet-love this month!

Apr. 6th, 2013 12:11 am (UTC)
Thank you, Robyn!
Apr. 5th, 2013 11:28 pm (UTC)
You're absolutely right about the wistfulness and loss. I love Millay, but I've never read this sonnet. Thank you so much for sharing!
Apr. 6th, 2013 12:12 am (UTC)
It's really lovely, I think. It was one of only two of her sonnets featured in a resource I'm especially loving this month, The Making of a Sonnet, which collects hundreds of them through the centuries.
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Apr. 6th, 2013 02:24 pm (UTC)
I found the entire poem nearly heart-stopping, it was so beautiful, but yes - those last two lines really clinch it.
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )

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