Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem “What Lips My Lips Have Kissed” is structured as a Petrarchan sonnet. This means that the poem is basically divided into two parts: the first eight lines (known as the “octave”), and the last six lines (known as the “sestet”). There is usually a significant shift or development of meaning in a Petrarchan sonnet between lines 8 and 9. Moreover, Millay’s sonnet is also “Petrarchan” in its rhyme scheme. The octaves of Petrarchan sonnets rhyme as follows: abbaabba. There can be variation in the rhymes of the sestets. Millay chooses to rhyme her sestet as follows: cdedce.
Petrarchan sonnets are harder to write in English than they are in Italian. This is mainly because so many Italian words end on the same vowel sounds – a trait that is much less true of English words. Therefore, any poet who undertakes to write a Petrarchan sonnet in English is taking on an extra challenge and is also running the risk that the large number of similar rhymes in the octave will sound contrived or artificial.
Millay may have chosen to write this particular poem as a Petrarchan sonnet because the sonnets originally written in this style (which were composed by the fourteenth-century Italian poet Francesco Petrarca) were typically poems about love (usually unrequited love of a man for a virtuous woman). Petrarchan poems, down through the ages, have often taken love of one sort or another as their central theme.
Millay’s poem is a bit ironic or deliberately unconventional when read as a Petrarchan sonnet. Petrarch’s own sonnets celebrated a woman – Laura – who was not only immensely virtuous but also sexually chaste. Millay’s speaker makes it clear almost immediately that she is quite sexually experienced and also sexually insouciant. She speaks as a male might stereotypically speak, and surely this was part of Millay’s intention: to write a sexually “liberated” poem from a feminine perspective, and, by so doing, to shock some of her readers.
In the octave of the poem, the speaker recalls her various sexual liaisons (one might even call them conquests). We are with her in her bedroom as she recalls the
unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
In the sestet, the speaker suddenly and unexpectedly compares herself to a tree (a significant shift in imagery), and she also emphasizes a sense of loss. If the octave had presented her as strong and in control, the sestet presents her as significantly weaker and as feeling a bit forlorn. The octave had been situated inside a house; the sestet uses imagery implying the outdoors. In these ways as well as in mnay others, Millay thus uses the Petrarchan sonnet form with a great deal of skill and innovation.
Something extra: The Petrarchan sonnet form seems especially appropriate to this poem for one more reason. Petrarchan sonnets had often been used to celebrate virtuous, chaste women. Yet one might also argue that they had thereby confined women within what John Donne once called the "pretty rooms" of sonnets. Petrarchan poets had thus often used a very strictly restricted form to present strictly restricted views of women. They had intended these views as praise, but Millay seems to have found such views confining. There is nice irony, then, in the fact that she uses a Petrarchan sonnet to subvert one aspect of the Petrarchan sonnet tradition.