Burning Candles : Edna St. Vincent Millay

For poetry lovers, we have a series of blogs, Poetry Lessons, by Emily R. Dunn of Writers Ink Books.  Visit our page on every 5th  (5th, 15th, and 25th) to see which poem has inspired a lesson in thinking and writing.  We’ll also intersperse news about books.

Burning Candles


“First Fig”
My candle burns at both ends
It will not last the night
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends,
It gives a lovely light.

1914 photograph
Edna St. Vincent Millay, in her early 20s

Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “First Fig” is a rich gem.  An unassuming jewel of four deceptively simple lines preceded by a clever title, the poem lights candles to celebrate the bravado and esprit of the bohemian lifestyle:  adventurous, blithe, and insouciant.

Closer examination reveals the poem is crafted with a diamond-cutter’s precision, sparkling with St. Vincent Millay’s talent.

Part of a collection entitled A Few Figs from Thistles and published in 1920, it heralded the Roaring Twenties.  In many ways, “First Fig” pronounces the prophet’s message for the decade.  In concept and execution, “First Fig” rewards deeper analysis with its treasured secrets.

At First Glance

A quick read finds the persona reveling in an unending carouse as the persona burns daylight and nightlife, as stated in line 1.  St. Vincent Millay employs the “brief candle” allusion to Macbeth’s famous speech by Shakespeare.  She burns her metaphor even more quickly than Macbeth did.

Like Macbeth, she may even see the end coming.  She remarks that her life “will not last the night”.  Yet she does not care what her gossiping “foes” or her worried “friends” will say.

Why doesn’t she care?  Her deeds provide “lovely light”.  So, now we ask about her deeds?  How do we find out?

from a public newspaper
My candle burns at both ends / It will not last the night.

Return to the first line.  How can a candle burn at both ends?  It has to be held horizontally and kept balanced to avoid burning the holder.  If candle = life, then how does a life “burn” at both ends?  It can only do so if the daytime hours are as fully utilized as the nighttime hours.

Like Emily Dickinson’s “labor and leisure, too,” (from “Because I Could Not Stop for Death”, perhaps another poem St. Vincent Millay had in mind), we realize the persona is enjoying herself as equally as she is performing her laborious daytime duties.

A Closer Look

The structure reinforces the revelations of the extended metaphor.  The clear rhyme of lines 1 & 3 (“ends” to “friends”) and 2 & 4 (“night” & “light”) clues the reader that more is going on than simple rhyming lines.

The rhythm is primarily iambic, which is a traditional meter providing no additional information.  A stronger magnification is needed for this diamond.

The syllabication per line is a clearly cut facet, in sequence 7, 6, 8, and 6.  The persona clearly relishes her life which “burns at both ends”.  It is perfect to her, and 7 is symbolic of perfection.  Virtually everyone knows this.  Let’s go deeper.

The persona may not achieve what some would call a complete life (symbolized by the number of 10).  Friends and foes caution that her life may be cut short, a possible interpretation for line 3 with its 8 syllables.  The persona does not care.

That eight-syllable third line also lets us know that St. Vincent Millay is very careful with her word choice.  “Foes” could easily have been enemies;  that’s 10 syllables.  She wasn’t after 10 syllables, though.  She wanted to play out the alliterative f, and the 8 fit with the rapidly burning candle.

Just as she relishes life’s adventures, so may she relish the adventures of the after-existence, the exploration of the greatest mystery that we face ~ thus, the two lines of six syllables, a number of doubled mystery.  (I am “reading in” here, but it fits.)

Back to the Title

Since the metaphorical idea and the line structure mirror and reinforce each other, we need to chip away and polish off the title.  “First Fig” is an unusual choice.  Why not “Burning Bright” or “Single Candle” or “Candlewick”?

Could she make a metaphorical allusion with the title just as she does with the candle?  Could it be a Biblical allusion to the fig leaves sewn together by Adam and Eve when they first recognize the shame of their nakedness?

Is it an art allusion to the classic fig leaf used to cover a male statue’s genitals?  Again, a cover for nakedness.

Is she picking off one leaf after another, revealing a shame others want her to feel but she has no trouble baring to the world?

That fits—but it doesn’t.  St. Vincent Millay says “first fig”, not “first fig leaf”.

A fig is a seed-filled fruit.  Its sweetness is an acquired taste.  And the tiny little seeds are potential that bring growth.

This also fits her poem:  The sweet-tasting events of her life, daytime and nighttime, are seeding her writing.  The events’ potential is birthed through each poem in the collection.

And this little gem is just the first in the collection.

wikimedia commons public domain
Thistle, from Wikimedia Commons

The poem is also a self-referent allusion.  Her bohemian lifestyle is an acquired taste, delectable only to her.  Thistles are beautiful purple flowers on ugly, spiky stalks.  This fig, this “First Fig” taken from a thistle, may prick and seem ugly to others.  However, it provides the sustenance she desires (even as other people do not approve of such sustenance).

Summing Up

The burning candle is the obvious metaphor that dominates the first reading and points to the meaning, yet it is all three elements—metaphor, structure, and title—which reveal the theme.

Celebratory of a life that others condemn, “First Fig” speaks to the sparkling independence each individual seeks to craft from life.  Like a rough diamond or a thorned thistle, our existence must be polished or pruned of thorns.  We must peel away the layers of others’ expectations to reach the glittery heart or sweet fruit of what we desire.

Join us in August on the 5ths.  We return to Songs.

Rock Allegory: Lady Fortuna & “Hotel California”

For poetry lovers, we have a series of blogs, Poetry Lessons, guest-hosted by Emily R. Dunn of Writers Ink Books.  Visit our page on every 5th  (5th, 15th, and 25th) to see which poem has inspired a lesson in thinking and writing.  We will also intersperse news about books.

Lady Fortuna and “Hotel California”

“O Fortuna” by Carl Orff seems a strange beginning for a post about the classic rock hit “Hotel California” by the Eagles.

Stranger things have happened.

To remind:  allegories are surface stories which have underlying meanings.

In “Hotel California”, the persona seems to relate a surreal visit to a roadside hotel.  His visit turns ugly before the hotel imprisons him.

Through allegory, we understand that this song recounts a pursuit for fame and fortune that cost more than the persona anticipated and did not wish to pay.

“O, Fortuna”

The lady who draws in the persona to her Hotel California is Lady Fortuna, goddess of fame and fortune, luck and fate.

Carl Orff (a rather uneasy German composer, on his own search for Fortuna with her sacrificial demands) does not consider this goddess benevolent.

Her world is lit by the moon, changeable in its monthly course: “statu variabilis / semper crescis / aut decresciss” (Orff).  In our pursuit of her, we must enter her realm.  She will first oppress her then soothe us.  She takes her whip of servitude to our naked backs, punishes us before she rewards us: (“mihi quoque niteris; / nunc per ludum / dorsum nudum / fero tui sceleris”).

When Fortuna grants what we have sought, we discover the additional monstrous price we must pay.  And we also discover that fame and fortune are empty achievements, material but not wonderful, a “monkey’s paw” of evil wrapped around good.  As Orff writes, life becomes “immanis / et inanis”.

Here is the conductor Andre Rieu’s presentation of “O Fortuna”:

Lyrics with translation are found here: click!

And here is the classic youtube performance of “Hotel California”:

Let’s play 20 Questions about Lady Fortuna.

1st Stanza & Chorus introduces the pursuit of fame.

On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair
Warm smell of colitas, rising up through the air
Up ahead in the distance, I saw a shimmering light
My head grew heavy and my sight grew dim
I had to stop for the night.

People in pursuit of their dreams believe that their lives are deserts that they must drive through before they find where they want to be.

  1. Pick three words in the first stanza that represent the persona’s blindness about where he is heading in his pursuit of fame.
  2. What does the “shimmering light” represent?
There she stood in the doorway;
I heard the mission bell
And I was thinking to myself
‘This could be heaven or this could be Hell’
Then she lit up a candle and she showed me the way
There were voices down the corridor,
I thought I heard them say

3. “She” is Lady Fortuna. Why is she so attractive to people pursuing their dreams?

4. The “mission bell” tolls a warning. In which line does the persona admit to hearing the warning?

5. How is the line for #4 a paradox?

Welcome to the Hotel California
Such a lovely place / Such a lovely face.
Plenty of room at the Hotel California
Any time of year / you can find it here

6. How does the famous Californian city that lures people seeking fame and fortune always have “plenty of room”?

Stanza 2 with Chorus:  Fortuna comes but exacts a price.

Her mind is Tiffany-twisted, she got the Mercedes bends
She got a lot of pretty, pretty boys she calls friends.
How they dance in the courtyard, sweet summer sweat
Some dance to remember, some dance to forget

7. What does Tiffany refer to?

8. Mercedes-Benz is the best engineered, mass-produced vehicle on the roads. What is the point of the pun “Mercedes bends”?

9. From these two brand references, we know the persona is achieving success, enough that he can waste money. Why are material possessions a waste?

10. What does the line “Some dance to remember, some dance to forget” mean? (Assuming that ‘dance’ is related to performing the job that is winning fame and fortune)

So I called up the captain, “please bring me my wine”
He said, “We haven’t had that spirit here since 1969.”
And still those voices are calling from far away
Wake you up in the middle of the night
Just to hear them say . . .

11. The wine represents the sweetness of the dream. Why has that “sweetness” left him?

To understand the reason that the sweetness left in 1969, you need to know about Woodstock, the Summer of Love, and the change in the music industry.  Basically, music corporations required musicians to “sell out” their purpose in order to make $$ while making music.  Musicians who didn’t buy into the industry’s model of success were shut out.  The persona feels that he had to abandon his simple dreams for something much more complicated and which twisted his original purpose.

12. “The voices [that] are calling from far away” have to do with the persona’s original dream. Which line relates that he is stressed about the loss of that dream?

Welcome to the Hotel California
Such a lovely place / Such a lovely face.
They livin’ it up at the Hotel California
What a nice surprise / Bring your alibis

13. Notice the two changes in the Chorus.  How is “living it up” a “nice surprise”?

14. Why does he warn people to “bring your alibis”?

3rd Stanza:  Fortuna’s true cost becomes evident.

Mirrors on the ceiling, the pink champagne on ice
And she said, “We are all just prisoners here, of our own device”
And in the master’s chambers
They gathered for the feast
They stab it with their steely knives,
But they just can’t kill the beast.


15. Lady Fortuna tells them they are “prisoners . . . of [their] own device”, or as Orff says, “Sors salutis” and “semper in angaria” :: “Fate is against me” and I am “always enslaved” to her. How is this devastating?

16. “The beast” is the juggernaut of the now-rolling success. The master is what controls the success: the audience. How does an audience start controlling successful people?

17. Who has the “steely knives” to kill the “beast”?

4th Stanza: We cannot escape Lady Fortuna.

Last thing I remember, I was / Running for the door
I had to find the passage back / to the place I was before
“Relax,” said the night man, / “We are programmed to receive.
You can check out any time you like,
But you can never leave.”

18. Why is the persona “running for the door” to find the “place [he] was before”?

19. The night man says that “we are programmed to receive . . . you can never leave”?

20. What does this line means: “You can check-out any time you like”?

Answers to the Lady Fortuna Allegory

  1. Dark, colitis, dim (sight), distance, night
  2. The lights from an arcade promoting a performance. The shimmering would be the action of the neon in the lights.
  3. Lady Fortuna is attractive because people believe that once they are rich / famous, they will have no worries.
  4. “This could be heaven or this could be hell”
  5. #4 contains a paradox because life can be both a heaven and a hell at the same time.
  6. People keep coming, expecting to succeed, only to fail and return, making room for more seekers.
  7. Tiffany is an extremely famous NYC jewelry store. Highly successful, highly branded, over-priced:  you pay for the name.  Should we want to buy brands?    We should go for quality that meets the $$ we pay.  However, materialism “twists” us to prefer the brand.
  8. The “bends” could refer to driving on a crooked road. The persona does start out on a “dark desert highway”.  And the pursuit of fame and fortune requires some bend-y actions that we might abhor in honorable daylight.  Or it could be the “bends”, decompression sickness when deep divers come too quickly to the surface.  Rising fame could be making the persona sick as he considers everything he’s giving up and everything he’s hurting.  Nyah, I’m sticking with the highway.
  9. Material possessions only temporarily feed our greed and gluttony. They do not help the persona or others.  Without giving to others, the persona will never fill satisfied and will always seek more and more to fill his emptiness.  This is classic Platonism:  attempting to balance the mind, the body, and the soul through equally fulfilling events.
  10. This is the treadmill that the persona is on: the beauty of the work he loves keeps him still performing but the grind of the work wears him down.
  11. The joy of his work has left.
  12. “Wake you up in the middle of the night”
  13. The persona has paid so much sweat and pain that he is surprised when he finally has the opportunity to enjoy the benefits that fame and fortune have finally brought to him.
  14. Alibis are only necessary after criminal activity.  They are needed because penalties will be adjudicated. Has Fortuna led the persona into evil misbehavior?
  15. The evil and the pain are what the persona has brought upon himself in his selfish pursuit of the lady of fortune. He is appalled at his choices, but he still cannot give up fame and fortune.
  16. Musicians must keep producing the same things that brought the original success. Painters and writers and performers are also trapped.  They cast aside creativity so their work continues to keep the audience happy.  If they do not produce what the audience wants—with just a tiny bit of change to seem “new”, the fickle audience will abandon them.
  17. It’s not the audience. It is the trapped performers, who have come to hate the juggernaut wheel grinding them down and down.
  18. He can no longer accept everything he has sacrificed, all the pain and evil he has endured.  He wants to return to the time before fame and fortune.
  19. Success can never be abandoned. Lady Fortuna’s hotel accepts people through a small funnel.  She takes in only those that can endure the pain, will lap up the evil in a blind acquiescence to the dream, and willingly abandon everything good about the dream in order to achieve wealth and fame.
  20. The only way to “check out” of Lady Fortuna’s hotel is death.
The Eagles
The album cover for the iconic album

Summing Up & Coming Up

I enjoy the guitar solos and the guitar duet at the end of “Hotel California”.  Most people with their “imp of the perverse (as EAPoe calls it) get focused on the lady and the wine and the beast and go no farther.

Understanding the darker elements of HCa doesn’t destroy my enjoyment of the song;  I just have to turn off the intellect and dance around to the guitars.  It is not a happy hotel to visit.

And in my own blindness on dark desert highways, I have often wanted fame and fortune for myself.

Next up, a lighter work, thank goodness.

Join us on the 25th of July for a lighter work than “Hotel California”.  I promise.

Well, it might be a little dark and a little snide.  😉 grn