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.