It is always such a delight to find a new gem of a poem! I came across this one while mindlessly scrolling through Instagram before going to sleep last night.

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!

Now, this sounds very familiar to me. My grandfather often warns us not to burn our candle at both ends whenever we try to balance too many things in our lives, but I never realised that this is a reference to a poem rather than a Dutch saying or something he made up. Oops.

Figs and thistles?

This poem ‘First Fig’ is the first of a small collection of poems called A few Figs from Thistles by Edna St. Vincent Millay. On first glance, this title seems rather odd – what does it have to do with candles? It seems to be more of a reference to the book than to the poem itself.

A fig is often seen as a classical symbol for the female body (round, plump and sweet), whereas the thistles are the prickly, unpleasant men that surround her. Edna St. Vincent Millay was a female poet in the early 20th century, trying to keep her head above water in an ocean of male-dominated literature. In this context the title is effective, though also slightly on the nose.

Alternatively, I prefer to read the title as a reference to the beauty (the delicious fig) she creates out of a harsh and ugly world or subject matter. A kind of celebratory self-satire, ‘First Fig’ describes the narrator’s reckless attitude to life. It warns of the consequences (she will not be able to sustain this attitude for long: the candle will not last through the night) while also celebrating the ‘lovely light’ (the fun, the adventure) it gives.

There is also a ‘Second Fig’:

Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand:
Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!

This poem also lies somewhere between self-celebration and self-satire. The speaker is fully aware that the houses built on rock are much more lasting and secure, but mocks them for being ugly. Her house may be gone with the first wave that hits it, but at least it is beautiful. And again, her ‘house’ is most likely a metaphor for her way of life.

In short, Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poetry seems right up my street. I’m excited to read more of her writings. If you are also into this kind of poetry, perhaps (subtle plug) you will enjoy my blogpost on 5 Dorothy Parker Poems to Know by Heart.

Who else do you like to read? Please share!


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