One of the first works of Edna St.Vincent Millay(1892-1950), an outspoken feminist who was in love in her own infectious voice. Taken from her poetic anthology: A Few Figs From Thistles could, a controversial work that's title is often translated as a allusion to figs as a symbol for women writing in the then primarily male-centric field of poetry: a plump, piquant fig amidst the thistle( which is a bristling, prickly, ill-tempered weed that makes a rather unpleasant tea) that must be the male gender.
Edna St.Vincent Millay
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!
“First Fig,” begins with a open metaphor: “My candle burns at both ends;” this is clearly an analogy to what however is not as limpid. Edna St.Vincent Millay wasn’t some musty old poet of antiquity she was born in an era was electricity was already prevalent throughout society. Yet, just because her comparison is given in the terms of obsolete technology does make her analogy likewise. Undoubtedly, there is an entire history to the use of the candle as a symbol, even if it is only used on special occasions today candles were once of dire importance: often being the only light source made available to medieval households. With origins in the natural world(beeswax) and a unusual life-like mortality and movement it’s no small wonder, they have become a representation of human experience. The candle is central to Edna St.Vincent Millay’s poem from being the subject of her very first line to continuing to be the “it” in question for the rest of her composition. Yet, this is far from the candle’s first literary reference to life. From Shakespeare, who made two several parallels to the candle from Hamlet’s correlation of life to a “brief candle”, to his usage of it to foreshadow the death of Othello’s wife( he snuffs out a candle before her demise). To the Bible where Matthew tells people not to hide their light under a “bushel basket”. The life of a candle is measurable, and their progression towards the end is visually evident, and the same can be said of humans. Who, so often describe death as darkness, just like the one following a candle’s fate. This naturally facilitates the candle’s usage in many a poet’s discussion of life. A candle burned from both ends, however is an entirely unique idea, it may represent a life lived recklessly(put at risk willingly by it’s owner and yet also by the rest of the world). Or possibly a shared life, burned from both ends by both participants in it. It is essential Edna St.Vincent Millay to take an settled image and turn it on it’s head, resulting in a fresh and original perspective, that is all the more audacious and beguiling.
Life is not the only thing a candle can represent, and Edna St.Vincent Millay may not be referring to her own mortality. But instead the mortality of her creative spark, the flames of the mind can be burned out just as easily as those of the heart. It can be noted often throughout history, that ironic as it may be, many of the greatest artists, scientists, inventors, and philosophers produced all their most celebrated works in a short period of their lives. Here, at the height of their potential they fall whether to a physical or inventive demise it matters not. This is tantamount to St.Vincent Millay’s own career, which was a feverish burst of literary production, blazing love-affairs and a premature end. Despite, the poem’s similarities to Millay’s own life, she allows it to remain strangely devoid of condemning details grating her reader the opportunity to identify with the speakers even if they may not have done so with the poet.
Of course, the reader might just as well apply their own explanation to the candle, perhaps even one as cliche as love. Romance has been associated with fire for eons, especially if it is a swift sensuous affair in question. Whirlwind romances may seem to burn up from not just one end but two, owing to the lust and impatience that drives the consumption. A bodily greed and lascivious motivation can make the flames of love, both brief and bright, just as Edna St.Vincent Millay’s poem describes, “It gives a lovely light!”. However, many emotions can feed a fire and it is equally possible that determination, revenge, artistic passion or other related mental states could have been St.Vincent Millay’s intended poetic application, or maybe it was her intention that the interpretation remain open allowing her a wider, more varied audience.
All the appeal of Edna St.Vincent Millay’s work doesn’t lie solely in her theme or analogies; her tone and rhyme are both equally important literary elements not to be overlooked. One of the wonders of “First Fig,” is it’s ability to take on several different ambiences at once: changing from morbidity and morality in an allegory for death, to irony and mockery in an expression of rage, to sensual and visceral in, feasibly, her interpretation of love, her composition even carries a meaning that may repersent her career as a poet and the imagination, verisimilitude and acceptance it required. Her poem is so versatile it manages to be pessimistic, humorous and light-hearted synchronously. Her straight-forward ABAB rhyme scheme, and eight/seven syllable verse followed by a six syllable line done in iambic feet(meaning that every other syllable is accented) confirms her poem as a ballad. The ABAB rhyme scheme is a well established and idiosyncratic element of the ballad, and Edna St.Vincent Millay follows it flawlessly: meaning the first line rhymes with the third, the second with the fourth and so on with the letters representing the end sounds of the lines so that they corresponds with the end sounds of second following line. This simple rhythmic agreement never fails to provide provide a cadenced and deliberate feel, pleasantly recognizable ABAB rhyme scheme welcomes the reader in and aids in comprehension by drawing the attention of our senses, and leaving the brain free to be swept away by the allegorical aspects of St.Vincent Millay’s poem. However, not every aspect of Edna St.Vincent Millay’s piece follows the guidelines, in her very first line she breaks a rule by using seven syllables as opposed to the classic eight, yet her poem is still a ballad because though she has altered the form slightly it was done deliberately for dramatic effect, making her first line even more striking and succinct. This effectively throws her reader off kilter, she doesn’t even allow them the chance to get used the format before she defies it, leaving her reader too dazed to be fully aware of the solid rhythm of 8-6-8-6 being flagrantly cast aside for phonetic effect. Before her audience even has time to recognize the insurgence she has slipped seamlessly back into the traditional ballad meter, which ironically may be one of the most conventional and archaic metrical pattern used throughout poetic history.
But why use such a classic metrical organization just to deviate from it? Edna St.Vincent Millay defies another standard of ballads in making her’s so brief, and it is remarkably so: with only four lines as opposed to an average of forty to fifty and a general minimum of twelve. St.Vincent Millay has taken a time-honored format and reduced it to a shockingly modern length. Why? Well, this established format is tried and true and it provides a iron backbone for St.Vincent Millay’s poem. Also, the contrast of something familiar displayed in a such an atypical arrangement makes the differences and additions all the more conspicuous and compelling. St.Vincent Millay may very well be using aberrance to introduce an aspect of abnormality into her work paring the near unheard of spectacle of a candle burning from both ends, not to mention an omnipresent light, with an irregular metrical movement, enhances the feeling of apprehensive unease that Edna St.Vincent Millay must have been aiming for.
Whichever literary translation you choose to entertain, Edna St.Vincent Millay is equally charismatic, her verse is public while being fully capable of containing personal meaning and feeling expressive to a general audience. “First Fig,” is intimately articulate without feeling invasive. Relatable to several different opinions concurrently, possessed of an analogy that can apply to a much greater general audience. Despite her impeccable eloquence and multifaceted ambience, there is nothing haughty or unachievable about St.Vincent Millay’s voice. She is confident and self assured in a way that is refreshing and commands the reader's attention immediately, her poem feels like an open address to a mixed audience of several people( who are left unspecified: allowing them to be family, neighbors, old or new friends, party guests, or perfect strangers in equal possibility) whoever the audience may be they are just as captivated in any setting. “First Fig,” can easily be imagined as a speech given brazenly at a party, yet seem just as possible if it were the speaker's silent promise to herself, making the poem’s expression just as poignant as an internal monologue as if it were a spoken one. With no definitive setting St.Vincent Millay’s poem remains accessible and applicable to a wide and diverse audience, perched in a region of thought suspended between fantasy and reality. The poems lacks tangible evidence towards any particular physical atmosphere facilitating an enigma that is both maddeningly, engaging and enjoyable: leaving the backdrop open to your personal interpretation.
Edna St.Vincent Millay uses apostrophes to achieve a direct communication with her audience, the same method had been used for generations by variously acclaimed poets such as Shakespeare and Milton who spoke to their muses; and Coleridge conducted his poetry to the sun. Yet, as is her signature Millay, takes an established concept and applies it in a new and innovative fashion to achieve result that are both entirely new and definitively original. Instead of the classic address to a higher-being, principle, or inspirational figure, St.Vincent Millay uses her speaker’s apostrophes to aim her speech at two audiences simultaneously: both her friends and her foes.
St.Vincent Millay’s two audiences are about as divided as they come and there is no middle ground, you are either with her(in friendship) or against her( as her foe). “But ah! my foes and oh, my friends,” however the position of you as the reader is unspecified, are you her friend or foe, perhaps a reader maybe determine this by deciding their opinion in regard to St.Vincent Millay’s previous works, but whether or not you agree with St.Vincent Millay’s views, they are clearly expressed and she leaves her audience with captivating and scintillating verse either way.