My Candle Burns at Both Ends: The Poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay

Cover of A Few Figs From Thistles

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When award-winning poet Edna St. Vincent Millay died of a heart attack on Oct. 19, 1950, the New York Times noted that she was well known for crafting a poem that ended "my candle burns at both ends." The newspaper of record pointed out that critics viewed the line of verse as "frivolous," but that hadn't stopped Millay from surfacing as an "idol of the younger generation" during the 1920s. Today, the poet, born on Feb. 22, 1892, is no longer an idol to youth, but her poetry is widely taught in schools. She remains an inspiration to both feminists and the LGBT community.

With this brief overview of Millay's "frivolous" work, "First Fig," the poem in which the "candle" line appears, get a better understanding of the verse's context and its reception after it was published.

Text of "First Fig"

"First Fig" appeared in Millay's poetry collection A Few Figs from Thistles: Poems and Four Sonnets, which debuted in 1920. It was just the young poet's second collection of poems. Her first, Renascence: and other poems, came out three years earlier. The critics who dismissed "First Fig" had no idea that Millay would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1923 for The Ballad of the Harp Weaver. She was only the third woman to win the Pulitzer in the poetry category.

Perhaps because "First Fig" was just a single stanza, it was easily memorized and came to be the work with which Millay is most associated. The poem is as follows:

"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" Analysis and Reception

Because "First Fig" is such a short poem, it's easy to think that there's not much to it, but that isn't the case. Think about what it means to have a candle that burns at both ends. Such a candle burns twice as fast as other candles. Then, think about what a candle may represent. It could symbolize Millay's erotic passions, giving the poem an entirely different context. Someone whose desires burn out twice as quickly as another's may not make for a longtime love but is certainly more passionate than the average mate.

According to the Poetry FoundationA Few Figs from Thistles cemented Millay's reputation of "madcap youth and rebellion, provoking the disapproval of critics." The collection is known for its " flippancy, cynicism and frankness," the foundation notes.

More Work by Millay

While Millay made a name for herself with Figs, critics seem to think that her next poetry collection, Second April (1921), is a better reflection of her skills as a poet. The volume contains both free verse and sonnets, which Millay excelled at as a poet.

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Lombardi, Esther. "My Candle Burns at Both Ends: The Poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Lombardi, Esther. (2020, August 27). My Candle Burns at Both Ends: The Poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay. Retrieved from Lombardi, Esther. "My Candle Burns at Both Ends: The Poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 2, 2023).