Sunday Pages: "First Fig" and "Second Fig"
Two short poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay
Just before Edna St. Vincent Millay was born in Rockland, Maine in 1892, her uncle’s life was saved by doctors at St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York. That was the impetus for her unusual middle name. This proved significant, because her middle name is what she went by. Her mother, her sisters, her friends—everyone called her Vincent. She would have been right at home with the Gen Z-ers in the gender-fluid 2020s. She was unequivocally ahead of her time.
Millay was the consummate bohemian. If cool could be quantified, she’d be an all-timer. She went to Vassar late, but achieved literary fame early. She was both poet and performance artist, her live readings enhancing her reputation (a wealthy arts patron heard her give a poetry reading and subsequently offered to fund her education). She moved to Greenwich Village after college and helped give that NYC neighborhood its artsy reputation. She took both men and women as lovers, and as a romantic partner, she was restless, impossible to pin down. She was a feminist and political activist. She was friends with painters, poets, photographers, novelists, critics, communists, radicals, actors, playwrights, critics. One critic, the editor Edmund Wilson, said she was “one of the only poets writing in English in our time who have attained anything like the stature of great literary figures.” Another, Floyd Dell, called her “a frivolous young woman, with a brand-new pair of dancing slippers and a mouth like a valentine.” (Both of them wrote these things after she spurned their marriage proposals following brief flings.)
She understood how to leverage fame, and safeguarded her public persona; for money, she wrote short stories under a pen name, refusing to sully her poetical rep by using her real one. She went to France to hobnob with the literati and came home pregnant. To induce abortion, her mother plied her with weird herbs she’d read about in an old book; it worked, but Millay was ill for years after. (She would have been appalled at Alito & Friends overturning Roe.) She eventually married a widower who took good care of her but let her live as she pleased; it was what today would be called an open marriage. The couple bought an estate in Austerlitz, New York, which is now the site of the Millay Artists Colony. She spent the last years of her life investing in [checks notes] Thoroughbred horses.
Published in 1920’s A Few Figs from Thistles, and written after watching Europe destroy itself for four years, “First Fig” is probably her best-known poem:
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!
The expression “burning the candle at both ends” derives from a French saying coined a century before Napoleon, brusler la chandelle par les deux bouts. In the 17th century, per Grammarist, this meant being wasteful, squandering money on frivolities. She turns the idiom on its side. Millay may be talking about her life force, her creative energy, maybe even her sexual appetite (the binary “both ends” and “foes/friends” being, perhaps, wink-wink-nudge-nudge references to her bisexuality), but what the poem is not about is money.
Nor is “First Figs” about squandering anything. The poem seems to delight in the risk associated with brusler la chandelle par les deux bouts. Millay practically advocates for this. She’s boasting. The quality of the “lovely light” is well worth the sacrifice. As Tyrell says in Blade Runner, “The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long, and you have burned so very, very brightly, Roy.” The poet is a star that has gone supernova.
I’ve always been more partial to the lesser-known “Second Fig,” all two lines of it. The theme is similar—that beauty and art are worth enormous effort, even if they are fleeting:
Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand:
Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!
Millay is not talking about actual houses here any more than “First Fig” refers to literal candles. What she means, I think, is that in order to create great art, one must take great risks. One must give oneself over completely to the process, and not worry about temporal concerns (although it seems that climate change deniers and Florida real estate developers have taken the poem literally). She sets it up as an either/or choice: a ugly house that is stable, or a shining palace that is not. But my guess is, Millay’s dwelling would have shone even on solid rock.
In 1936, Millay was involved in a bad car accident. The injuries she sustained plagued her for the rest of her life. She died in 1950, at 58—too young, but much longer than might have been expected from a both-ends candle-burner.
Although she’d been a pacifist, opposed to the Great War, Millay recognized the horrors of the Third Reich, and was a staunch proponent of the war effort the second time around. During World War II, she even worked with the Writers’ War Board to craft anti-fascist propaganda. In 1942, she wrote a long poem about the atrocities committed by the Nazis in the Czechoslovak town of Lidice. But for the name of the town, this snippet could have been written about Ukraine last month:
The whole world holds in its arms today
The murdered village of Lidice,
Like the murdered body of a little child.
You’re not gonna believe this, but the stodgy white men who made up the lit-crit scene gave her shit about her ardent Nazis-are-bad stance. As Merle Rubin noted in the Wall Street Journal, “She seems to have caught more flak from the literary critics for supporting democracy than Ezra Pound did for championing fascism.”
Like I said, she was unequivocally ahead of her time. Edna St. Vincent Millay, one of the coolest people to ever walk the earth: antifa.
Photo credit: Arnold Genthe. Edna St. Vincent Millay in Mamaroneck, New York, 1914.
ICYMI: Kimberley Johnson was wonderful sitting in for LB on Friday’s “The Five 8.” Our guest, the great Tom LoBianco, called in from his car outside the boxing gym!