For poetry lovers, we have a series of blogs, Poetry Lessons, guest-hosted by emmiD 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.
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 seems merely 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, this poem 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 a persona reveling in an unending carouse as the persona burns daylight and nightlife, as stated in line 1. This is the Roaring Twenties, and the persona is a roaring flame through her life.
St. Vincent Millay employs the “brief candle” allusion to Macbeth’s famous speech by Shakespeare (“Out, out, brief candle.”). 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?
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 than a simple metrical analysis is needed to comprehend this diamond-cut poem.
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 the symbolic meaning of 7. 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 (not achieving 10). 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 to achieve any deeper meaning.
The title of “First Fig” is an unusual choice. Why not “Burning Bright” or “Single Candle” or “Candlewick”?
Could Millay create 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. Those sweetly savored events create potential, birthed through each poem in the collection.
Remember the title? “A Few Figs from Thistles.” This little gem of a poem is just the first in the collection.
The poem is also a self-referent allusion. Millay’s 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 may not approve of the sustenance she takes).
Mark of Excellence
The burning candle is the obvious metaphor that dominates the first reading. It begins pointing to Millay’s theme. Yet to reach Millay’s overall meaning, we need a harmonious blending of all three elements—metaphor, structure, and title.
This harmonious blending of metaphor, structure, and title is the mark of an excellent poet. To create this blending in four short lines reveal Millay’s touch of inspired genius.
The ancient Greeks believed that the gods inspired poets. That was the only answer for poetic lines, living as if they had the breath of gods in them.
Celebratory of a life that others condemn, Millay’s “First Fig” speaks to the sparkling independence that each individual seeks to craft from life.
Like a rough diamond or the spiky thorns of a 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.
To reach our desires, we may have to burn our candles at both ends, passionately pursuing our labor and our leisure, no matter what our foes and friends advise.
Millay used rhyme and meter as well as extended metaphor to control the structure and meaning of her poem.
On the 25th, we look at another device that poets can use to control structure and meaning. We’re doing Robert Frost and St. Vincent Millay (again). Join us.
Copyright: The law of copyright states that a work is copyrighted for the life of the writer plus 70 years. Millay died in 1950. It’s now 2020, 70 years later. Her work is entering the public domain. On the 25th, when we analyze Frost, we will have to link to his poems rather than reproduce them here. Frost died in 1963; his works won’t be in public domain until 2033. Know your copyright laws.