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.
What? I thought we were looking at poems by Americans for Americans.
Well, no. Any writer who celebrates freedom and living freely would be appropriate for these July blogs on occasional poetry.
Besides, I used Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier” (the first poem for the July 5 blog) as one of the first examples of sacrifices reminding us to live our lives, not just drive.
The Wilfred Owens poem selected for this July 25 blog reminds us of the best of life and living that life.
Owens died in 1918, exactly one week before the signing of the Armistice that ended World War I.
His poetry reflects his years in the war: his rage at the senseless cruelty and devastation of war alongside his compassion for his comrades trapped in the mucky trenches and on the bloody battlefields. Three of his best of these are “Dulce et Decorum Est”, “Anthem for Doomed Youth”, and “Strange Meeting.”
Yet he’s more than just a war poet. Other poems revel in nature and life and love.
This poem, a practice in alliteration and consonance, takes as its title “From My Diary, July 1914”.
Murmuring by myriads in the shimmering trees.
Wakening with wonder in the Pyrenees.
Cheerily chirping in the early day.
Singing of summer, scything through the hay.
Shaking the heavy dews from bloom and frond.
Bursting the surface of the ebony pond.
Of swimmers carving the sparkling cold.
Gleaming with wetness to the morning gold.
Bordered about with warbling waterbrooks.
Laughing the love-laugh with me; proud of looks.
Throbbing between the upland and the peak.
Quivering with passion to my pressed cheek.
Of floating flames across the mountain brow.
Of stillness; and a sighing of the bough.
Of leaflets in the gloom; soft petal-showers;
Expanding with the starr-d nocturnal flowers.
July closes our three-month focus on Occasional Poems—Mother’s and Father’s Days, Memorial and Flag Day, and these three July blogs on what we should remember as we celebrate our independence in the mid-summer.
I’m preaching, aren’t I? Sorry. Not.
Should you have a question about copyright, please refer to the July 5 blog.
On August 5 we have the promised Rock Allegory, “Hotel California.” While you’re checking that song out, try a bit of Carmina Burana as well.
Independence should be celebrated all through July, not just on the 4th.
Memorial Day and Flag Day are commemorative occasions just ripe for a poet. While we’ve had this Plague Year, most writers are practicing their skills. Special occasions—especially in this climate–offer many opportunities for practice.
The hardest thing for any writer is to share the work. We spend so much time in our heads and at our desks, tapping away on ideas, that we forget the whole reason of writing is to communicate. We would like our brains to communicate with our hearts. Honestly, though, most of us want to communicate our ideas to other people. Special occasions give us that chance.
Poets in groups can become addicted to Open Mic nights. Everyone reads a bit of their ideas. However, sharing with other writers is not sharing with the hardest audience: families, friends, and the greater world.
Public ceremonies will stretch any writer’s abilities.
When writing and performing for occasions, we have 2 Chief Reasons to remember ~
1] Adhere to audience requirements.
2] Keep to the 4 Requirements of Song.
Now let me add a 3rd:
3] Manipulate structure to stand out. Poets who do so can provide copies of their poems to participants. It’s like free publicity. “All politics is local”, 1930s newspapermen said, and word-of-mouth is the best marketing.
On Independence Day we celebrate our freedoms. Only rarely do we stop on July 4th and remember those who sacrificed so that we have those freedoms. Our two poems for this blog are commemorations, one autobiographical by a soldier prophetic for his own life.
My apologies before we begin for the double-spacing. I am still–still struggling with the new Block Editor in Word Press. The Classic Editor used to let me single space. Grrrr.
Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier”
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed:
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam;
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by the suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given:
Her sighs and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness;
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.
This poem is especially poignant, for Rupert Brooke sacrificed himself for England in 1915, at the start of World War I, called at that time the War to End All Wars. Unfortunately, that title was not possible and never will be, as long as human nature is what it is.
Brooke himself was prophetic, for he died at the age of 27. An excellent brief biograpy of Brooke and analysis of his poetry is here.
“The Soldier” helps us to envision this person living, just as we live. That connection grips our own hearts closely, for we could easily be required to sacrifice ourselves as Brooke was.
This poem is a sonnet unannounced, for Brooke does not tell us—as many poets do—that this is Sonnet 11 or “A Sonnet”. The opening octet presents to us the loss, ending with the sadly ironic “suns of home” for England’s dead sons buried away from home.
The closing sestet presents the gain and the reason for the sacrifice. The cleansed soul, giving back as England gave. The last three lines are a list, almost like a catalog, individual items with the grouped phrases linked by semicolons: sighs & sounds; dreams; laughter with friends; gentleness; and peace.
Death arouses emotion, but Brooke asks us to THINK about the life lived before death came. Think about life. Be in the present. Celebrate freedom—before we have to sacrifice to keep it.
Gwendolyn Brooks’ “the sonnet-ballad”
Brooks announces her sonnet but also ties it to the form of “ballad”. Because of copyright issues (see below), you can find her complex poem at this link.
A ballad tells a story, highly repetitive, strongly emotional. The reader must infer parts of the story. Those parts are obvious, however. (A good clue for those of us practicing poetry: not every element has to be included. If it’s obvious, then the reader can figure it out.)
Every folk ballad has the three subject matters of love, betrayal, and death. Most literary ballads (so-called because we know the writer’s name—and that’s the only reason for the word literary) also have those same three subject matters.
In “the sonnet-ballad”, the poem’s speaker mourns her soldier gone. Thus, she reminds us of the sacrifices by those on the home front. They feel betrayed by the death of their beloved.
Particular phrases in Brooks’ poem that haunt us—just as the speaker herself is haunted by her loss. She remembers “my lover’s tallness” and “an empty heart-cup”. She knows her lover had to “court / Coquettish death”.
We also have the powerful circular rhetorical device, when the writing opens and closes with the same line. These two lines are the obsessive repetition of grief: love betrayed by death.
That repetition then makes us see and heed more repetition: the ending of the opening octet is the opening of the concluding sestet—“would have to be untrue”. We want the words that tell of death to be untrue. Here is Brooke’s cleverness: the betrayal is not by her beloved but the betrayal is her beloved.
And now we back up into the poem, this deceptively simple poem of complex ideas, which is the chief reason that I love Brooks.
She personifies Death as a female; that’s nothing new. Brooks, however, crafts Death as a flirty temptress, coquettish, with strange possessive arms. We know that no soldier is truly tempted by death.
Her lover, though, falls to Death. He “stammers”—that hesitation that reaches for life but cannot grasp it because Death draws him in.
He is the “hard man” who changes, an unwanted change by him, by her, by family and friends … yet still changed.
Both poems—Brooke and Brooks—are poems of the sacrifice that gives us freedom. The cost is destruction, of life, of hopes, of dreams, of potentials.
For that reason, we view Independence Day as more than picnics and fireworks. And for that reason, all this July we look at poems that remind us of the cost of Independence.
We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth. ~` John F. Kennedy.
As you write your own Occasional Poems, remember the lessons of rich details and heart-deep emotions, of stories hinted and lines crafted, all to be memorable to your audience.
Copyright Notification: Every writer needs to understand copyright. Works enter Public Domain 70 years after the writer’s death. Rupert Brooke died in 1915; his still-powerful work is now in the Public Domain. Gwendolyn Brooks is an important modern American poet. She died in 2000. I can analyze her poem, but I should not provide it here without permission. That’s the reason she has a link—and when you check all the previous blogs, that’s the reason those poems also have links rather than being presented as part of the blog.
The remaining words of the blog are mine. I’m still alive. All of the remaining words are copyrighted to me, as of the date of the writing of this blog post.
On this Bright Wednesday, we celebrate for He is Risen!
Our Reading is The Road to Emmaus / Luke 24:13-35
“He is Risen” is the word that the women gave, based on the evidence of the tomb and the message from the bright angel who reassured them.
Yet the disciples could not bring themselves to believe. They
wanted to, desperately, but their earthly realism prevent complete belief.
So, three days after the Crucifixion, on the day of the
Resurrection, two of the Jesus’ followers are walking on the road to Emmaus. One
of them is Cleopas. The historian Hegesippus
recorded that Cleopas was the son of the brother of Joseph; therefore, he was a
cousin of Jesus.
The two men are talking about the events, especially the words of the women just that morning. And a stranger greets them.
They recount the troubling events, especially the greatest
troubling event of the body missing from the tomb but the angel no longer there.
And they admit they are amazed.
A Bright Amazement
We have forgotten the true meaning of “amaze”: to fill
with astonishment, to stagger, to stupefy, to awe. To be amazed is to be
confused by mystery.
They explain the whole amazing events to the stranger as they walk the road to Emmaus together.
But they do not really see the stranger. Just as they never really heard His message. Not until he rebukes them:
“And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart — to believe all that the prophets have spoken!26 Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. (Luke 24)
Once again, Christ had to teach them. Now, perhaps, they
listen with better understanding. Now, perhaps, they can heed His words.
Yet Christ does not reveal Himself to them. They do not “see” who HE is until he joins them for supper, breaks the bread and blesses it and gives it to them. Only then, hearts burning within them, they recognize Him.
And He instantly vanishes.
A Bright Understanding
In life, how often do we not see what is before our faces? How often do we not understand until a flash of understanding reveals all?
How often do we never receive that flash of understanding? How often is that the tragedy? That the information is before us, but we lack the spirit to see and comprehend?
As with these two disciples, so it often is with us. We see
the constant daily miracles of God, but we do not “see” them, we do not accept
them, we do not understand them.
Perhaps our prayers should be for more understanding, more
discernment. The gifts we ask for should be the witness of His miracles. We
should pray that we heed the lessons we hear and have heard over and over
A Prayer for Brightness
Many years ago, in my search for More about my faith in Christ Jesus, I stumbled upon this. In whatever document I found it in, this little prayer was called “The Sarum Prayer.” I copied it into a journal.
Over the years, I have continued to move it forward in my journals. I re-encounter it at unexpected intervals. Every time it speaks to me, reminding me of lessons I still need to heed.
It’s comforting, but also a little sad, to realize that every individual in every generation has to learn the same lessons about Christ and our walk with Him. Yet generation after generation, century after century, we find strange connections, present to ancient past, from now to the person who first penned this little prayer.
In this day of contemporary music and blended worship
services, with guitars and drums accompanying the pianos and organs, the staid
traditional services that I once bemoaned seem foreign.
When we regularly sing music from Chris Tomlin and Matt Redman with updates to standard hymns like “Amazing Grace” and “Just As I Am”, the dry old services of my past seem more than outdated. Those old services now are strange.
In the Dark Ages, I once volunteered to play the piano for my
church (a chore that I thought would only last a few months). I tried to add
new music for the piano solos before service and the offertory: new
arrangements of old hymns and old praise songs that my plain church had never
Favorites were “Flee as a Bird to your Mountain” here (an old Broadman hymn that my church never sang) ~
and “God So Loved the World” here ~
After all, the new arrangements were in music books from the local Christian store. And the old praise songs were from the back of the Broadman hymnal.
I ran through a lot of songs in the few years that I served
One of the songs in constant rotation, primarily because it was less than a minute, was something that is often called the “Glory Be” but is actually called “Gloria Patri”.
Glory be to the Father / And to the Son / And to the Holy Ghost
As it was in the beginning / Is now and ever shall be / World without end.
Isn’t it lovely? Praise and contemplation, wish and hope, in simple three lines packed with glory.
There. I promised today’s blog would be short. And sweet.
Easter begins with Sunrise—the tomb open and empty, the faithful women first to see, first to receive the good news, 1st to spread the good news, and the glorious joy continued far, far beyond Bright Monday.
This week should be the most celebrated time in the church,
yet it is often the more neglected than any other time of the church.
Fasting and grief are over; feast and joy return. Christ is Risen! Christ is Lord of All!
The week after Easter is known as Easter Week (the week before Easter is Holy Week). Monday can be called Easter Monday or Bright Monday.
I prefer Bright Monday, for Christ’s resurrection brought radiant and wondrous light to the world.
In the Germanic-based languages (of which English is the most widespread), the word Easter comes from a pagan goddess of dawning, brightening, springtime. Latin-based languages and Greek call this most important day Pascha, for the Passion of Christ, or Resurrection Sunday. The Eastern churches, the Orthodox and Eastern Catholic, says Bright Week.
The joyful spirit of Easter which continues on Bright Monday will remain in the church until Ascension, 40 days after the Resurrection. This is Pentecost. (Read Matthew 28: 8-15)
More on my Faith Journey
When I began my search for More about Christianity–more than I had encountered growing up in my plain church–one of the first things I encountered was The Apostle’s Creed.
If you grew up with the Apostle’s Creed, it probably never affected you as much as it affected me. I hope it did. And I hope it does. I hope it will do so for all the rest of the days of your life.
In my plain church, the only holy-based texts that we learned were John 3:16 and the Lord’s Prayer and Psalm 23. Occasionally we learned more, such as John 14:1-6.
The Apostles’ Creed woke me up to more. Hearing this Creed spoken from heart by everyone around me: that was powerful.
That changed my path. I walked beyond the plain barren and into the rooted flowering of the ancient church brought into the modern day.
More Background on the Creed
The first written documentation of the Apostles’ Creed, kept
carefully by the Roman Catholic Church, is a letter from 390 AD. The Creed may
have existed earlier; it certainly reached its final written form by the late
Before the Creed was an earlier and shorter version, now called the Old Roman Symbol. One of the early Church leaders, Irenaeus called it a rule of faith. Irenaeus died in 202.
I believe in God the Father Almighty, / and in Christ Jesus, His only son our Lord, / Who was born from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, / Who under Pontius Pilate was crucified and buried, / On the third day rose again from the dead, / ascended into Heaven, / sits at the right hand of God the Father, / whence He will come to judge the Living and the Dead; / and in the Holy Spirit, / and in the Church, / the remission of sins, / the resurrection of the flesh (the life everlasting).
Tradition claims that each one of the original apostles contributed a part of the Roman Symbol. In dealing with various heresies, the Roman Symbol gradually changed into the Apostles’ Creed that we know today.
The fact that the Creed does not appear in a document until 390 AD means nothing to me. When a congregation is primarily un-lettered (as it would have been in antiquity and the Middle Ages), when memory is more important than documents (which can be forged and which not everyone can read and check for accuracy), a common saying that everyone knows is much more important.
The Apostles’ Creed
I believe in God the Father Almighty, creator of Heaven and
And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord;
Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost;
Born of the Virgin Mary;
Suffered under Pontius Pilate;
Was crucified, dead and buried;
He descended into Hell;
The third day He rose again from the dead.
He ascended into Heaven,
And sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty.
From thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Ghost,
The holy catholic church,
The communion of saints,
The forgiveness of sins
The resurrection of the body,
And the life everlasting. Amen.
More Questions on the Creed?
Here are some things you might not understand and have
questions about. This is what I’ve learned over the years.
“The Holy Ghost” :: Some churches say “Holy Spirit”. “Ghost” is an old hold-over in the English language; it means “spirit”.
“He descended into Hell” :: Some churches now omit this line. I don’t. I believe that Christ spent his Holy Saturday in a harrowing of hell, rescuing from Hell those who believed in Him who had died before Him.
1 Peter 3:19-20 states that Christ preached to the imprisoned spirits. Spirits can only be imprisoned in a supernatural environment. The only two supernatural environments that I know are Heaven and Hell. I don’t think any soul in Heaven considers that a prison.
“The quick and the dead” :: “Quick” is another old hold-over in the English language. “Quick” means living. Christ will judge the living and the dead at his Second Coming, when this world ends.
“The holy catholic church” :: Saying the Apostles’ Creed does not mean a person is swearing allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church. Just like ghost and quick, catholic has a special meaning of universal. While we have many religions that are connected to Christianity, we all have a universal belief in Christ Jesus as our Savior through His grace.
In Ephesians 4:5, Paul writes that we Christians have “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” Christ is our Lord. Our faith is in Him. We are baptized through Him as a public declaration of our faith.
This phrase, by the way, is the reason that I think the
religion I grew up in avoided the Apostles’ Creed like the plague. (And that’s
not a cliché; that’s truth.)
“The resurrection of the body” :: At Christ’s Second Coming, the “dead in Christ will rise” (1 Thessalonians 4:16)
More Belief in the Creed
Is there any part of the Creed that you do not believe? Every part has a direct connection to the Bible.
Are you like Thomas Jefferson with his Bible, picking and choosing the parts you like and don’t like? Cutting out whole sections and pasting new pages together?
Should we be like Thomas Jefferson?
Or should we take the whole Bible, using it as our guide? Even the uncomfortable parts that are there to help us grow?
The Creed helps us understand our faith.
It reminds us of the great tenet of God’s love. For what other reason would Christ have sacrificed Himself? For what other reason would we have the communion of saints? And for what other reason does He forgive us of our sins?
How to Remember the Creed
Start with God.
Then eight parts about His life and death and afterlife. Notice
Then six beliefs we have about our faith. The third part of
the Trinity, two on the community, and three things we are most grateful for.
Learn each part, then put them all together.
Tomorrow is Bright Tuesday.
As you continue through your resurrected year, make a point of learning the Apostles’ Creed. By the next Bright Monday, you should know it “by heart”, especially if you take every part “to heart”.
Join us tomorrow for a look at the “Gloria Patri”, a little song that packs power.
If you hesitate to learn the Apostles’ Creed because you
haven’t officially memorized in years and it’s sooooo looooonnnngggg, I will
first tell you that you memorize songs on the radio all the time. Then I will
tell you that the “Gloria Patri” is a good starter for memorization.
Hopefully, Bright Tuesday’s blog will be short. (Bright Monday started to be short. Oh well.)