Edna St. Vincent Millay's family knew that they were in for some excitement as soon as Edna decided at a very young age that she'd rather be called Vincent, thank you very much. Raised by a single working mother in Maine (Millay's father, a teacher, left the family when the girls were very young), Vincent and her two sisters grew up in near-poverty but always had plenty of books on hand.
Always audacious—and always a writer—Vincent got into Vassar College with the help of a literary patron, Caroline Dow. Her exploits nearly got her kicked out of college, time and again, but her literary laurels piled up even more quickly than her disciplinary reports. By the time she graduated from Vassar in 1917, she was already an established poet. She was also an established lover, with a romantic history that included several women and men who fell, hard, for the witty and vivacious poet.
We may think of the 1920s as the birth of Modernism, with all of its impersonality and epic gestures (think of The Waste Land's hundreds of mythic allusions, for starters), but Millay managed to craft a poetic voice that was insistently personal and often devilishly modern. She was a New Woman—a fast-talking, smoking, drinking, loving, reading life of the party. Her poetry catalogues that life in fascinating detail.
"First Fig" is one of Millay's first sallies into the publishing world: the first poem of her second book, A Few Figs From Thistles, published in 1920. In some ways, it's the perfect announcement of her brash style and brilliant success. In others, though, it's a telling prophecy of her frequent mental illnesses and early death.
Who doesn't want to feel like they're living now? Like they're taking every chance they're offered, risking everything that they can risk, and burning just as brightly as they possibly can?
Want proof? Well, we all know that '90s mega-bands are the true troubadours of the soul, and they all sung some song about living hard and partying even harder. From Aerosmith's "Livin' on the Edge" to Bon Jovi's "Blaze of Glory" and, of course, the Beastie Boy's epic anthem, "(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party)," bands with big hair knew that life was best when it was lived fast and furious. Hey, come to think of it, even Fast and Furious could learn something from Millay.
See, back in the 1920s, Edna St. Vincent Millay was the go-to-girl for living life as if there were no tomorrow. But unlike the rockers with big hair, Millay's poetry knows the consequences of big living. She's just made the choice to go hard, no matter what the cost. It's the knowledge of costs and consequence, though, that makes this poem so striking. Anyone can take risks when they don't know the costs of those choices. It's knowing the costs and then doing it anyway which makes the brilliance so dazzling.