Don't worry. In fact, breathe a sigh of relief. This is one poem that you can read aloud without any worry about how to pronounce things correctly or any trouble putting the emphasis on the wrong sy-LA-ble. In fact, not one word in this entire poem is longer than two syllables. And to make things even easier, Millay has created four end-stopped lines, which means that her punctuation (in the form of semi-colons, dashes, and so on) tells us exactly when to pause (at the end of the line, of course).
We're keyed in to the fact that Millay is a fan of the alliteration before we even get to the first line—the title, "First Fig," has two glaring F's in it. And once the poem gets going, the alliteration keeps coming. First there's the "foes" and "friends" pairing in line 3, and then, of course, we end with the "lovely light" in line 4. Put all those examples together, and we've got a pretty good case for alliteration as Millay's favorite literary trick.
There's something playful about the word pairings, as well. Why, for example, would foes and friends be used together? Why not, say, enemies and friends? We're betting that alliteration helps Millay create the sense that both her foes and her friends are, for this one moment, connected, both in their sonic similarity and in their utter awe at her awesomeness. Connecting them one way is a pretty good way to point out to the readers that she's hoping to connect them as an audience, as well. And it works.
Why call a poem about candles a "first fig"? That's a good question, since figs and candles aren't really often thought of as necessary couples like, say, Bert and Ernie—or Brangelina.
There's one basic reason, although even that doesn't give us too much to go on: Millay titled the book in which this poem was published A Few Figs From Thistles. Wanna guess where this poem was in the lineup? (If you said it was first, you're right.) So, it's the first poem in the book, so Edna might as well announce it as a "First" in the title, as well.
But fig? Well, that's where things start to get interesting. See, figs are often associated with the female body, because folks tend to think that the inside of figs looks women's lady parts. (Check out the "Images" section here for a link to some great fig imagery.) Millay, of course, is a female poet—and she graduated from Vassar, which was at the time one of the few women's colleges in the country.
So calling her book A Few Figs From Thistles could just be a smack down to the very male-centric culture of poetry. She's presenting figs. And they're surrounded by… thistles. (Thistles, in case you were wondering, are those prickly unappealing weeds that tend to grow in the middle of fields.) It's pretty clear who the winner of that particular competition would be.
There's also some really lovely alliteration going on: both words start with F, which makes the title sound a lot more appealing than if it were, say, "A New Fig." And fig is just a fun word to say. Try it out a few times. Air rushes over your tongue as you pronounce the F and stops short when you end on the G. You could think of the work your mouth does making the word "fig" as something sort of close to the work of the poem: it's a short burst of life followed by a definite End, with a capital E. That might just be what night looks like after the two flames of the candle burn themselves out completely.
You can imagine Millay standing up at a party (probably on the table, and probably sometime around four in the morning) to bellow out this poem to an awe-struck audience. The poem itself doesn't give any indication of where it's set. We don't know, for instance, if the speaker is addressing a family reunion, a high school reunion, or just a bunch of strangers on the street. What we do know, though, is that the speaker is commanding everyone's attention. Whether you like her or not, you're drawn into her address. And, because she's addressing at least a few people, we're guessing that this is a poem intended for a crowd.
Then again, since the entire poem is focused on a single metaphor, it could be that this is a "speech" intended only for the page. What if the speaker can't get up the nerve to declare her brazenness aloud? The poem wouldn't read any differently if it were an internal monologue, sort of like the voice-overs in Girls.
That's why we say that the poem takes place between the mind and the world. With no clues in the poem itself, it remains delightfully (and maybe even frustratingly) ambiguous. Where does it take place? You decide.
Playful, flippant, and to-the-point, our speaker sure knows how to pack wallop. After all, you've got to combine a whole lot of qualities if you're going to manage to thumb your nose at metrical tradition, literary tradition, and, well, tradition in general.
Our speaker basically writes a poem about her awesomeness (as a poet, a lover, or just a liver)—and she manages to make us think she's funny while she's doing it. And what's more, we sorta love her even when she's bragging (after all, she does call her own light "lovely"). Perhaps that's because the speaker is so clearly aware of the costs of greatness: if you play hard, you burn out.
Come to think of it, though, we don't know all that much about her (it could even be a him for that matter). If we were to imagine an I.D. card, it would be pretty much a big fat blank. Name? No idea. Location? None. D.O.B.? Beats us.
What we do know, though, is that our speaker is audacious, audacious enough to introduce herself by proclaiming that she might not last long, but she's going to go out with a bang. And she's witty enough to do it in a sing-song like tone, with simple words that almost sound like a schoolyard song. (Iambic verse tends to sound sing-songy, if only because the pairing of unstressed and stressed syllables sounds, well, like a rocking motion.)
We'd like to pause for a moment to introduce little bit of Shmoop gossip: strangely, this proclamation ended up mirroring Millay's own life: a quick, fiery burst of literary production, a series of torrid love affairs, and an all-too-early death. Perhaps that's why many critics associate the speaker with Millay herself.
Regardless, our speaker seems to go out of her way not to identify herself, despite introducing the poem with a strong personal possessive ("my"). There's not even any special technical vocabulary to clue us in to her career or her relationship with either her friends or her foes. It's a strange anonymity for someone making a claim to greatness—which is perhaps what makes our speaker so very appealing.
Short and sassy, easy on the eye and intriguing to the mind—all in all, this poem's a piece of cake. Perhaps more importantly, the "candle" remains a delightfully vague metaphor, so you can twist it into all kinds of interpretive frameworks.
Edna St. Vincent Millay's poems have an unmistakable touch of the wild child, the party animal, the woman-about-town who just knows that she's the funniest and smartest person in the room. When the high Modernists (think Eliot, Pound, and Stein) were stripping poetry of any identifiable speaking personality, Millay continued to write funny, personal, persuasive verse. "First Fig" is just the beginning. Check out "Humoresque" and "Recuerdo" for other examples.
Before we get into nitty-gritty details, though, if you wanna read over the Shmoop take on all things ballad, head over here. We've got you covered.
Back already? Okay, here we go: here's where things get tricky. The poem is in pretty solid iambs, which means that every other syllable is accented. An iamb is a two-syllable pair where the stress falls on the second syllable: daDUM. Say "allow" to yourself out loud, and you'll hear an iamb. You'll also hear them here:
My candle burns.
And it's got lines that have an ABAB rhyme scheme. (The letters represent the end rhyme sound for each line, so line 1 rhymes with line 3, line 2 with line 4.) But here's the kicker: the first line doesn't have eight syllables. Gasp. It's got… seven:
My candle burns at both ends.
See what we mean? So how can we even call this a ballad?
Don't worry; we're not trying to pull a fast one on you. Millay's actually playing with the form of a normal ballad verse to make the first line shorter and punchier. It throws you just a little bit off guard, catching you off balance before you even get a chance to realize that there's supposed to be a solid rhythm to the poem's lines. And then, before you know it, you're back into a regular six-syllable and eight-syllable configuration. The poem slips smoothly back into a very, very traditional ballad meter, which might just be one of the oldest and most traditional of metrical patterns.
So why the upset in the first line? Well, we're guessing that Millay wants the reader to feel a bit on edge. After all, if you're in the presence of an all-consuming light, isn't it natural that things would be slightly non-normal? And coupling metrical irregularity with the announcement of an irregular, burning-at-both-ends candle is one good way to go about introducing abnormality.
This is a pretty unusual ballad, as ballads go. It's short. Super-short. Ballads are never short. So why combine traditional form with an untraditional length? Well, one way to make the new seem even newer is to refashion the old. And that's exactly what this poem does, appropriating the ballad into a short, snappy, new lyric.
Edna St. Vincent Millay may seem to have lived a looong time ago, but she actually lived in a world with plenty of electricity. So why would she use a candle as the central metaphor of her poem? Isn't that dated technology? Maybe Millay just had a thing for the good ol' days. But then again, maybe the candle functions as a perfect symbol: after all, Hamlet called life a "brief candle."
And if Shakespeare uses candles, then you know you're working in a pretty serious poetic tradition. Candles are common, which means everyone has some experience lighting one. Candles are natural (wax is from bees, remember?), so they're a fairly good substitute for natural human experience. And, with the advent of electricity, we tend to only use candles on special occasions—which makes them all the more striking in a poem.
You can't miss the reference to the candle in this poem. For one thing, it's the very first subject of the very first sentence in the poem. And if you missed it the first time around, the candle is also what every "it" in the rest of the poem (all three lines of it) refers to. We talk about it lots in the "Detailed Summary," but we'll give you a quick round-up here: candles have been used for, oh, a Very Long Time to represent human life—like since Shakespeare-time (remember how Othello snuffs out a candle before he snuffs out his wife?). And even before that, Bible time (when Matthew tells people not to hide their light under a bushel). You can read about both of those candles and their oh-so-interesting fates in Shmoopland, as well.
Candles have a natural end, like humans. And we often describe the time after death as a darkness, which is, well, sort of what happens when a candle goes out. So it's a natural go-to for any poet trying to discuss life (or death) in understandable terms.
Why does Millay pick such well-used imagery? Well, that's a more interesting question. There's something tongue-in-cheek about this entire poem, from its speaker to its meter to its symbols. Take a well-used symbol. Check. Then mess with it by making it do new things—like burn at both ends. It's gutsy, sure, but then, so is the poem itself.
Once again, Millay is pulling out some tried and true tricks here. The history of poetry is littered with apostrophes—moments when the speaker of a poem addresses an audience directly. Milton called upon the muses. Shakespeare called upon the muses. Coleridge directed his poetry at the sun. Millay does something a little different, though: instead of addressing some inspirational figure or a holy guiding principal, she directs her speaker's apostrophe in two directions: to both her friends and her foes.
When the speaker cries out in line 3, "But ah! my foes and oh my friends," she's drawing a pretty clear line in the sand. Either you're with her (her friend) or you're against her. And since we usually want to be on the good side of our literary speakers, chances are we're going to assume that we're her friends. That puts us in a pretty interesting position in relationship to her enemies. Are we supposed to hate them, too? You could think of this as an early version of Mean Girls—after all, the easiest way to get into a cool crowd is to point out someone else that isn't cool, right? By splitting the apostrophe, however, Millay leaves us slightly unsure of where we stand. Either way, though, we're clearly supposed to be dazzled.
"First Fig" is sort of like a Pixar film: sure, it's got dirty jokes, but only if you're adult enough to read into them. As we discuss in "Themes," this poem could easily be about Millay's bisexuality. But it could also be about death. Or love. Or just about any other big thing that structures our lives. Let's put it this way: you could read it in a third grade classroom and not get in any trouble at all.