Study Guide

First Fig Quotes

  • Change

    at both ends (1)

    Even though we don't know that the speaker is aware of how quickly her candle will burn out yet, by the first line we're already thinking that there might be problems in the making. After all, candles don't last forever. And if they're lit on both ends, they last even less time.

     It will not last the night (2)

    Here's where the theme of transience gets hammered home in a big way. Our speaker doesn't beat around the bush. No, she just announces for everyone (including herself) that her brilliant light is going to go out… even before the time when it's supposed to be lighting the night. We get the sense that it's going out too soon—after all, night without candles is a pretty dark, scary affair.

  • Language and Communication

    First Fig (title)

    Why call a poem something completely unrelated to the content of the poem itself? Well, we're guessing that Millay intends us to think of the poem as part of a larger collection— and entitling it "First Fig" is a good way to make us curious about the second fig… and the third. That would keep us reading her poems, which is probably exactly what she wants, as well.

     But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends– (2)

    Notice how Millay includes interjections (Ah! Oh!) before she calls out to both the foes and the friends in this poem? That's a perfect way to make an address seem personal and informal while not actually making it directly personal. Interjections seem spontaneous—the sorts of words that you come up with when you're excited and want to point something out, or you're emotional and want to exclaim something out loud. And with two interjections, Millay manages to make both the friends and the foes seem equally important and included in the poem's message.

    But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends–
     It gives a lovely light! (3-4)

    After describing both the wonder of her brightly burning candle and its pitfalls (the dark night after it goes out, for starters), our speaker tells her audience what to think in no uncertain terms. She even includes an exclamation point so that we make no mistake about what we're supposed to think. Bright candles, however brief, are supposed to be awe-inspiring. And her confidence makes us pretty confident, as well.

  • Pride

    But ah! my foes and oh, my friends – (3)

    The fact that our speaker addresses both her enemies and her friends is a pretty good indication of her own sense of self-worth. It's not often that you address both parties together (unless, of course, you're the President of the United States delivering the State of the Union address). And we're betting that the president has a healthy ego, as well. Linking friends and foes together suggests that our speaker wants everyone to bask in her glory.

    lovely light (4)

    How often would you describe yourself in absolutely positive, 100% glowing terms? Probably not too often. We're taught to be humble, to downplay our own successes instead of bragging about them. No one likes the kid who goes around talking about the number of free throws he just made or the number of medals she just won. Millay, however, doesn't suffer from such bashfulness. When she describes the light in the poem, it's unqualifiedly "lovely."

    It will not last the night (2)

    Even the brevity of the candle becomes part of its allure. By proclaiming the shortness of her candle's light, our speaker seems to be turning a bad thing (a dark night) into a source of pride. Brilliance, however brief, seems worth it to her—which makes it seem all the more appealing to us.

  • Gender

    First Fig (title)

    Figs and women's bodies—need we say more? Check out the "Images" section for a discussion of the similarities between the two. Calling a poem "First Fig," then, could be a way to introduce a discussion of the poet's own bodily awareness.

    My candle (1)

    And just when we thought we were talking about the female body, Millay begins the poem with a pretty striking phallic reference. Candles, of course, look quite a bit like phalluses. So why call the candle "my candle"? Does this suggest that the speaker thinks of herself in phallic terms? And how does this connect to the fig of the title? Does she have both figs and phalluses? Big questions, folks. And there are no clear answers. But the tension is sure an interesting one.

    My candle burns at both ends; (1)

    And the complications keep coming. Just when we thought that the speaker was holding out a phallic symbol, the speaker's declaration that the candle burns at both ends confuses the symbol itself. A candle burning at one end could be thought of as a penis aroused, but a candle burning at both ends? That gets a bit more enigmatic. One interpretation could be that the speaker is describing her fire (in the words of The Doors) being lit by men and women.