We discuss this in our "Symbols" section, but it's so important that we'll say it here, as well: history and literature are chock-full of people using candles as a symbol of …something—life, health, love, you name it. Someone's probably named a candle after the very thing you're thinking of. And that was before Bath and Body Works got into the picture.
Just when you think that this poem is another boring reference to candles and all their significance, our speaker pulls a fast one on us (pretty literally). That's because, before the line is even over, she's having her speaker do things that no safety-conscious candle-burner would ever contemplate. That's right. Her candle is lit at both ends.
The first line of this poem is just begging to be read metaphorically. Could it be that the speaker is living a wild life? Could it be that her candle (like her poetry) is going to shine twice as brightly as those boring old one-flame candles? Could it be (gasp) that Millay is referring to her very very active sex life? Read on to find out….
Although the rest of the lines in this poem divide into pretty regular couplets, with one eight-syllable line and one six-syllable line, check this line out:
My candle burnsat both ends.
If you count seven syllables, you're right.
And check out the middle of the line: both "burns" and "at" are accented (try saying it without accenting the "at," and you'll see what we mean). But wait… one syllable is missing, right? And since every other syllable in the poem is part of an iambicfoot, with one unaccented syllable followed by an accented syllable, the official Shmoop verdict is that the missing syllable is probably supposed to fit right after "burns." Now, why would Millay shorten the first line? Just to throw us off guard? Exactly.
In fact, it's sorta like the outrageous kid at a party—you know, the one who'll do the one thing that no one would have expected? The one who's always exciting, even if they're completely crazy and unpredictable? Well, that's Millay. And why should her poetry be any different?
For a longer account of how we think this fits into the poem's meter as a whole, check out our "Form and Meter" section.
It will not last the night;
There's a bittersweet feeling to this line, because the speaker is acknowledging her own limits frankly and succinctly. Bright things may burn twice as brightly, but they also burn twice as quickly. There's no such thing as living forever. And if you've ever tried to juggle two boyfriends or girlfriends at one time, you've probably figured out that at some point things come crashing down around your ears.
In other words, when you live Big you tend to burn out.
The fact that this line refers back to the candle from the first line suggests that we're probably dealing with one conceit here, a long extended metaphor. Again, our speaker doesn't give us too many clues about what the metaphor might be about, which is precisely what makes it so engaging. As readers, we can make it speak to us in several different ways.
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends–
Once our speaker has made her big pronouncement (line 1) and qualified it by recognizing its consequences (line 2), it's time to draw in her audience. And that's what we get in line three.
Our speaker addresses both her foes and her friends (in that order), asking them to pay attention not just to her light but to its bittersweet evanescence. In other words, she could be rubbing it in her foes' faces… but she's already acknowledged that her candle won't be shining that long. And she could be asking for her friends' sympathy… but the tone seems so confident and self-contained that it's pretty hard to read as a cry for help. What we're reading seems to be the words of a master showwoman at work, one who knows just how (and when) to reel in her audience. Of course, neither friend nor foe is present with the speaker at the time she calls out to them, so we've got a serious apostrophe on our hands. (Check out "Wordplay: Apostrophe" for more on this technique.)
Notice how the vowels really cluster together in this line? Try just saying the vowels together. It might sound something like this: "AH-OH-OH-EH." (Yup, reading poetry is a very, very good excuse to sound ridiculous in public. Just tell people you're learning.) Notice how the long Os cluster together in the middle of the poem? It creates a sonic mirroring that makes the line almost seem to fold in upon itself—as if the "foes" and the "friends" reflected each other. This might mean that they're not so very different, after all. (For more on sound in the poem, check out "Sound Check.")
It gives a lovely light!
Well, first things first: since there's only one sentence in the whole poem, we're pretty sure that "It" refers back to the candle mentioned in the very first line. Notice how tightly Millay weaves together her ideas: in the entire poem, there's only one adjective. And we only run into it at the very end.
Why does that matter? Well, as descriptive words, adjectives tend to help us understand things. They cast light upon both the speaker who's doing the describing and the thing described. And when there's only one adjective in the entire piece, chances are that we're going to pay even more attention to it than we might otherwise pay to words in a poem that's chock-full of adjectives. (Want an example? Check out our module on "Tintern Abbey" for a good comparison.)
Our speaker, as it turns out, has all kinds of confidence. She's so confident that she proclaims her own light as a "lovely" one.
Sure, it's got all kinds of limits (like, say, it's going to go out at any minute), but while it lasts, it's a sight to behold.