Study Guide

First Fig Themes

  • Change

    Almost immediately after we learn about how stunning and original and unique and generally awesome our speaker's double-ended candle is, we learn, of course, that it's not going to last forever. And that leads us right smack into a whole tradition of poetry that bemoans the impermanence of things. Life ends. Love ends. Even ice cream melts far too quickly. Unlike some of those gloom-and-doom poems you've read in the past, though, "First Fig" focuses on the bright side—literally. Her light may change into darkness very soon, but for now, it's radiant.

    Questions About Change

    1. How does our knowledge that the light won't last change our impression of its value? How does it affect our impression of the speaker's ego? 
    2. Why do you think Millay sets a time limit for how long the candle will burn (less than the hours of night)? 
    3. How do you think the speaker feels about the candle not lasting very long? What in the poem gives you that impression? 
    4. Why do you think that Millay includes information about the candle's impending end so early in the poem?

    Chew on This

    The speaker of "First Fig" emphasizes that her light's brightness is more important than its duration. It's quality over quantity, folks.

    The short duration of the speaker's metaphorical light in "First Fig" makes its importance tinged with sadness. Sniff.

  • Language and Communication

    Sure, "First Fig" is intended to announce the speaker's personal achievements, but it's also a message to the world—her world, that is. And that world divides into two categories: friends and foes. How they receive her message—as an audacious and charming status update from a BFF or an all-too-annoying brag from a frenemy—depends on how her audience interprets her language. Even the clarity of her diction (the ease of her word choice) becomes a clue. Don't be fooled—our poet isn't choosing simple words because she hasn't made it to the polysyllabic part of the dictionary. Nope. This is definitely a communicative gesture, one intended to sound just as simple and as provocative as it actually does.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. How might this poem be read differently by the speaker's friends and her foes? 
    2. Do you think that Millay intends this poem to be a brag? Why or why not? 
    3. Do you think that Millay intends to charm her readers? Why or why not? 
    4. How would this poem be different if it used very complicated turns of phrase?

    Chew on This

    The simple words of this poem undercut the speaker's intention to sound special, because they seem ordinary. Extraordinatudinous.

    The simple words of this poem reinforce the speaker's claim to extraordinariness by delivering her message with complete clarity. Got it?

  • Pride

    There's no doubt about it—when the first poem in your first book of poems announces that you burn brightly and quickly, it's pretty easy to see that you think you're the cat's meow. And while Millay suffered from many things, lack of ego was not one of them. "First Fig" proclaims the artist's brilliance and the woman's provocativeness in no uncertain terms. Luckily, it's cheeky enough to also be entertaining. Forget endearing—that's for simpler, less exciting poets to worry about. Millay wants to dazzle.

    Questions About Pride

    1. The "candle" that this poem discusses could be a metaphor for many things. What do you think they might be?
    2. Why do you think that Millay calls the candle's light "lovely" instead of "amazing" or "miraculous" or even just "bright"? 
    3. Does addressing her foes head-on make the speaker seem confident that she's outshining them? Why or why not? 
    4. Does the speaker seem proud of the fact that her candle burns at both ends? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    The speaker's acknowledgement that her light won't last long makes it seem like she's humble about her brilliance. Aw, shucks.

    This poem works as a metaphor for literary production: even the brightest of literary stars tends to fall out of fashion very quickly. Sad.

  • Gender

    Edna St. Vincent Millay was a voracious lover of both women and men. Perhaps that's why many critics take "First Fig" as her attempt to proclaim upon her literary talent and her love life in one breath. The wonderful thing about metaphor is that you can get words to work overtime, creating multiple meanings in one short phrase. A candle that burns at both ends? That could be a way of thinking about a woman who delights in women and men. That raises a problem, because why would bisexuality mean that the speaker would burn out quicker than other lovers? Could it be the stigma attached to homosexuality in the early twentieth century? Millay herself gives us no answers, which, we're guessing, is part of her intention.

    Questions About Gender

    1. Do you think that "burning the candle at both ends" could be a declaration of sexual preference?
    2. Why do you think that bisexuality might be more complicated than heterosexuality or homosexuality for the speaker? 
    3. If this poem is thinking through gender, why do you think it doesn't do so explicitly? Why resort to metaphor?

    Chew on This

    Millay's cryptic reference to her sexuality in "First Fig" makes it clear that having an exciting love is more important than a single love. No settlin' down for this poet.

    By discussing her gender metaphorically, Millay's speaker is able to convey some of the complications of her own sexual preferences.