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Poem of the Week: Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “First Fig”

Before I delve in “First Fig” included in Millay’s A Few Figs from Thistles“a volume of poetry which drew much attention for its controversial descriptions of female sexuality and feminism”–I want to approach this poem from the common ground of poet to poet and poem to poem.

Most poets at some point can relate to the sentiments expressed in Millay’s “First Fig.” I found myself feeling as if “my [own] candle burn[ed] at both ends” as I was reading about Millay last week. When one is suffering from food poisoning, it certainly feels as if one “will not last the night.” As life continues with appointments and home improvement projects that delay the routine tasks of the week and require their completion on the cherished weekend, it can be difficult to see the “lovely light.” I certainly felt as if the wax holding my life together was melting away and that my light was waning with my fatigue. I was burned out. I felt I had nothing left to give. Anything I seemed to be able to give threatened to be less than lovely.

We all face these moments, and some of them turn into months and years. We don’t deal with these moments in the same way.

We don’t consider “First Fig” the same way either. We can approach “First Fig” from to perspectives. . .

the serious traditional. . .

A Few Figs from Thistles, published in 1920, caused consternation among some of her critics and provided the basis for the so-called “Millay legend” of madcap youth and rebellion. Whereas the earlier “Renascence” portrays the transformation of a soul that has taken on the omniscience of God, concluding that the dimensions of one’s life are determined by sympathy of heart and elevation of soul, the poems in A Few Figs from Thistles negate this philosophic idealism with flippancy, cynicism, and frankness.

From Edna St. Vincent Millay’s biography at Poetry Foundation

. . .or the humorous contemporary.

As a humorist and satirist, Millay expressed in Figs the postwar feelings of young people, their rebellion against tradition, and their mood of freedom symbolized for many women by bobbed hair. 

From Edna St. Vincent Millay’s biography at Poetry Foundation

We may find ourselves doing as Millay did: asking for advice and not taking it as well as appreciating our mistakes for the inspiration they do give. Even in tragedy, we can understand that there cannot be light without darkness. We may not ask for what we are given, but once received, we must discern how to share what we have learned with others. Perhaps, it is because of our own ends burning away that we do, in the end, shine brighter.

“Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. ”

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Millay dealt with chronic illness and rehabilitation after a car accident. She struggled with addictive behaviors. Her beliefs about feminism and politics affected her personal relationships. Somehow she found a way to write and create poetry that has made her, in a sense, immortal.

I’ll admit, that as a poet, I can relate to that ideal. But, in living out the poem of life, I have a different perspective when I read “First Fig.”

I am grateful that most of my ups and downs can be managed by daily meditating on Scripture, praying for others dealing with more than I am, using my creative gifts to encourage myself and others, and consuming medicinal amounts of coffee and chocolate. But, in a specific moment several years ago when I came to the end of myself, it wasn’t trusting prescription medication, psychological therapy, or reliance on family and friends that saved me. It was trusting in God alone. It was in realizing that He is the “love[liest] light” there is.

Certainly, I could believe it is all about my candle. But, I don’t. I believe in the Light that must shine through, that any immortality goes beyond any “little song” or fig that I might write. In the end, that is what matters most.

Categories: poem of the week Poetry

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