For my birthday this year, my good friend Alan bought me a beautiful copy of the Selected Poems of Edna St Vincent Millay, a poet I’ve admired and adored for many years.
If you don’t know anything about Millay, let me give you a short precis: she was very f*cking cool. A Pulitzer prize-winning poet who lived from 1892 to 1950, Edna was frank about her sexuality, adept with form, politically active and one of the most skilful sonnet writers of the twentieth century. From her home in Greenwich Village, she wrote short stories under a pseudonym, drew satirical sketches for Vanity Fair, fell in love often and shunned domesticity. She suffered from shyness and anxiety but was a riveting reader of her work. Her 1934 collection, Wine From These Grapes contained a sequence (‘Epitaph for the Race of Man’) which prophesied the fall of the whole human race. But she’s perhaps best known for short, fragment-poems like the aphoristic ‘First Fig’:
My candle burns at both ends;
it will not last the night;
but ah, my foes, and oh, my friends –
it gives a lovely light!
Last week in Hull, I took part in Radio 3’s Free Thinking, discussing the ‘carpe diem’ message of Andrew Marvell’s rhetorical masterpiece ‘To His Coy Mistress’. But to me, ‘First Fig’ will always be the most memorable poetic celebration of the here-and-now, the urge to ‘live fast and die young’. In four, spare lines, Millay both mourns and celebrates the brief nature of our existence and the briefer nature of our pleasure – the ‘lovely light’ left fizzing at the end of the poem, lit further by the upside-down-candle of the exclamation mark. I love a poet who isn’t afraid to exclaim. The punctuation in ‘First Fig’ does so much work. The dash is reminiscent of Emily Dickinson, but the syntax of the third line is pure Millay: there’s a confidence in using both ‘ah’ and ‘oh’ in the same short expression, a heady, breathless energy. It’s also interesting to note that the ‘foes’ come first while the friends are saved for last, their presence emphasised by the line break.
For the next seven days, I’m going to be sharing ‘A Millay a Day’, talking about a different poem from the Selected that I admire. I hope you’ll want to read along with me….. A Millay a day keeps the doctor away. Undoubtedly.