A Millay a Day…(#5)

I started this small appreciation of Millay’s work with the witty, exuberant ‘First Fig’ and I’m going to end the week with another brief poem from A Few Figs from Thistles:

Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand:
Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!


I’m a big fan of concision and firmly believe that a short poem can be just as resonant as a longer piece of writing, echoing like a stone dropped down a well. There’s something particularly pleasing about the slight tension between sentiment and form in this couplet. The house the speaker has is built upon a shifting landscape (referring us to proverbial warnings about castles built on sand) but the poem itself is solidly and neatly constructed in two thirteen syllable lines, the trochaic rhythm giving the words an emphatic bounce (I always want to read this poem out loud to savour it). We feel ‘carried away’ by the metre, dragged joyfully out to sea.

As The Poetry Foundation explain, poems like this which celebrate impermanence were controversial in 1920:

“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. These sentiments found expression in the opening poem of the collection, “First Fig,” beginning playfully with the line, “My candle burns at both ends.” Prudence, respectability, and constancy were denigrated in other poems of the volume. The cavalier attitude revealed in sonnets through lines like “Oh, think not I am faithful to a vow!” and “I shall forget you presently, my dear” was new, presenting the woman as player in the love game no less than the man and frankly accepting biological impulses in love affairs.”

The ‘shining palace’ joins the ‘lovely light’ of  the candle in ‘First Fig’, burning with defiance.



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