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Edna St. Vincent Millay: Poems & Analysis

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  • 0:07 Edna St. Vincent Millay
  • 1:05 'First Fig'
  • 3:16 'What Lips My Lips…
  • 5:09 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote modernist poetry by combining traditional forms with new ideas. In this lesson, we'll take a look at two of Millay's poems and analyze them for form and ideas.

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Edna St. Vincent Millay was a famous modernist poet. The modernists changed the way poetry was written in the early 20th century, and Millay was no exception. Though some modernists preferred to do away with traditional meter and rhyme, Millay wrote in a traditional form; however, the topics of her poems were quite astonishing at the time.

Millay wrote poetry as a political act. That is, the topics she wrote about often dealt with important issues in society that Millay thought should be changed. She wrote antiwar poetry. She wrote about class issues. And, most often, she wrote poetry that was about freeing women from the roles society set for them. Specifically, many of her poems talked about women's sexuality as a thing to be celebrated and set free. This was a radical idea at a time when women had just been given the right to vote! Let's look closer at two of Millay's poems and how they reflect her ideas about women's lives.

'First Fig'

Perhaps Millay's most famous poem is called 'First Fig.' It's very short and seems very simple at first, though as we'll see, there's a lot of meaning in those few short lines.

'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!

'First Fig' is from a book of poems called A Few Figs from Thistles. In this book, Millay expresses the wish that women could be set free to live life and not worry about taking care of husband and children. Furthermore, Millay talks about having many sexual partners - not a topic that was considered proper for a woman back then.

In that context, it's easy to see that this poem is about living life to the fullest. The candle represents life, and it burns at both ends because the narrator is partying and living it up. But she recognizes that there's a downside that comes with that lifestyle: The candle will burn out quickly, and 'it will not last the night.' In other words, the good times won't last. Maybe this means that the narrator will die young, as many people who party hard do. Or maybe she's just talking about how eventually she will be forced to settle down into marriage and kids and be a good little housewife. Either way, she realizes that she can't keep living a party lifestyle forever. But Millay doesn't end the poem there. In the last two lines, she tells her audience that 'it gives a lovely light!' In other words, even if the good times don't last forever, they're still worth enjoying now.

Remember that Millay was writing in a time when society thought that a woman should grow up to be a 'good little girl,' and then marry her husband and quietly support him by keeping his house and having his children. Good girls did not party. They did not live reckless lifestyles. And, society believed, good girls actually wanted to settle down and be good housewives. What Millay does in this poem is expresses the other side of that: She writes about life from the perspective of a woman who enjoys partying and doesn't want to settle down. This was shocking to most people.

'What Lips My Lips Have Kissed'

Another poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay, called 'What Lips My Lips Have Kissed,' was also shocking to its readers. Let's read the poem and then analyze it.

'What Lips My Lips Have Kissed'

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,

I have forgotten, and what arms have lain

Under my head till morning; but the rain

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