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!
I have seen this poem reproduced twice on merchandise, attributed to two different male poets.
Millay, called Vincent by her friends, is the kind of example I often feel I need of a person who was able to live a successfully feminist, queer, artistic life. By which I don’t mean that her life was without its struggles or its sorrows, but that she found a way to continue to be herself, when that self did not fit the accepted template. There is a short biography at Poets.org with links to all kinds of other material.
“Pity me that the heart is slow to learn / What the swift mind beholds at every turn.”
Millay’s poems have a simplicity that has probably contributed to their neglect as works of art. Reading them can feel effortless, not like the hard work we expect experiencing poetry to be. Of course, what that really shows is the care with which they are crafted. You can look up many of her pieces here at Poem Hunter. She combines the grace of Christina Rossetti with the wit of Ogden Nash.
At the time of hurricane Katrina I remember reading verse X of her “Epitaph for the Race of Man” and thinking about the way literature probably intended metaphorically can sometimes fit the literal situation so keenly. Being an Australian woman this past few weeks, I am now feeling the metaphorical impact of the same poem:
The broken dike, the levee washed away,
The good fields flooded and the cattle drowned,
Estranged and treacherous all the faithful ground,
And nothing left but floating disarray
Of tree and home uprooted, – was this the day
Man dropped upon his shadow without a sound
And died, having laboured well and having found
His burden heavier than a quilt of clay?
No, no. I saw him when the sun had set
In water, leaning on his single oar
Above his garden faintly glimmering yet…
There bulked the plough, here washed the updrifted weeds…
And scull across his roof and make for shore,
With twisted face and pocket full of seeds.
She also wrote the most perfect post-coital brush-off, in sonnet form, no less. It seems just the thing to sign off with:
I, being born a woman and distressed
By all the needs and notions of my kind,
Am urged by your propinquity to find
Your person fair, and feel a certain zest
To bear your body’s weight upon my breast:
So subtly is the fume of life designed,
To clarify the pulse and cloud the mind,
And leave me once again undone, possessed.
Think not for this, however, the poor treason
Of my stout blood against my staggering brain,
I shall remember you with love, or season
My scorn with pity, — let me make it plain:
I find this frenzy insufficient reason
For conversation when we meet again.