“My Candle Burns at Both Ends.”

FIRST CUP OF COFFEE Still Sorting. When the movers left, we put things away anywhere, just to clear a space. Now we are sorting things and putting them where they belong. In the process, I keep finding books by authors I haven’t looked at for years and really need to spend some time with. Edna St Vincent Millay, for one.

Edna St. Vincent Millay, 1892-1950

Her poems have long been dismissed as second rate by the professors. Millay is too popular for them to take seriously. Also too understandable; her poems don’t need interpreting. She wrote rhymed, unfashionable metrical verse. And worst of all, she was an unabashed Romantic, which is out of style in our age of safe spaces and algorithms.

Nevertheless, she wrote some great poems: “Euclid alone has looked on beauty bare,” “What lips my lips have kisssed,” “When the Year Grows Old,” “Counting Out Rhyme,” “The Ballad of the Harp Weaver,” among others. She was careful about her poetry; careless about her life—and defiant about her choices: “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!” and then there is this taunting couplet; “Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand: / Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!” It’s fun to imagine Millay among our politically correct snowflakes, who can handle neither men nor meter.

Free versifiers don’t often express exuberance. Their lines, unlike Millay’s, never get to lift-off. Her “Recuerdo.” isn’t about some tenebrous modern insight that can’t be said plainly and must be symbolized. It’s about a night of wonderful foolishness.


We were very tired, we were very merry–
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
It was bare and bright, and smelled like a stable–
But we looked into a fire, we leaned across a table,
We lay on the hill-top underneath the moon;
And the whistles kept blowing, and the dawn came soon.

We were very tired, we were very merry–
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry;
And you ate an apple, and I ate a pear,
From a dozen of each we had bought somewhere;
And the sky went wan, and the wind came cold,
And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold.

We were very tired, we were very merry,
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
We hailed, “Good morrow, mother!” to a shawl covered head,
And bought a morning paper, which neither of us read;
And she wept, “God bless you!” for the apples and the pears,
And we gave her all our money but our subway fares.

Wake on the Ferry, John Sloan, 1871-1951. Depicted is the Staten Island Ferry, which the poet and her lover rode all night. Note the horses.


Now we go to bed at 9:30, but ah my foes, and oh my friends, in the last century. . .

4 thoughts on ““My Candle Burns at Both Ends.”

  1. Ah, dear Edna! Thank you for bringing her back to mind. “My candle burns at both ends…” is, I think, the most memorable and applicable of her poems. Though I have more pragmatism in me than she does, I too have a streak of romanticism and always loved the “shining palace built upon the sand” image.


    1. You might say Edna is a family tradition with us. Mary recited “The Ballad of the Harp Weaver” for a final exam in an oral interpretation of poetry course she took in college. Sarah, at Mary’s suggestion, recited the poem at an event at Corundu Jr. High organized by Floyd Holland, her English teacher. And our other daughter recited it in 5th or 6th grade!


  2. I love that poem! Edna is my kind of poet. Haven’t we all been there? “It was bare and bright and smelled like a stable.” Ah. Perfection.


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