My Candle Burns at Both Ends; It Will Not Last the Night

Edna St. Vincent Millay? Samuel Hoffenstein? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: A candle burning at both ends provides magnificent radiance for a short time. The poet Edna St. Vincent Millay constructed a brilliant metaphorical verse based on this observation. Would you please help me to find a citation?

Quote Investigator: In June 1918 “Poetry: A Magazine of Verse” published a multipart work by Edna St. Vincent Millay titled “Figs from Thistles”. The initial section was called “First Fig”: 1

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!

Below are additional details and selected citations in chronological order.

The second section of “Figs from Thistles” was called “Second Fig”:

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

The total work contained five sections. The fourth was called “Thursday”, and it provided an illustration of the fickleness of love:

And if I loved you Wednesday,
Well, what is that to you?
I do not love you Thursday—
So much is true.

And why you come complaining
Is more than I can see.
I loved you Wednesday—yes—but what
Is that to me?

On June 9, 1918 the three sections above achieved wide circulation when they were reprinted in the “New York Tribune”. 2

On June 29, 1918 “The Literary Digest” of New York reprinted the first four sections of “Figs from Thistles”. 3

In 1928 screenwriter and poet Samuel Hoffenstein published a collection titled “Poems in Praise of Practically Nothing” which included a twelve part poem called “Songs of Fairly Utter Despair”. The eighth part was a four line verse that parodied “First Fig”. Hoffenstein’s first two lines were similar to Millay’s first and third lines. The final two lines were comical: 4

For all the lovely light begotten,
I’m paying now in feeling rotten.

Millay’s “First Fig” appeared in the 1938 edition of “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations”. 5

In conclusion, Edna St. Vincent Millay should receive credit for the verse she published in 1918.

Notes:

  1. 1918 June, Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, Edited by Harriet Monroe, Volume 11, Number 3, Figs from Thistles: First Fig by Edna St. Vincent Millay, Quote Page 130, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1918 June 9, New York Tribune, Section 3: Editorial and Special Articles, Figs From Thistles by Edna St. Vincent Millay, (From Poetry), Quote Page 2, Column 4, New York, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1918 June 29, The Literary Digest, Section: Current Poetry, Figs from Thistles: First Fig by Edna St. Vincent Millay, Quote age 36, Column 3, Funk & Wagnalls Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1928, Poems in Praise of Practically Nothing by Samuel Hoffenstein, Poem: Songs of Fairly Utter Despair, Part VIII, Start Page 189, Quote Page 193, Boni & Liveright, New York. (Verified with scans)
  5. 1938, Familiar Quotations by John Bartlett, Eleventh Edition, Edited by Christopher Morley and Louella D. Everett, Entry: Edna St. Vincent Millay, Quote Page 915, Column 2, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans)