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My Candle Burns At Both Ends...

By February 28, 2013

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Sex, jazz, literature - Edna St. Vincent MillayEdna St. Vincent Millay received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1923 for The Ballad of the Harp Weaver. Other works include: Renascence (1917) and Second April (1921). She was born on February 22, 1892. Read more about the life and works of Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Here are a few lines from Edna St. Vincent Millay:

"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."
Take a look at more quotes from Edna St. Vincent Millay.


February 23, 2010 at 6:19 pm
(1) moriah says:

just wondering…im doing a report on this edna millay woman..in refernce to this quote from “my candle burns at both ends”..does it mean that she loves both men and women and knows that it cannot last?
just wondering..i was analysing it for myself and it is going to bug me if i do not get the right definition of it…thanks

February 27, 2010 at 12:33 pm
(2) Noah says:

No. When someone says that their candle is burning at both ends it’s like saying that they are way overworked and that they do a lot. They wake up early in the morning when it’s dark and light the candle … then they light the other end when they stay up late at night. It has nothin to do with love.

March 1, 2010 at 4:01 am
(3) mary says:

surely the quote should be “My candle burns at both its ends” otherwise it doesn,t scan properly. Does anyone have a reliable copy of the poem?

March 1, 2010 at 9:14 pm
(4) Esther Lombardi says:

Well, that’s how Millay wrote it: “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!”

Here’s just one posting of the poem online: Modern American Poetry.

There’s been quite a bit of debate about the meaning of the lines. Some readers have taken the words at face value, while others have seen sexual innuendo. Still others simply see the lines as a representation/indication of a wild, free lifestyle–which would appear to be in keeping with her unconventional way of life. Dorothy Thompson described her as “a whimsical genius, sometimes…petulant and imperious… sometimes…stormy, turbulent, and as unreckonable as the sea…sometimes a lost and tragic soul.”

May 26, 2010 at 9:33 pm
(5) mike g says:

can it mean working yourself into an early death?

August 17, 2010 at 9:11 am
(6) Gene Stavis says:

This is one of my favorite examples of the power of poetry over prose. Instead of saying “The wisest course is not necessarily the best course”, Millay makes the thought alive and immortal by turning it into an unforgettable metaphor. To limit it to a particular specific subject like sex or work robs it of both it’s mystery and universality.

August 26, 2010 at 4:22 am
(7) a fire inside says:

what i get from this poem is that millay realizes that life is short and that her’s is a wild ride. so she must enjoy the ride while she can. i have found that most really gifted people are often haunted, ie self destructive, that their brilliance is a gift that hides a curse. but is it not better to burn out than to just fade away….

September 8, 2010 at 2:43 am
(8) mansi says:

I think its related to Life..comparing life with candle..like life is just too short to live…love…because one day we’ll be gone…just as in when candle from both ends will no longer burn after it finishes…that is what i think of from this poem..

October 26, 2010 at 11:58 am
(9) Charleston Lady says:

This poem is often used in the eulogies of children or young people who have died much too soon. Their “candle” (life) burned out so quickly, but the life that they lived and the joy they brought to others “gives a lovely light”.

December 10, 2010 at 8:16 pm
(10) Paul says:

“Burning the candle at both ends” is an expression that means living with impetuous eagerness. A candle burning at both ends simultaneously (not sequentially) will give out a lot of light but burn up in a hurry. Usually this is a metaphor for dissipation, excess, overindulgence, libertinism.

January 4, 2011 at 10:30 am
(11) Mary says:

I think of a workaholic and/or a very busy person who hits the floor running everyday. But why does she mention her foes? Why would she care if they know that ‘it gives a lovely light?’ Any thoughts?

February 15, 2011 at 1:52 pm
(12) Mare says:

Upon hearing of the death of Ava Gardner, Gregory Peck recited this poem in so doing he describes a perfect epitome.

February 17, 2011 at 3:33 am
(13) Phil says:

Number 4 and 8 got it. It is life. That includes all aspects of it. Wild, crazy, passionate, fun, pain, love, solitude, etc. It is short, live it to the fullest. Do not let others stop you, whether it be your friends or foes! You worry about them, or they control. True friends will stay by you regardless, foes will try to belittle you. Do not let them stop you from your own pursuits.

April 12, 2011 at 11:43 am
(14) Rachael says:

Though it is quite ambiguous, my view on this is that the candle is pure symbolism of life. If you imagine a candle burning at both ends. Now imagine one end burning; this is you personal life, progressing, developing, ‘burning’ so to speak. Now imagine the other end. This is symbollic in as much as it suggests that we have no control over the length of our lives and there is a continual force against living that is obviously death. Likening this to terminal illness, for example, is that death is continually chasing life. They race against each other. Now the ‘foes’ and ‘friends’ part is suggesting that life, personified, doesn’t care what firends or enemies you have, if you live a good life, your light will shine, no matter how short or long you may live. I personally think it’s an excellent quote. To understand my interpretation, watch the film ‘Candles on Bay Street’. It is excellent!

July 30, 2011 at 3:48 am
(15) Kim says:

I believe Paul (10) comes the closest to understanding Milay’s intent of the image of a candle burning at both ends. Let me explain why:
The only way for a candle to burn at both ends is to hold the candle HORIZONTALLY. As both flames burn, they make huge, 4-6″ flames because as the wick burns from both ends, it very quickly melts the wax, exposing much larger amounts of wick to burn which results in very large flames. As the two flames burn, they quickly move toward the center of the candle. Thus, instead of a candle lasting for many hours (as when in a vertical position), in a horizontal position it may only last a few minutes until the two flames meet, and the candle used up. Milay was born at a time long before ubiquitous electric lighting when she surely had experience with candles and the way they burn in their normal, vertical position, and the way they burn when held in a horizontal position. I see the candle, yes, is a metaphor for life. However, I see Milay contrasting life lived in a conservative way (the candle in a vertical position) with life lived in a wanton way (the candle held horizontally and burning at both ends) so that the candle only lasts a very few minutes.
Her use of the word “lovely” in reference to the huge flame of a horizontal candle is the literary technique of understatement which was easily understood by her audience in the 1920s, many of whom had probably accidentally held a candle horizontally, wasting many precious minutes of usable light from the candle. So, too, is her comment “. . . it will not last the night;” another example of understatement which her 1920s audience quickly understood.
A candle burning at both ends does, indeed, light up a room in an amazing way, albeit for a very, very short time. Is it worth it? Her foes would say, “Absolutely not!” Her friends, however, would say, “Absolutely!”

August 29, 2011 at 12:59 pm
(16) Ashley says:

I think what she’s saying is that you can live life conservatively, doing things like pressing elevator buttons with your elbows and the like, or you can make the most of what you have, take risks and have adventures, even though you will most likely not live as long as the more cautious people. The ‘oh my foes, and oh my friends’ part is saying that, be you friend or foe, whether you agree or disagree, she believes it to be worth it, and if you disagree it doesn’t matter to her.

November 26, 2011 at 5:57 am
(17) Ellen L. VanSlyke says:

I have loved Millay’s work since I was a young girl and, at some point, read a biography in which was said Millay had been reprimanded by her employer when she was writing for Vanity Fair. The complaint was that she stayed up too late visiting in the establishments and was not meeting her deadlines. Her work was due but she, once again, had nothing. I read that this poem was Millay’s almost instant response to the reprimand. She sat down and quickly penned it. Millay was enjoying the night life and trying to respond to the demands of business at the same time. Her candle, a metephor for life, was burning at both ends and, though she knew it was not a wise life style, she was enjoying it for the most part. Be you involved as friend or disapproving as foe, the life style as far as Millay was concerned certainly did produce a lovely light.

December 12, 2011 at 4:35 pm
(18) Sarah says:

Millay was popular after WWI, especially among the Lost Generation (the Bohemians). She was disillusioned with life, realizing that the ideals of the progressives would never come true (my candle burns at both ends). She decided to indulge in pleasure since she was going down anyways (it gives a lovely light). This is the historical interpretation, at least.

February 20, 2012 at 3:41 pm
(19) Aubrey says:

It means her life may be short but she is making memories that will make it beautiful no matter how long it is. She is saying she doesn’t care if her life is short or long, she doesn’t care if it lasts, she just wants it to be beautiful and have amazing memories.

March 12, 2012 at 2:09 pm
(20) Alisha says:

As with all poetry, I think when you read a poem it either resonates or it doesn’t. I don’t think anyone can say it means this or it means that. We can only say I take it to mean… because to me it resonates in this way. Be it life itself or her reflecting on death or her sexuality, to me it resonates live your life your way and let no one hate you for your chocies.

May 27, 2012 at 3:09 pm
(21) jp says:

When i read this poem it struck me big time..Like all of you it made me feel that this represents who i am. Some based it on gender and others on how they are living their lives..But for me when i absorbed and really felt what she wanted to share..it gave me the feeling that she lit a light for her friends(symbol of warmth and life) and another for her enemies(argument,hate,diffrences)..and for me,that lovely light that she gave that fire is “LOVE”. Nothing beats love :D

July 27, 2012 at 11:09 pm
(22) red says:

What I am pretty sure as to it’s meaning is: My candle burns at both ends – If you burn a candle normally it burns only so long. If you burn it from both ends it burns twice as fast. Just like in life if you live the straight and narrow you live normally. If you live life against the grain you burn your candle at both ends. Meaning, you take chances. You go past the normal rules of life. A risk taker. The part about it gives a lovely light means you are OK with the outcome regardless if you know right from wrong. You don’t care about right or wrong, anymore.

November 2, 2012 at 8:21 am
(23) The RainMan says:

I memorized this poem many years ago and have quoted it many times. The recipients of my garrulousness have queried me at length as to my meaning. I explain that these were the thoughts of Ms Millay back in the days of Prohibition, not my thoughts even though I agreed with the esteemed poet. Hence, I have been involved in many lively discussions regarding her meaning. All of the comments here are interesting and I believe that most have figured out that any candle burning at both ends surely must be held horizontally and, consequently, burns much more quickly than twice its normal speed. Anyone who has dabbled in such a lifestyle knows just how thrilling it can be. I know. I do not think she meant that doing so would shorten your life nor do I think she was bisexual. Rather I think she was writing about the unexpected excitement one might receive by living in the Fast Lane. There have been other attempts to portray similar feelings: Life is a system of risks and rewards; take no risks, receive no rewards. My late, sensation-seeking brother, Bill, told me when I was but a youngster: Behold the turtle, he never gets anywhere unless he sticks his neck out. He also told me that in my search for the woman I wanted to spend the rest of my life with to leave no stone unturned. Having followed this sage advice, I usually found myself burning said candle at both ends. Ms Millar was correct; It gives a lovely light. By the way, that wise mentor brother of mine also believed that “life” is like a game of five card stud only with a five card draw.

February 15, 2013 at 2:06 pm
(24) Gary Zimmer says:

Edna St Vincent Millay’s ‘candle’ ,,,wonderful lines from an incredibly gifted poet..she would laugh at those attempting to infuse hidden meaning into her work…if you know anything about the way she lived her life (as the Dorothy Thompson ‘Millay’ insight below speaks of this wild one) you know that her meaning was simply…’there is no road that I will ever resist…but each journey depletes my essence’…she shared the flame with us for eternity …how fortunate for all of us….

September 22, 2013 at 8:06 am
(25) Gale says:

Wow. I enjoyed reading all the comments and have always loved this poem. My mom quoted much poetry as I was growing up hence giving me a love of it. I was truly blessed.
I looked this one up today as I had recently quoted it in regards to my very busy life. Could be overwhelming at times but I love living while I am alive. The end will always come too soon but in the meantime it does give a lovely light to seize the day and go for it. Thank you to all the comment contributors who have made me open my mind and think for a while.
When I have time I am going to research some of the other poems I love to see what is hidden there.

November 21, 2013 at 10:51 pm
(26) carl says:

The meaning of the poem is living a fast life, or living life in the fast lane . When this happens you don’t get the proper rest, but you have fun doing it.( Hence) the lovely light.

December 4, 2013 at 6:24 pm
(27) Susan Robinson says:

The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long.

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