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On "First Fig"

JoEllen Green Kaiser

Much of Millay’s work of the early 1920s seems on its surface more like the modernist "Spring" than the sentimental "Song of a Second April" [both from Second April]. Most strikingly, Millay attacked the sentimental construction of absent love in A Few Figs From Thistles and to a lesser extent in Second April. Her most famous poem, after all, does not mourn absent love but rejoices in love’s impermanence:

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!

While this "First Fig" marked Millay’s break from traditional sentimentality, however, it did not necessarily signal her embrace of modernism. In contradistinction to the modernist creed of impersonality enunciated by Eliot, Millay’s poetry remains personal. Her attitude toward love may not be that shared by her nineteenth-century predecessors, but she does share with them a belief in the centrality of love for poetry.

JoEllen Green Kaiser, "Displaced Modernism: Millay and the Triumph of Sentimentality" in Millay at 100: A Critical Reappraisal. Diane P. Freedman, ed. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1995; 33.

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