A Few Figs from Thistles by Edna St. Vincent Millay (1921)

Presented here is the full text of A Few Figs from Thistles: Poems and Sonnets by Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892 – 1950). A Few Figs from Thistles was her second collection, published in 1921. 

As a poet, Millay is considered as a major twentieth-century figure in the genre. Wildly popular, and actually famous as a poet in her lifetime, she’s no longer as widely read and studied, though still well regarded in the field of poetry.

The poetry in this collection explored love and female sexuality, among other themes. In the poems, including the oft-quoted “First Fig,” Millay both celebrates and satirizes herself.

Here are a few reviews, analyses, and commentaries on Millay’s inaugural published work, which is in the public domain:

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See also: 12 Poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay
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A Few Figs from Thistles (1921) – full text

First Fig

  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!

. . . . . . . . .

Second Fig

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

 

. . . . . . . . .

Recuerdo

  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 a 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 pears,
  And we gave her all our money but our subway fares.

. . . . . . . . .

Thursday

  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?

. . . . . . . . .

To the Not Impossible Him

  How shall I know, unless I go
    To Cairo and Cathay,
  Whether or not this blessed spot
    Is blest in every way?

  Now it may be, the flower for me
    Is this beneath my nose;
  How shall I tell, unless I smell
    The Carthaginian rose?

  The fabric of my faithful love
    No power shall dim or ravel
  Whilst I stay here,—but oh, my dear,
    If I should ever travel!

 

. . . . . . . . .

Macdougal Street

  As I went walking up and down to take the evening air,
    (Sweet to meet upon the street, why must I be so shy?)
  I saw him lay his hand upon her torn black hair;
    (“Little dirty Latin child, let the lady by!”)

  The women squatting on the stoops were slovenly and fat,
    (Lay me out in organdie, lay me out in lawn!)
  And everywhere I stepped there was a baby or a cat;
    (Lord God in Heaven, will it never be dawn?)

  The fruit-carts and clam-carts were ribald as a fair,
    (Pink nets and wet shells trodden under heel)
  She had haggled from the fruit-man of his rotting ware;
    (I shall never get to sleep, the way I feel!)

  He walked like a king through the filth and the clutter,
    (Sweet to meet upon the street, why did you glance me by?)
  But he caught the quaint Italian quip she flung him from the gutter;
    (What can there be to cry about that I should lie and cry?)

  He laid his darling hand upon her little black head,
    (I wish I were a ragged child with ear-rings in my ears!)
  And he said she was a baggage to have said what she had said;
    (Truly I shall be ill unless I stop these tears!)

. . . . . . . . .

The Singing-Woman from the Wood’s Edge

  What should I be but a prophet and a liar,
  Whose mother was a leprechaun, whose father was a friar?
  Teethed on a crucifix and cradled under water,
  What should I be but the fiend’s god-daughter?

  And who should be my playmates but the adder and the frog,
  That was got beneath a furze-bush and born in a bog?
  And what should be my singing, that was christened at an altar,
  But Aves and Credos and Psalms out of the Psalter?

  You will see such webs on the wet grass, maybe,
  As a pixie-mother weaves for her baby,
  You will find such flame at the wave’s weedy ebb
  As flashes in the meshes of a mer-mother’s web,

  But there comes to birth no common spawn
  From the love of a priest for a leprechaun,
  And you never have seen and you never will see
  Such things as the things that swaddled me!

  After all’s said and after all’s done,
  What should I be but a harlot and a nun?

  In through the bushes, on any foggy day,
  My Da would come a-swishing of the drops away,
  With a prayer for my death and a groan for my birth,
  A-mumbling of his beads for all that he was worth.

  And there’d sit my Ma, with her knees beneath her chin,
  A-looking in his face and a-drinking of it in,
  And a-marking in the moss some funny little saying
  That would mean just the opposite of all that he was praying!

  He taught me the holy-talk of Vesper and of Matin,
  He heard me my Greek and he heard me my Latin,
  He blessed me and crossed me to keep my soul from evil,
  And we watched him out of sight, and we conjured up the devil!

  Oh, the things I haven’t seen and the things I haven’t known.
  What with hedges and ditches till after I was grown,
  And yanked both ways by my mother and my father,
  With a “Which would you better?” and a “Which would you rather?”

  With him for a sire and her for a dam,
  What should I be but just what I am?

 

. . . . . . . . .

She Is Overheard Singing

  Oh, Prue she has a patient man,
    And Joan a gentle lover,
  And Agatha’s Arth’ is a hug-the-hearth,—
    But my true love’s a rover!

  Mig, her man’s as good as cheese
    And honest as a briar,
  Sue tells her love what he’s thinking of,—
    But my dear lad’s a liar!

  Oh, Sue and Prue and Agatha
    Are thick with Mig and Joan!
  They bite their threads and shake their heads
    And gnaw my name like a bone;

  And Prue says, “Mine’s a patient man,
    As never snaps me up,”
  And Agatha, “Arth’ is a hug-the-hearth,
    Could live content in a cup;”

  Sue’s man’s mind is like good jell—
    All one colour, and clear—
  And Mig’s no call to think at all
    What’s to come next year,

  While Joan makes boast of a gentle lad,
    That’s troubled with that and this;—
  But they all would give the life they live
    For a look from the man I kiss!

  Cold he slants his eyes about,
    And few enough’s his choice,—
  Though he’d slip me clean for a nun, or a queen,
    Or a beggar with knots in her voice,—

  And Agatha will turn awake
    While her good man sleeps sound,
  And Mig and Sue and Joan and Prue
    Will hear the clock strike round,

  For Prue she has a patient man,
    As asks not when or why,
  And Mig and Sue have naught to do
    But peep who’s passing by,

  Joan is paired with a putterer
    That bastes and tastes and salts,
  And Agatha’s Arth’ is a hug-the-hearth,—
    But my true love is false!

 

. . . . . . . . .

The Prisoner

  All right,
  Go ahead!
  What’s in a name?
  I guess I’ll be locked into
  As much as I’m locked out of!

. . . . . . . . .

The Unexplorer

  There was a road ran past our house
  Too lovely to explore.
  I asked my mother once—she said
  That if you followed where it led
  It brought you to the milk-man’s door.
  (That’s why I have not traveled more.)

. . . . . . . . .

Grown-up

  Was it for this I uttered prayers,
  And sobbed and cursed and kicked the stairs,
  That now, domestic as a plate,
  I should retire at half-past eight?

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The Penitent

  I had a little Sorrow,
    Born of a little Sin,
  I found a room all damp with gloom
    And shut us all within;
  And, “Little Sorrow, weep,” said I,
    “And, Little Sin, pray God to die,
  And I upon the floor will lie
    And think how bad I’ve been!”

  Alas for pious planning—
    It mattered not a whit!
  As far as gloom went in that room,
    The lamp might have been lit!
  My little Sorrow would not weep,
    My little Sin would go to sleep—
  To save my soul I could not keep
    My graceless mind on it!

  So up I got in anger,
    And took a book I had,
  And put a ribbon on my hair
    To please a passing lad,
  And, “One thing there’s no getting by—
  I’ve been a wicked girl,” said I;
  “But if I can’t be sorry, why,
    I might as well be glad!”

 

. . . . . . . . .

Daphne

  Why do you follow me?—
  Any moment I can be
  Nothing but a laurel-tree.

  Any moment of the chase
  I can leave you in my place
  A pink bough for your embrace.

  Yet if over hill and hollow
  Still it is your will to follow,
  I am off;—to heel, Apollo!

. . . . . . . . .

Portrait by a Neighbor

  Before she has her floor swept
    Or her dishes done,
  Any day you’ll find her
    A-sunning in the sun!

  It’s long after midnight
    Her key’s in the lock,
  And you never see her chimney smoke
    Till past ten o’clock!

  She digs in her garden
    With a shovel and a spoon,
  She weeds her lazy lettuce
    By the light of the moon,

  She walks up the walk
    Like a woman in a dream,
  She forgets she borrowed butter
    And pays you back cream!

  Her lawn looks like a meadow,
    And if she mows the place
  She leaves the clover standing
    And the Queen Anne’s lace!

. . . . . . . . .

Midnight Oil

  Cut if you will, with Sleep’s dull knife,
    Each day to half its length, my friend,—
  The years that Time takes off my life,
    He’ll take from off the other end!

. . . . . . . . .

The Merry Maid

  Oh, I am grown so free from care
    Since my heart broke!
  I set my throat against the air,
    I laugh at simple folk!

  There’s little kind and little fair
    Is worth its weight in smoke
  To me, that’s grown so free from care
    Since my heart broke!

  Lass, if to sleep you would repair
    As peaceful as you woke,
  Best not besiege your lover there
    For just the words he spoke
  To me, that’s grown so free from care
    Since my heart broke!

 

. . . . . . . . .

To Kathleen

  Still must the poet as of old,
  In barren attic bleak and cold,
  Starve, freeze, and fashion verses to
  Such things as flowers and song and you;

  Still as of old his being give
  In Beauty’s name, while she may live,
  Beauty that may not die as long
  As there are flowers and you and song.

. . . . . . . . .

To S. M.

If he should lie a-dying

  I am not willing you should go
  Into the earth, where Helen went;
  She is awake by now, I know.
  Where Cleopatra’s anklets rust
  You will not lie with my consent;
  And Sappho is a roving dust;
  Cressid could love again; Dido,
  Rotted in state, is restless still:
  You leave me much against my will.

. . . . . . . . .

The Philosopher

  And what are you that, wanting you
    I should be kept awake
  As many nights as there are days
    With weeping for your sake?

  And what are you that, missing you,
    As many days as crawl
  I should be listening to the wind
    And looking at the wall?

  I know a man that’s a braver man
    And twenty men as kind,
  And what are you, that you should be
    The one man in my mind?

  Yet women’s ways are witless ways,
    As any sage will tell,—
  And what am I, that I should love
    So wisely and so well?

 

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Four Sonnets

I

  Love, though for this you riddle me with darts,
  And drag me at your chariot till I die,—
  Oh, heavy prince! Oh, panderer of hearts!—
  Yet hear me tell how in their throats they lie
  Who shout you mighty: thick about my hair
  Day in, day out, your ominous arrows purr
  Who still am free, unto no querulous care
  A fool, and in no temple worshiper!
  I, that have bared me to your quiver’s fire,
  Lifted my face into its puny rain,
  Do wreathe you Impotent to Evoke Desire
  As you are Powerless to Elicit Pain!
  (Now will the god, for blasphemy so brave,
  Punish me, surely, with the shaft I crave!)

II

  I think I should have loved you presently,
  And given in earnest words I flung in jest;
  And lifted honest eyes for you to see,
  And caught your hand against my cheek and breast;
  And all my pretty follies flung aside
  That won you to me, and beneath your gaze,
  Naked of reticence and shorn of pride,
  Spread like a chart my little wicked ways.
  I, that had been to you, had you remained,
  But one more waking from a recurrent dream,
  Cherish no less the certain stakes I gained,
  And walk your memory’s halls, austere, supreme,
  A ghost in marble of a girl you knew
  Who would have loved you in a day or two.

III

  Oh, think not I am faithful to a vow!
  Faithless am I save to love’s self alone.
  Were you not lovely I would leave you now;
  After the feet of beauty fly my own.
  Were you not still my hunger’s rarest food,
  And water ever to my wildest thirst,
  I would desert you—think not but I would!—
  And seek another as I sought you first.
  But you are mobile as the veering air,
  And all your charms more changeful than the tide,
  Wherefore to be inconstant is no care:
  I have but to continue at your side.
  So wanton, light and false, my love, are you,
  I am most faithless when I most am true.

IV

  I shall forget you presently, my dear,
  So make the most of this, your little day,
  Your little month, your little half a year,
  Ere I forget, or die, or move away,
  And we are done forever; by and by
  I shall forget you, as I said, but now,
  If you entreat me with your loveliest lie
  I will protest you with my favorite vow.
  I would indeed that love were longer-lived,
  And oaths were not so brittle as they are,
  But so it is, and nature has contrived
  To struggle on without a break thus far,—
  Whether or not we find what we are seeking
  Is idle, biologically speaking.

 

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