This morning I read C P Cavafy’s poem Candles (below), immediately thought of Edna St Vincent Millay’s poem about candles (also below), reflected on the image of candles, and searched for other places where candles are important in poetry.
Candles can stand for days, as in Cavafy’s poem, years, as on birthday cakes, and the brevity and fragility of life. Immediately the candle is lit it begins to shrink, and a stray wind or a malignant breath can snuff it out. While it burns it can cast a beautiful light (“Better to light a candle than live in brightness,” Einstein), but once burnt out it’s gone completely.
And you do have the choice, as in St Vincent Millay’s, of burning the candle at both ends, meaning it will be brighter but also be gone more quickly. St Vincent Millay made the choice to burn her candle at both ends.
I was surprisingly unsuccessful with my search for candles in poems. I started with Keats and was horrified to find that my search found first a scented candle company called Eve of St Agnes, one of my favourite poems: “The name of our company and the inspiration for our natural skincare, luxury toiletries and scented candles comes from the poetry of John Keats.” I could find no reference to candles in Keats’s poems. Even scrolling right through Eve of St Agnes, but surely there must be: Keats’s life seems more than any other to reflect the bright burning but short lived candle. Nor could I find any reference in Shelley.
Then to Shakespeare, and I found at once one of my favourite quotes: “Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” I remember Paul Schofield reciting that line from Macbeth. And Portia’s speech where the candle signifies a good deed: “How far that little candle throws its beams! So shines a good deed in a naughty world.” (This quote made me think of Wiliam Blake’s great saying: “He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars: general Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite, and flatterer, for Art and Science cannot exist but in minutely organized Particulars.”)
I did find a poem by Silvia Plath called Candles, but I didn’t think it one of her best. (I must read it again.) I did, however, find a beautiful poem by Wallace Stevens (also below), a difficult poet but one who repays the effort of reading him. Here the “highest candle” is God.
C P Cavafy
Days to come stand in front of us
like a row of lighted candles—
golden, warm, and vivid candles.
Days gone by fall behind us,
a gloomy line of snuffed-out candles;
the nearest are smoking still,
cold, melted, and bent.
I don’t want to look at them: their shape saddens me,
and it saddens me to remember their original light.
I look ahead at my lighted candles.
I don’t want to turn for fear of seeing, terrified,
how quickly that dark line gets longer,
how quickly the snuffed-out candles proliferate.
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!
Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour
Light the first light of evening, as in a room
In which we rest and, for small reason,
Think the world imagined is the ultimate good.
This is, therefore, the intensest rendezvous.
It is in that thought that we collect ourselves,
Out of all the indifferences, into one thing:
Within a single thing, a single shawl
Wrapped tightly round us, since we are poor, a warmth,
A light, a power, the miraculous influence.
Here, now, we forget each other and ourselves.
We feel the obscurity of an order, a whole,
A knowledge, that which arranged the rendezvous.
Within its vital boundary, in the mind.
We say God and the imagination are one…
How high that highest candle lights the dark.
Out of this same light, out of the central mind,
We make a dwelling in the evening air,
In which being there together is enough.