So. There I was, reading Kent’s post, and thinking about my ten favorite poems, and suddenly one I don’t like at all sprang unbidden into my mind. I have no idea why, in a not-terribly-welcome moment, it came to me (For All We Know, it’s simply that I’m contrary). But it’s the short poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay (what a mouthful) that goes:
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!
Sappy? I always thought so. But since I’m not minded, on general principle, to pay much attention to poetry written after about 1880, and since I thought I might be doing the lady wrong and that I might have gained some sense of critical appreciation in the last half-century, I looked her up. And noted that she was much known for her “activism.” Well, there you go. It seems she wrote some marvelous sonnets, had a mixed-up personal life, and perhaps (based on my rather slim acquaintance with her oeuvre) I have wronged her in my assessment of her literary accomplishments. And perhaps even the quatrain I’ve quoted above contains all sorts of veiled and interesting (but incomprehensible to a 64-year-old married lady of my modest accomplishments and interests) sexual implications that I just missed when I read it for the next to last time (yikes, it seems like Yesterday When I Was Young, but I suppose it was about 45 years ago). Maybe I’m just oblivious. Or Something.
The other day, though, being far less interested in Edna’s activism and proclivities than I am in the metaphor she employed, it didn’t take me long to start investigating the history and meaning of the phrase “burning the candle at both ends.” Where did it come from? Did people actually do it, and if so, why? For light? For heat? For show? And how has it come to mean what it currently does? This is what I found on phrases.org.uk:
Our current understanding of this phrase is of a life lived frenetically and unsustainably, working or enjoying oneself late into the night only to begin again early the next day. It didn’t having that meaning when it was first coined in the 18th century.
The ‘both ends’ then weren’t the ends of the day but were a literal reference to the two ends of a candle. Candles were useful and valuable (see “not worth the candle”) and the notion of waste suggested by lighting both ends at once implied reckless waste. This thought may well have been accentuated by the fact that candles may only be lit at both ends when held horizontally, which would cause them to drip and burn out quickly.
Nathan Bailey defined the term in his Dictionarium Britannicum, 1730, by which time the phrase had already been given a figurative interpretation and the ‘both ends’ were a husband and wife: “The Candle burns at both Ends. Said when Husband and Wife are both Spendthrifts.”
People being what they are, and not having changed much over the past several hundred (thousand?) years, it looks to me as if the thought of setting fire to, and burning up one’s resources this way, twice as fast as one should, has always had less to do with the practice of shining more light than it has to do with ostentation and a Big Spender complex. (On a strictly practical note, I can’t imagine why the vast majority of the populace, which could only afford to illuminate with cheap tallow candles, would even contemplate it–they’d end up with twice the drips, twice the grease, twice the smell, twice the smoke, in half the time, and almost certainly, at the end of the day, with more heat than light. Only those with the resources for sweet, clean-burning beeswax could generate Millay’s “lovely light,” and why on earth wouldn’t they just buy twice as many candles? I mean, really? An even more impressive display, right?)
So, having thought it through and applied my flawless feminine reason and logic to the matter, I still don’t like Edna’s little poem, and I think it’s not only historically inaccurate, but also that it misrepresents societal norms and human nature. So the score at this point is, RWKJ, 1: Edna, 0. Case closed.
Now, to the point of my post.
Yesterday I learned that a family friend from my childhood had passed away some time ago. Our families had fallen out of touch, but this lady will forever be associated in my mind with summer vacations in Prince Edward Island and Christmas in the States. She was born eighty-two years ago in Barry, Wales, about ten miles down the road from Tiger Bay and she was the same age as, and went to school with, one Miss Shirley Bassey.
Shirley Bassey, long known in the UK The Girl from Tiger Bay, was born in 1937, the daughter (perhaps) of a Nigerian immigrant and a Teeside (Yorkshire) woman who’d moved to Wales several years previously. Her early life was difficult and penurious, and she left school at fourteen, went to work at a local factory, and began singing in pubs and clubs. My friend’s recollection of her is that she was vivacious, mouthy, popular, and always had that certain “something,” generally known as “it.” (Funny what, and how much, can sometimes be conveyed in the least explicit of terms. And often, how much more compelling, when it is.) I doubt that my friend would have disputed the Wikipedia entry on Miss Shirley, which includes the paragraph:
Teachers and students alike at Moorland Road School noticed Bassey’s strong voice, but gave the pre-teen little encouragement: “. . . everyone told me to shut up. Even in the school choir the teacher kept telling me to back off till I was singing in the corridor!” A classmate recalled her singing the refrain “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” from Show Boat with such feeling that she made their teacher uncomfortable. After leaving Splott Secondary Modern School at the age of 14, Bassey found employment at the Curran Steels factory while singing in public houses and clubs in the evenings and on weekends.
I’ve always thought that what she refers to as “Early Shirley” shows the singer at her best, and that even at the time of her greatest worldwide success, as the Goldfinger girl in 1964, she’d begun to perfect the mannerisms and twitches that would, IMHO, soon turn her into a parody of herself. Of course, not all of it was her doing, and the Queen (who dubbed her “Dame Shirley” in 2000) didn’t seem to mind. My mother loved Shirley, too. But age and gravity catch up with us all sooner or later, even Shirley Bassey, and I don’t think she did herself any favors with her 2013 James Bond Tribute at the Academy Awards. YMMV on that.
Anyhoo, as I was enjoying my little trip down memory lane, recalling my late friend, thinking about Mum, and looking up some of Dame Shirley’s greatest hits, I came across this little gem (banned on British radio) from 1956, when the young lady was 19. I’m probably not the best person to judge whether or not there’s “something,” or “it” in play here (maybe ask the fellas in the front row of the orchestra, some of whose eyeballs look as if they’re about to fall out, and whose bemused expressions speak for themselves). Sometimes, what is perfectly obvious to the rest of the world is a complete mystery to me. I just think it’s utterly charming.
Talk about serendipity. Enjoy: