Friday, October 18, 2013

Poetry Friday -- Figs and Thistles


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!

by Edna St. Vincent Millay

How I do love the wanderings I have taken this morning (at the other end of my candle, or, as one friend's daughter terms it, "the butt-crack of dawn.")

First, I learned that this little poem that describes my life right now so well is not by Emily Dickinson. Apparently, I'm not the first to make this mistake.

Next, I learned its title, and got to wondering, "What do figs have to do with anything?"

Then, I learned that this poem is from a book entitled A Few Figs From Thistles, and there is a


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

...and the second fig seems just as applicable to my life right now as the first.

But still, there was the problem of the figs. Not being a Biblical scholar, I didn't realize there was this root to the "figs from thistles" saying:

Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men 
gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?
--Matthew 7:16

And now, I'm left arguing in my mind with the meaning of this verse. I can see that it is a warning about false prophets -- I don't trust the grapes and figs that come from a person who is all thorns and thistles. But what if you are a good enough person (maybe not perfect, maybe with just a few thorns and thistles that persist no matter how attentive you are to weeding your life)...and all you are given to work with are thorns and thistles...and somehow you manage to produce grapes and figs? 

Through the blear of exhaustion today, 
I will keep my heart and mind focused 
on the figs and grapes, 
the grapes and figs. 
I will brush aside the thorns and thistles. 
I will focus on the fruits.

Cathy has the roundup today at Merely Day by Day.


  1. So right there with you my friend! Life is way, way, way to busy, way too rushed, and way too filled with the unimportant. Not sure what translation you are using, but I love this one, from the Living Bible, talking, I think, about the fruit people produce in their lives showing their true character-- 16 You can identify them by their fruit, that is, by the way they act. Can you pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?

    1. I like this interpretation -- that the fruits of our labor are a reflection of our character. It's that word OF that's kind of the tripping point: "grapes OF thorns and figs OF thistles." Whatever the case, whatever the interpretation, the whole point is to cause us to examine our lives, right? And so, in the midst of all the thorns and thistles, let's keep our eyes on the figs and grapes! Hope you'll have some time this weekend to breathe, friend! (Hoping the same for myself!!)

  2. I love this. I didn't know about figs either. Now I must look more into it as these little figs clearly make sense in my world. Thank you for this on Friday Morning!

    First in Maine

  3. This verse is a warning to steer clear of false teachings. You will not gather nor receive good things from those who are "thorns or thistles". Their fruits will not be "figs or grapes", which are good for you. You will know by their fruits - by what they produce - whether this is a person to respect and follow their counsel - or if this person is one that does not offer the truth and good counsel. Their fruits may even appear superficially to be good, as the beautiful house on the sand which will not stand long, or as the bright candle that is lit on both ends will not be useful to you soon. Disregard that which is offered from thorns and thistles. You cannot get good fruit from them; they do not provide figs and grapes. Gather the figs and grapes from those in your life who produce these good fruits, and avoid those thorns and thistles.
    Sorry this is long! But enjoy some grapes today!

    1. I was a Thistle before marriage, and my brother is a pastor...this verse comes up every once in a while, as you can imagine!

    2. Maybe we need a new bumper sticker to go with the "More wag, less bark" one -- "More fig, less thorn!" :-)

  4. Mary Lee,
    You always make me think. I am just going to go the cupboard and grab a Fig Newton.

    Seriously, I am concerned about my education friends. Candles are burning at both ends and it is only October.


  5. I hadn't heard about the figs either. Lots to ponder here, ML. Hope things slow down for you a little -- as Cathy said, it's only October, too early in the school year to be burning the candle at both ends already.

  6. All by itself, "figs and thistles" is a lovely poem, and I would certainly add "More figs, less thistle" to my "More wag, less bark" car magnet!

    Cathy is right--all over America, teachers who have been burning the candle at both ends and in the middle since Labor Day are starting to melt and puddle. In other countries at this time of year, teachers are enjoying a well-deserved mid-term break of an entire week, because it is understood that both teachers and students can't keep up their good work for such an extended breakless time. What is to be done? The French just go on strike!

  7. The fruits are sure to be sweet and tasty after all your hard work. Love your thoughtful meanderings about figs, grapes, thorns and thistles as they appear in oblique sayings.

    Violet N.

  8. Don't we all burn the candle at both ends? But we have fruitful lives! You actually took the time to do some research on this subject which means even in the midst of our busy lives, if something takes me down an interesting path, I will follow.

  9. I would have thought this was Emily Dickenson as well. I'm so sorry to hear about all the worn out teachers - who still find time to post on Poetry Friday and give us figs to enjoy, not thistles!

  10. It does have kind of a Dickinson feel to it, doesn't it?

    I like the fruit metaphor because a bush or tree doesn't force a fruit to grow - it doesn't happen through effort. The fruit that comes out of your life is a natural outpouring of who you are.

  11. Anonymous8:22 PM

    Focusing on the fruit is the only way to make all the candle burning worth it. I can't help but think this too shall pass and we'll return to some kind of sanity soon.

  12. For someone as bleary-eyed and exhausted as you are, there's some pretty heavy-duty pondering going on here! Focusing on the fruits sounds like a good place to start.

  13. Hello there Cathy, I love how a few words can make you very reflective and wax lyrical too. Such is the power of words. Thanks for this. :)

  14. Lit major that I am, I've always seen these two poems as book ends - twin philosophies by which Millay lived her life, all incandescent light and impermanent passion. I read them so differently now that I am much, much older. Now, I think that the essence of life lies in something more quiet, more lasting...why burn the candle at both ends? But perhaps that's because it's been another long day, and I know that it's wiser to turn off the lights and get some rest.

  15. I believe you always focus on the fruits, Mary Lee, but am sorry it's been such a start to the year. We spoke of this busy-ness at our retreat, & I'm not sure why things are so different. As you see above from others, your posts make us think, so thank you!

  16. Who knew figs would be so relevant today? Thanks for reminding of these two little poems.


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