In the midst of the flurry of publicity--mostly distasteful--surrounding Heath Ledger's death, a humble but fitting poem reentered the national consciousness. Larry Williams (the father of Ledger's fiancé Michelle, in case you're celeb trivia-challenged) issued the following statement about his once future son-in-law:
"I think Tennyson got it right in the poem when he described someone as having died at a young age but burning the candles at both ends, and oh what a beautiful flame he made, that was Heath, what a beautiful flame he made and a great talent. My heart goes out to everyone in his family and my family. The saddest thing is his daughter whom he just loved dearly."
Mr. Williams' choice of poem was a good one, but it wasn't by Lord Alfred Tennyson. He was probably remembering First Fig by the American poet 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.
It is a simple, perfect poem, and it's fitting that it was Millay, not Tennyson, who wrote it. For while I can't imagine Ledger having much in common with the secluded Victorian, he had a great deal in common with Millay. She was something of a celebrity, with a reputation as a heartthrob and a heartbreaker. She lived a Hollywood life in 1920's Greenwich Village, refusing to settle down, and marrying only when she found a man who would agree to an "open" relationship. Her list of lovers even included a starlet. Edith Wynne Matthison starred in a popular New York production of the play Everyman, wherein she made waves for not being one.
Both Millay and Ledger, thus, broke ground for the gay community: Ledger for his Oscar-nominated portrayal of Ennis Del Mar in Brokeback Mountain, and Millay--who demanded in grade school that her teacher call her "Vincent"--for her openly bisexual lifestyle. Millay would even pen a controversial book, A Few Figs from Thistles, exploring her broader definition of feminine sexuality.
As far as First Fig is concerned, I don't think Mr. Williams' understanding of the poem quite matches Millay's intent. Her title suggests the poem is, at least in part, a reference to her sexuality. Also, Millay's biography tells us that she applied the poem's carpe diem sentiment more liberally than Williams is imagining. The extent of Millay's "illumination" was, in fact, too bright for her. Frequent alcohol and morphine abuse took a toll on her health. She became unstable, suffering a nervous breakdown. Eventually, like Ledger, she was (somewhat mysteriously) found dead.
Millay's body was found lying on a notebook in which she'd written the draft of a poem, the last three lines of which were circled:
I will control myself, or go inside.
I will not flaw perfection with my grief.
Handsome, this day: no matter who has died.
These lines, in how they relate to Ledger, are also poignant. They're a suitable reminder of the (gasp!) humanity of our celebrities and their struggle to cope with the unlovely media lights--the pressure to put forth the appearance of perfection.
Now the media scavengers are circling over Ledger, and the extent to which he "burned at both ends" is the subject of rampant and callous speculation. His mention is almost always tied to illegal drugs and overdose.
It's fitting, I think, that Williams had no knowledge of the writer whose work crystallized his feelings toward his future son--that he was only concerned with her work. He presumably still doesn't know a thing about Millay, her troubled life, or her death. Soon (and thankfully) time will have the same effect on Ledger. He'll be remembered in the public eye more for the roles he played and for the ground he broke than any questionable blips in his biography. And like Millay (or Tennyson) he should become again, to most of us, composed and beautiful.