‘Fire and Sleet and Candlelight’ is an eight stanza poem made up of quatrains, or four-line stanzas. Each line is quite short in itself and follows a consistent ABABCDCD… rhyme scheme. The title of this piece could refer to the general nature of the listener. He/she is consumed in burning heat, freezing cold, and straining under candlelight.
The poem begins with the narrator dismissing the work that this listener has done. It is only “For this” that you have “striven.” The bitter truth has been the only outcome divined from “you” tearing yourself apart like a “veil.” The listener of this piece has dedicated their life to a pursuit that has taken him/her away from the pleasures of life, particularly youth. The narrator thinks that this has been a mistake, the listener has wasted away until their skin can barely hide their bones. The listener has metaphorically, dragged his/herself along a “jagged road.”
It becomes clear at the end of the poem that the listener’s life has come to a close. It is the end, and nothing has been resolved in either of the character’s lives or revealed to the readers of ‘Fire and Sleet and Candlelight’. It remains an unknown what the relationship is between the two, or what exactly the listener spent their life doing that the speaker considers unworthy of them.
Analysis of Fire and Sleet and Candlelight
For this you’ve striven
Daring, to fail:
Your sky is riven
Like a tearing veil.
‘Fire and Sleet and Candlelight’ by Wylie consists of a monologue given by Wylie’s speaker addressing an unknown listener. This person, it becomes clear in the first stanza, has spent their life in a way the speaker does not agree with.
The first stanza begins slightly more optimistically than the ones that follow. It is clear that the unknown person to whom this piece is directed has dedicated itself to one singular pursuit. This striving and “Daring” has torn their lives apart. This person’s “sky” or soul, is torn like a “veil.”
For this, you’ve wasted
Wings of your youth;
Divined, and tasted
Bitter springs of truth.
The narrator states that “For this,” another unknown the reader will never be fully aware of, “you’ve wasted” the experiences of “your youth.” This person, the speaker thinks, spent their youth badly, they should have enjoyed it while it was there rather than using it up on something less worthwhile.
This person has instead of living, “Divined,” or discovered, and “tasted” the “Bitter” truth of the world. What exactly this “truth” is, the reader will never find out, but it is simple to assume that it may have jaded the intended listener against the joys of life.
From sand unslakèd
Twisted strong cords,
And wandered naked
Among trysted swords.
The third stanza of ‘Fire and Sleet and Candlelight’ becomes more existential in nature as the speaker relates what this person has done to their life to dry, unquenched sand. This un-lived life of the listener is like sand that desperately needs water but has never been allowed to drink. It is possible to take this line and interpret it differently though as referring to the general nature of the listener. Perhaps this is how the speaker sees the listener, as being like thirsty sand that cannot get enough water. No knowledge, or truth, is enough for this person. They can never be satisfied.
Continuing on, the speaker said that “strong cords” have been twisted. The strength of this person has been drained for all the wrong reasons, their potential wasted, and left to wander naked, “Among trysted swords.” This last line of the third stanza has two separate meanings. The first, that this person’s whole life has been like an agreement between enemies in which they come together at a place and time to fight. They are willing risking themselves, just as the listener is.
Alternatively, this line could refer to the relationship between the speaker and the listener with “tryst” being taken as a meeting between lovers. Perhaps the listener, ignorant, naked, and unaware of life around him/her, did not understand the connection between him/herself and the speaker.
There’s a word unspoken,
A knot untied.
Whatever is broken
The earth may hide.
These next lines support the concept that this listener and the speaker could have had a more intimate relationship than the listener was capable of understanding. There is, the speaker states, “a word unspoken” between them. There is something that has never been fully defined and whatever is broken between them, or in the listener, is not going to be revealed.
This poem leaves a lot of room for speculation, as it was meant to. One may wonder whether it was the study of the listener’s own nature that was the irresistible concept referenced in ‘Fire and Sleet and Candlelight’. Or perhaps an obsession with a particular discipline that took the listener’s mind, and physical presence, away from the speaker. Therefore, never allowing their relationship to blossom.
The road was jagged
Over sharp stones:
Your body’s too ragged
To cover your bones.
The road that this listener has traveled, as he/she has spent a lifetime absorbed in one unknown pursuit has not been easy. It has been like walking, or dragging oneself, over “jagged…sharp stones.” The facts of this hard life lived are not hidden, they can be clearly seen on the body of the listener. His/her skin is “too ragged” to cover up the bones within. This can refer to the listener’s actual physical body, or mental state that is clearly degrading over time.
The wind scatters
Tears upon dust;
Your soul’s in tatters
Where the spears thrust.
It is clear by this point in the poem that the narrator is mourning the life lost by the listener. While he or she is still currently alive, they will never regain the past they lost. They cannot, it seems, reset their life onto a different path.
The speaker continues on, describing how in this imagined version of the speaker’s mind “the wind” is capable of scattering “Tears upon dust.” Wylie does not make clear whether the tears belong to the speaker or the listener, perhaps a combination of both. The world around them is dried out, like the unquenched sand from the third stanza.
Once more there is a reference to this person’s soul. Spoken of as “your sky” in a previous stanza, this time the soul is said to be in “tatters” as if it has been penetrated repeatedly by a spear. The reader may not be able to determine the exact dynamic between these two characters, but it is obvious that the listener is damaged by his/her life of inquiry and “divining.”
Your race is ended—
See, it is run:
Nothing is mended
Under the sun.
As the poem begins to conclude, it becomes clear that this listener’s life may be ending, or at least this period of it. This person, who has become obsessed, entranced, and consumed by one passion, is running out of time. The speaker describes this ending as a “race” that has “ended.” The listener’s frantic search for answers is over.
The speaker wants to make sure the listener understands and repeats his/herself, saying “See, it is run,” making sure to draw the listener’s attention to this fact once more.
Although this life is coming to an end, nothing has been fixed. Nothing about their situation has been resolved or as the speaker puts it, not one thing has been “mended / Under the sun.” This can mean both personally between the two characters as well as through the listener’s obsession. He or she has been unable to change anything, they threw their life away for nothing.
Straight as an arrow
You fall to a sleep
Not too narrow
And not too deep
The final stanza of ‘Fire and Sleet and Candlelight’ once more brings up an ending, perfectly timed, as the poem itself is coming to a close. The speaker’s final remarks to the listener as his/her life is coming to a close is to say how he or she never wavered. Never step off the path they chose for one moment, they were “Straight as an arrow.” In the same way, this person has lived their whole life, so too do they pass on “to a sleep.”
The final lines reiterate what the reader has come to expect from these two characters, the speaker gently chides the listener saying their sleep, just like their life, is being done in moderation. It is not “too narrow” or “too deep.”
About Elinor Wylie
Elinor Wylie was born in Somerville, New Jersey in 1885. Her family was prominent in society and as she grew up, she was trained for the life of a “society wife.” Wylie rebelled against this lifestyle and would marry for the first time in 1905. This marriage was brief, and would end when Wylie left her husband and their son to live with Horace Wylie in London. Horace encouraged Elinor to write and she published a small book of poems, Incidental Numbers, in 1912.
The couple moved to live in the United States after the start of World War I and during this time period Wylie miscarried several times, as well as having one stillbirth, and one premature child who only lived a few days. They officially married in 1916, but they were beginning to drift apart. Wylie met her third husband, William Rose Benet, and published her most well-known poem, “Velvet Shoes,” during this time period.
Horace and Elinor separated in 1921 and between then and 1928 Wylie published another four volumes of poetry as well as working as a literary editor, and publishing four novels. Wylie saw success and recognition from critics during her lifetime but would fall into obscurity after her death. Elinor Wylie died at the age of forty-three from a stroke brought on by her high blood pressure.