Fire and Sleet and Candlelight by Elinor Wylie

“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. 

 

Summary of “Fire and Sleet and Candlelight” 

“Fire and Sleet and Candlelight” By Elinor Wylie is short poem through which an impassioned narrator speaks about a wasted life. 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 this piece. 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” 

First Stanza

For this you’ve striven

    Daring, to fail:

Your sky is riven

    Like a tearing veil.

This piece 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 themselves to one singular pursuit. This striving and “Daring” has torn their life apart. This person’s “sky” or soul, is torn like a “veil.” 

 

Second Stanza

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.  

 

Third Stanza

From sand unslakèd

    Twisted strong cords,

And wandered naked

    Among trysted swords.

The third stanza 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. 

 

Fourth Stanza

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 this piece. 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. 

 

Fifth Stanza

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. 

 

Sixth Stanza

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.” 

 

Seventh Stanza

Your race is ended—

    See, it is run:

Nothing is mended

    Under the sun.

As the poem begins to concludes, 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.

 

Eighth Stanza

Straight as an arrow

    You fall to a sleep

Not too narrow

    And not too deep

The final stanza 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 stepping 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 life style 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 still birth, 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. 

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