The Weekly Quill — The Curve Burns at Both Ends

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Confidence in the Federal Reserve is Put to the Double Test

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!

Edna St. Vincent Millay
June 19, 1918

In February 1918, poet Arthur Davison Ficke pulled into New York, and the beginning and end of his heart’s useful life. The U.S. Army major was bearing military dispatches en route to France. But first, fate placed him in the path of one Edna St. Vincent Millay. They fell immediately in love and had the briefest of intense affairs that permanently depleted their remaining capacity for those who came to populate their respective futures. Over the next decade, the two would time and again be drawn to one another, into an inescapable cycle of romance, rejection and reunion. A renaissance woman before her time, Millay repelled the orthodoxy of her era, separating the heart from the soul as founding fathers did church from state. In her estimation, the written word endured for eternity; the grave ultimately swallowed love whole.
The oldest of three daughters, at the tender age of eight in the year 1900, Millay bore witness to her mother tossing her father out on his backside and attaining an exceedingly unusual divorce. Millay’s tenacity was infused by force. Her mother commanded her offspring to excel in their studies in defiance of their fair sex and the strictures of the day. Millay’s gift for poetry was discovered early on and driven by her mother’s encouragement. In 1912, the publication of “Renascence” shot Millay to stardom on New York City’s literary scene. The poem’s popularity also elicited a sponsor who financed her college studies at Vassar. Upon graduation, the bright lights of Manhattan beckoning, Millay established herself as the archetypal Greenwich Village Bohemian.
Millay’s foray into independence coincided with a historic time in U.S. history. America had been drawn into World War I. Mother Nature was in rare form. And death itself was primed to storm St. Peter’s Gate. Against this backdrop, Millay’s resolve boded well for her. To this day, the temperature of one degree above zero when the ball dropped in Times Square on 1917’s New Year Eve is the lowest on record. The freeze endured with February 21, 1918 marking the 19thconsecutive day with a low in the single digits. As Millay’s younger sister, Norma recalled, “The gas main froze. (Vincent, as she liked to call herself) put a bouquet of violets on the window sill, and they froze. We stayed in bed together for two days once just to keep warm.” Temperatures broke in time for Millay and Ficke to crash into each other’s lives.

The Spring that dispatched the major to his overseas duties brought with it not reprieve, but the Spanish flu. First documented in March 1918 in Haskell, Kansas, its lightning quick spread quickly carried the virus to Fort Riley where more than 100 soldiers fell, a number that quintupled within a week. Hundreds of thousands of deployed soldiers on overcrowded vessels, which quickened the flu’s transmission, crossed the Atlantic and delivered the highly contagious new influenza strain to the Old World. By the time the virus had its last say, 675,000 Americans had succumbed. The death toll swelled to 50 million worldwide.

When exactly Millay penned the single stanza — My candle burns at both ends — which defines her legacy, remains an unknown. Its mid-June 1918 initial unveiling in Poetry nonetheless breathed joy into the lungs of a country desperate for a lovely light. As long of a shadow as they cast, candles burning at both ends ultimately perish in the dark. And at the Federal Reserve, even as they endeavor to burnish the yield curve at both ends, officials are hoping to avoid such a destiny.

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