The Music of Elizabeth Alexander

Shelter This Candle

An evocative work about a cave’s complete darkness – and our own dazzling light

Music: Elizabeth Alexander

Words: Edna St. Vincent Millay

An atmospheric tone poem evoking darkness and light, sound and silence, depair and joy. Based on an Edna St. Vincent Millay poem about the sustaining power of friendship during difficult times, “Shelter the Candle” uses vocal effects and instrumental color to create a sound world both surreal and dazzling.

Details and Ordering Information

Tell me more

Composer Notes

Composer Notes

I gave my musical setting of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem the evocative title Shelter this Candle, the sung, spoken and whispered central refrain of the song. But the less lyrical title Millay gave her original poem makes its subject quite clear: “To the Wife of a Sick Friend.”

Yes, this dark cavern is nothing less than the painfully imperfect world where we live, and where hardships can leave us overwhelmed by grief and despair.

And the candle? That part is entirely up to us.


To The Wife Of a Sick Friend

Shelter this candle from the wind.
Hold it steady. In its light
The cave wherein we wander lost
Glitters with frosty stalactite,
Blossoms with mineral rose and lotus,
Sparkles with crystal moon and star,
Till a man would rather be lost than found:
We have forgotten where we are.

Shelter this candle. Shrewdly blowing
Down the cave from a secret door
Enters our only foe, the wind.
Hold it steady. Lest we stand,
Each in a sudden, separate dark,
The hot wax spattered upon your hand,
The smoking wick in my nostrils strong,
The inner eyelid red and green
For a moment yet with moons and roses,—
Then the unmitigated dark.
Alone, alone in a terrible place,
In utter dark without a face,
With only the dripping of the water on the stone,
And the sound of your tears, and the taste of my own.

Edna St. Vincent Millay

© 1928, 1955, by Edna St. Vincent Millay. From The Buck in the Snow (Harper and Brothers). Used by permission of Elizabeth Barnett, literary executor for the Millay Society



Premiere: VOICES Chorale / Lyn Ransom (Newtown, PA; Princeton, NJ)
Kansas City Chorale / Charles Bruffy (Kansas City, MO)