I first encountered Edna Millay’s “Childhood is the Kingdom Where Nobody Dies” in an anthology – perhaps the original Norton Anthology of Literature by Women (1985). Some critic quoted there referred to “Childhood,” published in 1937, as “the first 21st-century poem.” Since this was long before the 21st century, it’s a curious thing to have said. The comment was evidently high praise: Millay, writing in the first half of the 20th century, was thereby considered to be well ahead of her time. But it’s also a call for 21st-century poetry to be like “Childhood”: free in form, ruthless in observation, drained of sentimentality.
The critic’s comment is also a kind of aggressive defense of Edna St. Vincent Millay. Even in the 1920s and 30s, when Millay was one of the most popular American poets, she was seen as slightly embarrassing to highbrow, avant-garde, and High Modernist writers and readers. Her poems were always very accessible – a key element of her popularity, of course. They discussed things of interest to women of the college-educated upper-middle and upper-classes. Millay herself was from a lower-middle-class background, but her years at Vassar brought her upward class mobility. Millay was associated with Greenwich Village in its most bohemian years, and could debauch with the best of them:
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!
But at heart she needed a kind of starchy, proper, New England presence in her poetry, if only as a counterpoint to the somewhat risqué, leftist, and feminist ideas she could espouse. And that starchy diction, as in “Childhood,” drew scorn from the more experimental writers among her contemporaries (while her success, possibly, drew their envy).
“Childhood” is one of the great free-verse poems in the English language, completely cut loose from rhyme and meter. Strongly attached to its time, place, and social class (how many of us talk to bishops?) it nevertheless speaks to all of us, I think. All societies have their conservative elements and their finicky people, their cultural practices that enforce routine in order to stave off the thoughts of death, in order to socialize children into a world where we just don’t talk about or think about certain things.
Many of us have lost people very close to us in childhood, of course. Millay hardly means that children are guaranteed against such loss. It’s just that, when it happens, childhood is over.