#14 “Childhood Is the Kingdom Where Nobody Dies” (Edna St. Vincent Millay)

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.

15 responses to “#14 “Childhood Is the Kingdom Where Nobody Dies” (Edna St. Vincent Millay)

  1. Of the three poems, this one was the most peculiar to me. I think the whole idea behind the poem is absolutely correct; you are a child until you witness someone close to you dying, and then just like that your childhood is over. It kind of makes me think of when people talk about someone and say they are a certain age in years but have been through much more than anyone at their same age. When I was about 5 years old my great grandfather died, and being that I was so young and he wasn’t very close to me I did not really understand or fully grasp death at that age. When I was a freshman in high school, someone who I had gone to school with for several years overdosed on medication. I think that it is possible that up until that point I had never fully understood or grasped the concept of something like that… The speaker in the poem says that “childhood ends when somebody that matters dies,” and I would say that my friend Tyler definitely mattered.

    Although the author is writing sort of a child-like poem, she describes death very morbidly throughout the poem. “Drag them up out of their chairs by their stiff shoulders and shake them and yell at them; they are not startled, they are not even embarrassed; they slide back into their chairs,” creates the idea that no matter how upset and mad this person’s death makes you, they are dead; you simply cannot do anything to bring them back. The poem also mentions “being grown up is to sit at the table with people who have died,” and if I personally had the choice, instead of being grown up and having to deal with death, I’d rather remain a child in that sense for as long as possible.

  2. “Childhood is the Kingdom Where Nobody Dies” is a poem I chose to respond to not because I didn’t like the other two that we read in class (I did), but because it is unquestionably one of those poems that everyone can relate to; we all are children at a point in our lives and death is a part of life. The title of the poem is undeviating and goes along well with all the lines in the poem. When we are young, death is one of those things that we don’t put much thought into. As we get older, the cycle of death begins usually with the older generations; our grandparents die, then our parents, and seeing that happen makes us realize that we are next in line to part with this world. Going back to the poem, being a kid is wonderful in many ways and one of those is not having to worry about death. Could it really be that childhood stops when someone that matters dies? Probably! As mentioned in the poem, the loss of a pet (cat in this case) isn’t easy, but we do not weep over it for the rest of our lives. Losing a person (loved one, parent, friend) does make us grow up and live the rest of our lives in grief (about that person) because we always wonder how our life would be if they were still around. My childhood was definitely the kingdom where nobody died, but as I grew older that kingdom fell apart and now I only wish I could be a kid again.

  3. I remember St. Vincent Millay’s “My candle burns at both ends” poem it was comforting to hear it again for some reason I can’t explain. I have read some of her other poems after reading the “My candle” poem and I took a liking to her. However, this poem makes me a little depressed. If childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies then I guess I didn’t have a very long childhood. I don’t know if I can identify with the innocence in this poem. Loss came to me at the tender age of 3 ½ with the death of my beloved grandfather. I also disagree about “getting over” the death of a cat. I had to move a lot and my pet cat was the only constant in my life. Ten years later I still cry in Novemeber because he was my comfort when my parents fought and my friend when we moved to a new city. I do understand that the death of a pet isn’t regarded with the same degree of sadness a person. I really enjoyed some of Millay’s other poems and I feel that she existed between two worlds. The one she was born into and the one she felt she belonged to. I can identify with that and I suppose that’s why I enjoy her work

  4. This poem is one of those poems that sends you racing into your past. I agree with the aurthor of the poem. When one is young and mostly selfcentered, death isn’t what it is now as adults. Back then if a person wasn’t attached to you emotionally then it didn’t really mattered if they died. Not knowing nor thinking about who they left behind. The difference without them. Oh but when we have a pet die, watch out! I had many animals die when i was a child I can remember them all. Funny, I know that a lot of friends and family passed on during that same period but I can’t remember them. I remember where and how i burried every single one. From birds to turtles. Only a selected few of family friends and relatives i remember passing away due to the way it made my family feel. How certain things where cancled due to it. In a way it is sad. But beeing a child, I didn’t fully grasp the entire idea of death. Now I too sit at the table with the rest of the adults. I do listen as I am informed of a recent death. I too freeze in my thoughts of that person. My tea will soon get cold.

  5. The poem begins as a way to reflect as an adult looking back as a child. Things that are mainly highlighted from those memories deal with grief and fond moments. The full experience of death isn’t as clear when you are a child because you can hardly remember the details. Did you cry, and were you down about the death? Others may be able to provide certain details that they can remember thinking back about a loved one’s death. A child becomes older when he/she begins to realize that good and bad things will happen. I recall something you (Mr. Morris) said about how people will faintly miss you unless you’re famous or have had a significant impact on the world. This is also true too with the thought that distant relatives may not mean much to you but to somebody else they may have meant the world to. Most responses to death are attempts to be consoling to others such as “I’m sorry to hear about that or were you close to that person?” This is similar to a cat as well. The cat may not have meant anything to the person that hears about someone’s cat dying but to the recipient of the death, the cat may have had a significant impact on their life. Some tend to mourn for a distant relative like they have known that person for years. Others, you may question how (considering that there are some people that we don’t know but they still exist) or even if they do grieve in a sorrowful situation. Death for someone you don’t know may not be as heartfelt as the feeling you have for someone that is close to you. So I think of distant folk’s death like the assumptions I make for a stranger walking through life never really thinking that one day they will die. Maybe they have had an impact, maybe they haven’t. You just never know until you know.

  6. kursteilnehmur

    This poem speaks volumes within a few lines. Just thinking about the poem brings countless images to mind. If one were to sit and think about this poem for a long time I am sure one would be able to come up with an award winning storyline that could be used in a B movie at least. The reason the poem is so powerful is not because of rhyme or meter. It is because of the powerful imagery and ideas that are presented. The diction is amazing, and the poem seems to flow like an ebb tide from the mind of one to another. This poem brings to mind something we can all relate to, and it shows it in quite a remarkable fashion. The journey from childhood to adulthood is quite an amazing journey when you consider no two journeys are alike. Some may claim that people have similar journeys, but none are truly the same. Even though no two journeys are alike we can relate to poetry such as this. That is extraordinary in my eyes. We can all relate to the cat, the jar of raspberries, or the tea. They may be different in our own lives, but the fact still remains that everyone has their own relation to this poem. It may be the relative that sends something every year for Christmas even though you never see them. It may be the pet that tragically dies that must be buried. For my family the tea is a direct substitute for Dr. Pepper or Coke. Every family gathering I can remember we have always had them. The jar of raspberries is similar to pistachios in my family. We would spend hours around the kitchen table cracking them to the familiar sounds of Frank at Christmas time. I sat at the kids table during the Christmas feast. My cousins were the ones who broke the salt shakers. Sitting at the kids table wasn’t so bad then. We were able to eat what we wanted without grandma telling us to eat more green bean casserole. In the summer my grandfather would always play an old volume of Paul Anka, Chubbie Checker, The Monkees, Queen or Boston. I even remember the old Collie named Cowboy they had to burry when I was five. Every time my parents would say it is time to go after visiting my grandparents, my grandma would always ask us to stay a little longer, maybe sit down and have a Coke or watch some more Tv with them. I was quite content to believe they would never die. Now I sit at the table with the people who have died.

  7. This poem makes me think about life and death. It makes me think about how short life really is and as a child we do not think about that. When you are a child death does not affect you as much because you are young and does not really affect you if you are not close to the person. When you are a child all you are concerned about it playing with your friends and having fun. When you get older and start to experience the death of different people it makes you think about life. When you older whether you know the person or not it still may affect you in your heart some kind of way. I can remember as a young child, my great grandmother passed away and it did not affect me that much because I was young and did not really think about death. I never sat down and thought about having to die. Here recently I lost a friend and it affected me tremendously because she was the same age as me. It made me think and realize life is short and you never know when it is going to be your time to go. Today when people die, I may not know them but it still affects me in some kind of way because that person has impacted someone’s life. This was one of the three poems we read that I could really relate to.

  8. This poem really spoke to me. When you are a child, you live in this sort of dream world, where nothing bad ever happens to you. Life is good, and nobody dies. However, I don’t think we ever realize how fragile the “innocence” of our childhood really is until its too late. All it takes for your childhood to end is the death of someone that is close to you or some other tragedy, and it’s all over in an instant. Just like that.

    For some people, childhood can reach far into their teen years, and for some, it ends at a very young age. I lost my grandfather when I was a freshman in high school. That’s when my childhood ended. I had lost family members and other people in my life before that, but losing them didn’t really have that much of an impact on me, as I really wasn’t all that close to them. But I was close to my grandfather.

    I feel lucky that I was able to hang on to my childhood for so long. Some of my friends weren’t so fortunate. They experienced loss at a very young age, and their childhood ended when they were still in elementary school.

    When our childhood does inevitably end, we are forced to come to the realization that we cant live in that “dream world” forever. People die and things change. It’s all part of life.

  9. I really liked this poem a lot! What she says here is entirely true, that older people, those who know, understand, and have been near the experience of death, die a little within themselves. This poem to me, though, seems to be written almost from the viewpoint of a child. The speaker here talks of adults as being unshakable from their boorish lives, but not all adults are like that, even those who have experienced the death of a loved one. Most children would see all adults in this light because the world has not had wear on them yet; children are still naive and have much more energy and imagination than the average adult. In this poem, the loss of childhood is due to the understanding of death, but, as large of a part as it may be, I think that death is only one fraction in the creation of an adult’s mind. The everyday life of being stretched and shrunken to fit a mold is also a large part of a person losing their childhood, in addition to that of great loss. I have lost many people in my life, my grandfather, two friends, and an amazing teacher, and those experiences really do change you, but not until you fully understand their extent. I think, even though this poem is very great and tells a truth about one’s soul, it lacks the reference to other means that change a person from a child to an adult.

  10. I don’t know if I particularly cared for this poem. I don’t really care for talking about death. I know we all live and then eventually die, but I choose to live and just not talk about dying. It just seems a little morbid to me. Children shouldn’t have to be thinking about death, but reality is, anything can happen. You never know what life is going to throw at you. I do agree with the author about the difference between a pet and a person dying. I’ve never really been a pet person so I wouldn’t be as upset as I would if a person died.

  11. I liked this poem because I could definitely relate to it. It’s true, when we are children we are just that, young, innocent and unaware of what goes on in the world. When we are young or small our world is also small and innocent, nothing bad happens, that we know of, and we are know those around us as always there. It didn’t only make me think about my childhood, its weird but I started thinking of death and who I’ll be with or without in my last days or how I’d prefer dying. Its interesting how we grow too, when we are young we are new to the world and think about life as we grow older we start planning our lives and as we grow even older and get closer to death we think about it, even if its just a thought once in a while of how it all unfolds.

  12. I enjoyed this poem a lot. I understood the beginning very well. From my understanding, the speaker is explaining how children are able to forget people and things that are not as close to them as people such as their parents. Sometimes there are things such as pets that cause them sadness when they pass away, however it is only temporary. The speaker also attempts to warn children that their parents can die and they should appreciate them more often. Hence, the speaker emphasizes that the deaths of parents can be unexpected and untimely. The sixth stanza was very interesting because it looked past childhood and into what those future adults would one day come to encounter as adults. The speaker demonstrates that by sitting at a table with other adults, you can sometimes come to realize that they are not living but simply existing. For instance, the speaker establishes this by stating that even after being dragged out of their chairs they are still non responsive to the world around them. Although this poem was written many years ago, the premise is still evident in today’s society. Hence, this poem will always be relevant.

  13. Poets often write about topics dealing with death, life, love. Childhood and what it means to poses the purity and essence of a child is just as enthralling of a topic. Prof. Morris Pointed out the “steel” like nature of the poem which causes the poem to be classified as one of the first poems of the the twenty first century. This attribute of the poem is apparent and is seen in the total free verse, the use of simple words and strong phrases such as ” weep, with your knuckles in your mouth, and say Oh God, Oh God!”. The second to last stanza is certainly the power house of the entire poem. This stanza brings to life, through the description of what it is to be grown, what she means by childhood is the kingdom where no one dies. The image of grown people sitting at a table yelling, imploring, those who have died to communicate with them we see a sort of irony. Although children may be thought of as naive, and not knowledgeable who are the ones, hysterical almost in a crazed rant, imploring those who obviously can not reply. This poem brings up an interesting notion, can one choose to ignore death and their own mortality, and in doing so keep the inner child? If it is not an age and merely a state of mind one would theoretically be able to keep it. In correlation to what ZED898 said in the previous post, about children being unaware of the evil within the world, I whole heartedly agree. When i was about seven or so years old I met a distant relative who had a daughter who was mentally disabled, totally oblivious to her handicap I asked,”what is wrong with her?”, my aunt replied “she’s talking with the angels”. That notion totally made sense in my eyes. Her handicap was not a handicap but an advantage, she had superior communication channels with deities.

  14. This poem made me think about how my little cousins or nieces and nephews have reacted to death in my family. Many of them didn’t understand the intensity that everyone else felt or the emptiness because to them it just was not a big deal, it was something that they could not comprehend. I however have been old enough to realize the people I have lost I will never see again. But the children in my family I think have forgotten those family members they have once met, maybe when they are older and see pictures they will remember. I have never heard my younger family relatives ask about those who have passed, and it sad to think they may have forgotten. I have a cousin who lost her mother when she was young and this poem describes leaving childhood the way she did. I feel that she grew up pretty fast after that, and things weren’t really the same. It is a very sad thing and to a child I suppose death is not as impactful unless you lose someone u see every day, which would be your parent. I think your childhood is changed forever and it is a sad thought. This poem was very sad and filled with great emotion. It was definitely placed correctly in the top 15.

  15. In Edna St. Millay’s poem “Childhood is the Kingdom Where Nobody Dies” the line or boundary between innocence and adulthood is drawn with the death of someone that matters. I find the poem very interesting because it explores an idea that is not mainstream. However, I don’t necessarily feel that a death can ruin innocence. Innocence is a pure and untouched thing. Death is hard, rough, and most importantly real. When death occurs and a child is unaffected by it, it is not because of how innocent a child is. It is due to a lack of comprehension. A child who understands death for the first time is no less innocent but is just closer to reality. I believe there are levels of innocence and certain things are lost when a child truly experiences the reality of death. The complete loss of innocence occurs when a child learns what it is to manipulate and the difference between right and wrong.

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