Poetry Friday: 1937 speaks for itself (via Edna St. Vincent Millay)

Having posted Sharon Olds’s commentary on 1937 last week, I figured 1937 should get a retort, and who better to speak for that time and place than Millay, a woman who at her best is one of America’s keenest-eyed poets (though who at her worst, admittedly, is trite and clumsy).  1937 isn’t necessarily her best year, but it did yield some good stuff to think on: a poem slightly longer than I usually post, but one worth the time and attention, I think.  Here is Edna St. Vincent Millay‘s “Childhood is the Kingdom Where Nobody Dies”:

Childhood is not from birth to a certain age and at a certain age
The child is grown, and puts away childish things.
Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies.

Nobody that matters, that is. Distant relatives of course
Die, whom one never has seen or has seen for an hour,
And they gave one candy in a pink-and-green stripéd bag, or a jack-knife,
And went away, and cannot really be said to have lived at all.

And cats die. They lie on the floor and lash their tails,
And their reticent fur is suddenly all in motion
With fleas that one never knew were there,
Polished and brown, knowing all there is to know,
Trekking off into the living world.
You fetch a shoe-box, but it’s much too small, because she won’t curl up now:
So you find a bigger box, and bury her in the yard, and weep.
But you do not wake up a month from then, two months
A year from then, two years, in the middle of the night
And weep, with your knuckles in your mouth, and say Oh, God! Oh, God!
Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies that matters,
—mothers and fathers don’t die.

And if you have said, “For heaven’s sake, must you always be kissing a person?”
Or, “I do wish to gracious you’d stop tapping on the window with your thimble!”
Tomorrow, or even the day after tomorrow if you’re busy having fun,
Is plenty of time to say, “I’m sorry, mother.”

To be grown up is to sit at the table with people who have died,
who neither listen nor speak;
Who do not drink their tea, though they always said
Tea was such a comfort.

Run down into the cellar and bring up the last jar of raspberries;
they are not tempted.
Flatter them, ask them what was it they said exactly
That time, to the bishop, or to the overseer, or to Mrs. Mason;
They are not taken in.
Shout at them, get red in the face, rise,
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.

Your tea is cold now.
You drink it standing up,
And leave the house.

Millay’s power usually comes from skill with sound and meter—the rhythm of “sink and rise” in “Love is not all” or the cheerful, almost sing-song sound patterns of her poem about running back and forth all night on the Staten Island ferry in “Recuerdo“.  What I am struck by with this poem is how its greatest impact comes from the ideas, and the plainness with which they are spoken.  The premise itself startles and grabs me, the idea that “childhood” is not a set sequence of years, or a physiological/emotional developmental stage, but rather that space in which we mortal creatures remain remote from our mortality.  The phrase, though, captures that other aspect of childhood—the fantastical, the way in which being a child opens our imaginations so that it really is like living in a private kingdom, a world where we can make-believe almost anything.

Millay is patient with the idea.  Having spoken it, she sets out to test its boundaries, almost as if it’s a hypothesis whose truth she is uncertain of.  She dispenses with the deaths that happen to forgotten relatives easily enough.  I wonder if she’s as right about lost pets, since certainly a cat or two who died in my childhood were much lamented, but she’s undeniably right that the sting of that mourning was really nothing to what has come since.  I marvel at her sharp observational skills—the phrase “she won’t curl up now” is incredibly immediate to me, flashing me back to cat burials in the backyard and the terror of rigor mortis and the sense that, whatever I was burying, it was not the creature I had known.  Those little turns of phrase are much more direct here than what I’m used to from Millay, and I like them even when they make me sad.

I’ll admit, I’m a bit baffled by the stanza about the thimble and the apology to her mother (is this Millay saying we are old enough now to realize we’re becoming our parents?  Or something else?): there’s something about the structure that leaves me feeling I’m only getting half of a conversation.  I suspect I may be seeing references only Millay and her mother would really have understood.  But the stanza that follows knocks me flat because it is so real and so absurd: death as the great removal of all our self, not just our noble moments but the quiet ones where we sit and chat or drink our tea.  To be grown up really is that kind of mourning—not the simple grief wailed over a cat dying too young, but the slow terms we grapple with as we face loss in the morning light, the quiet ways we are reminded of how our lives will not be quite the same.  Millay builds the tension here—she darts all over her house, she becomes upset; the dead are not moved.  They are beyond our ability to alter them.  What connects this with childhood, I wonder, and with growing up?  There’s a thread here I feel certain I’m not picking up—I get what’s happening in one sense, but I feel like Millay’s reflections on childhood and adult life must be present here still, and I don’t follow the distinction she’s making.

I love that last stanza, though.  After the building emotion, it would have been easy to end on something big and sweeping.  But instead, she handles the humdrum details of the poem neatly—the tea cannot sit undrunk forever.  The house cannot remain a shrine, and the child grown up cannot kneel in grief always.  There is a life to be entered—one in which the tea is cold because we have waited too long to really get started.

In the end, I wonder if I’m clinging to the “childhood” references too much.  Maybe the poem is more about being an adult than in the transition to adulthood, and the child is just a way of entering the space where she can talk about it.  It seems to me like a self-addressed poem, in which Millay needs to move herself on in some real way.  But it touches on emotions I think any adult who’s lost someone they care about can understand.  Like I said above, I feel like there are things I’m not getting: I figure either you agree and may have some idea of what, or you disagree, and think this poem may not be as good as I think it is.  Either way, it would be nice to hear your thoughts below.


10 comments on “Poetry Friday: 1937 speaks for itself (via Edna St. Vincent Millay)

  1. SilverSeason says:

    Thank you for posting this poem. I have not seen it before. I like your observation that the end of childhood is not a matter of years but of the loss of what made childhood possible.

    I am not baffled by the stanza with the thimble. It gives me a pang behind the breastbone, which is the power of poetry. As the daughter of a mother who lived into old age, I learned there is never time to say the right words of regret, whether one is busy having fun or just living a separate life. One fails to say I have come to understand your strong feelings for me for which you could not find the words either (“always kissing a person”). Why does the thimble tap on the window? The mother is inside – at her work of being a mother (“your thimble”) – while I am outside, wishing you would stop reminding me. But you don’t stop. I see a flower you had in your garden or cook something you used to make, and the thimble taps again, but now I hear it differently.

    The final stanza wraps it up. The tea of comfort does grow cold, but we are still standing and must stand and must leave the house.

  2. […] is also usually at her best when considering the two great obsessions of her life—love and death—and a blunt look at war seems to me to suit them nicely.  Millay’s pacifism has […]

  3. Nerija S. says:

    This is really a beautiful poem — I’ll have to read more of Millay. I agree that this, and her poem about the difference between death from natural events and death in war (and the strange commonplace-ness of both), have a very intriguing matter-of-fact tone. There’s no melodrama, no forced emotion, just a quiet reflection on what death means to her.

    It seems to me she’s commenting on that almost cliche idea of childhood being a state of innocence, a time/place where everything is easy. Where you can take things for granted, where you’re never really disappointed. Like SilverSeason, I saw the lines regarding the thimble and the kissing as a comment on that idea of taking things for granted — as a child, you can say things you might regret later, and expect to have plenty of time (because childhood, she seems to say, is a state of timelessness, a state of not being aware that time passes, or that the passage of time really matters) to apologize when you really feel like it. As an adult, you understand that a person might not still be around when you want to say something.

    Though I agree with you, too, that the specific images of the thimble and the kissing may be things only Millay herself would understand.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      I’m glad it works for you, Nerija! Millay is definitely worth a closer look, though her worst stuff is really very poor—I find her best stuff is some of the best poetry I’ve ever read. Thanks for your added reflections: I like the way you put your thoughts about “taking things for granted”!

  4. Inge-Monika Hofmann says:

    “What connects this with childhood, I wonder, and with growing up? There’s a thread here I feel certain I’m not picking up—I get what’s happening in one sense, but I feel like Millay’s reflections on childhood and adult life must be present here still, and I don’t follow the distinction she’s making.”

    Hello, I just translated this poem tino German because it touched me when I first read it. Glad I found your reflections on the poem! I consider the childhood present in the second part of the poem: I see her actually speaking to a child. You see, we grown ups like drinking tee (which to a child isn’t as meaningful, but they watch the ritual daily) and then…. I see her explaining the difference to a child. She tries to explain -like speaking to a child- what mourning is. So choosing the grown-up activity is actually speaking of the difference. A child experiences death by lack of movement. So shaking the dead is plausible to a child, trying to make them move again.

    I would like to know if you also see a parallel between the fleas leaving the dead cat’s fur and the line “and leave the house”. The tea is cold, the blood of the cat is cold, men like fleas have to move on “trekking into the living world”.

    Through this more hopeful perspective she is different form William Carlos Williams, who in 1919 had published a poem, where the fleas die after the cat died, called comlpete destruction.

    Complete Destruction
    By William Carlos Williams

    It was an icy day.
    We buried the cat,
    then took her box
    and set fire to it
    in the back yard.
    Those fleas that escaped
    earth and fire
    died by the cold.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Inge-Monika, thanks for your comment! I remember that one of the last assignments I worked on in “German School” as a teenager was to translate a poem into German—one of Wordsworth’s, I think, “The Tables Turned” maybe? I’d recognize the poem if I saw it again, anyway. It was incredibly hard, and that poem was much shorter and less idiomatic than Millay’s poem, so I congratulate you on your effort!

      Your interpretation is certainly useful, and helps me find some depth in parts of the poem where I hadn’t seen as much. The fleas in parallel with the adult “moving on” with life is a great catch, and I think on some level it must be intentional. Not a perfect analogy, but one that adds meaning. You’re right that she’s more hopeful than W.C.W., who was a cantankerous old fellow even at his best, but I liked his poem also, and was glad you shared it—I hadn’t seen it before. Vielen Dank for stopping here and for sharing your thoughts!

      • blumenpuppenge-Monika Hofmann says:

        Thank you! How awesome that you really translated a poem into German, when I went to school we did not translate poems into English. Only into German from Latin oder Greek 😉 (Well Catull and Sappho, that’s all right I should think). I forgot so much, but these translations stick somehow. Thank you for sharing, and greetings from Mainz in Germany,

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