Sunday Poetry: Childhood Is the Kingdom Where Nobody Dies, by Edna St. Vincent Millay

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 stripèd 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.

– by Edna St. Vincent Millay

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This poem is not characteristic of Edna St. Vincent Millay. She was masterful with meter, and wrote over 200 tightly knit sonnets. She had the demonstrated ability to work with rhyme without lapsing into singsong. Her body of work is meticulous and clever.

This poem is a wreck. Bereft of rhyme and sustained meter, it seems to spill from the poet – a style more reminiscent of a conversation with a friend on the couch than of Shakespeare.

But, even in the absence of recognizable meter, Millay uses her subtle hand to reinforce the subject matter. The death of a distant relative is a “blah-blah-blah whatever” non-emotive sentence with trivial details. The death of the cat is brushed off as well, but there is horror in the details, and its proximity to the heart is obvious. The speaker is not being totally honest here, and Millay allows us to know it.

The dishonesty of the speaker is revealed completely as the real subject of the poem crashes to the fore in the midst of the discussion of the cat. This poem is not about the Kingdom of Childhood – it is a mourning of the speaker’s mother. The speaker can’t help it – she attempts to keep her emotions in check as she discusses burying her cat that will not curl up anymore, and suddenly her knuckles are in her mouth and she’s crying “Oh God, Oh God” in the middle of the night.

The poem and the speaker bust wide open. She feels regret for intemperate words that cannot be breezily apologized for later in the immensity of time. She imagines them dead at her table – ghosts? – but she cannot force a reaction from them. They ignore her tea, her flattery, her raspberry jam, even her screaming in their faces. It’s as if they are not there . . . and they are, awfully, not.

The inability to conjure her tea-loving mother slaps her back into brief sentences, and she leaves her home, as, eventually, we all leave our homes and go into the world without our parents.

Here is a recording of Edna St. Vincent Millay reading her poem.
This is a rare instance where I think the poem suffers by this treatment. Millay employs a soaring, “poetical” voice to deliver a poem that should sound more like a friend in a late-night despairing telephone call. But, if you listen closely, she breaks out of that voice a few times and the urgency and the pain of this poem ring through.

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