Themes and Meanings

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At the center of McGrath’s poem is the idea of direction and its loss, or illusion and disillusion. This is a well-worn theme. In the work of writers from every part of the globe, there appears in imaginative writing some notion of the Fall, a loss of original innocence and faith, and the subsequent troubles of mortality and incapacity.

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The first illusion for McGrath is the American Dream—Hollywood-style heroes with their white hats and horses—but this is soon replaced by a young man’s Communist ideals. In the Marxist view, direction is all-important because it is predetermined. The world is on an inevitable course toward a workers’ utopia, free of class struggle. Yet in stanza 4, the speaker’s faith in absolute direction, absolute ideals of any kind, is eroding: “Did they too wake at night . . ./ And wonder when direction would be clear if ever?” At the far end of both the American and the Marxist dream is loss of moral certainty and purpose.

Interestingly, “The Heroes of Childhood” ends with a reaffirmed faith in a new type of direction through what McGrath calls “the heart.” This is not the heart of any particular person, group, or view, but is the heart, and so is perhaps intended as some essential self, a romantic source or spring. It might be the imagination as well, casting forward its shapes and building its own spontaneous paths, independent of worldly change and ideologies. “The heart must build its own direction—/ Which only in the future has a permanent shape.”

Such indefinite, rather wistful sentiments are not necessarily typical of McGrath. Throughout much of his work, he seems to insist on tangible, earthly remedies for tangible human problems. He is critical of Platonic idealism and notions of afterlife salvation. He wants change right here and now, in the world we know. Nevertheless, in such poems as “The Heroes of Childhood,” efforts to change the world are found to be untenable, fraught with ambiguities. He thus comes to rely on the less practical redemption of “the heart.”

Certainly no other American poet has demonstrated such an unlikely interlocking of elements as we find in McGrath. Few poets write from both artistic expertise as well as overt political convictions—and Communist ones, at that—but despite those life-long convictions, in this poem McGrath seems to affirm, instead, creative imagination as the source of change and goodness. The imagination is an imperfect assurance, however, and some readers may find the poem’s conclusion unconvincing, or at least difficult: The heart “left hanging” must somehow now start building.

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