An “elegy” at one time indicated a poem of mourning for an admired member of the nobility or for a deceased loved one. Though this meaning sometimes still holds, the term is now applied to virtually any verse meditation on loss. “The Heroes of Childhood” is a modern folk elegy which romantically laments, not a particular human death, but the death of childhood and the illusions of youth. Written in five five-line stanzas, the poem’s end rhyme and regular metrics contribute to its innocent, songlike quality. That quality reinforces the poem’s very subject—with mounting irony.
The “childhood heroes” of the poem’s first stanza are immediately described in terms of the American West: “their pearl-handled six-guns never missed fire,” and “In a town full of badmen they never lost face.” The point of view is first-person plural, which serves to generalize or universalize the subject. Faith in human goodness and infallibility is a typical experience of childhood, and the objects of admiration are like frontier heroes with their perfect aim and absolute goodness.
Stanza 2 continues the fictitious Wild West analogy but introduces two names from nonfictitious history: “Big Bill Haywood” and “Two Gun Marx.” Marx is Karl Marx, the father of socialism and Communism, and Haywood was William Dudley Haywood, the American labor leader. These are the outlaw heroes who “stood against the bankers” to give to the poor. (From...
(The entire section is 514 words.)