The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 514

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.

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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 about the time of his college years, Thomas McGrath himself was a Marxist, and he was even blacklisted during the McCarthy era.) At this point in the poem, the speaker seems to be describing the heroes, not of childhood and myth, but of young adulthood and history, the perspective of youth coming to an awareness of real-world events and politics.

Even this faith in historical heroes, however, is eventually disturbed: “But we in our time are not so sure.” When “we”—as opposed to childhood’s god-heroes—are called to account, “our hearts” are “strung up” by hard thought about the realities of attempting political revolution. The childhood analogy of Wild West heroes is continued here, but the speaker now acknowledges the difficulties of living up to childhood ideals. The efforts this speaker has made to eliminate social injustice (through the labor movement and socialist reform) are condemned by the very society those efforts were meant to assist.

The natural next step in disillusionment is to examine anew one’s childhood heroes and to consider whether, indeed, they too awaken at night, feverish with doubts. The tone of this fourth stanza is distinctly elegiac: “Perhaps we were mistaken, it has been so long. . . .” Each sentence here ends with a question, and the stanza is itself about raising ultimate questions. The speaker ends with an admonition that “The heart must build its own direction—/ Which only in the future has a permanent shape.” The fall from faith has left only a romantic hope for future revolution, one constructed out of the “heart” rather than faith in human gods. Childhood and this poem itself thus come to their grim, though stubbornly idealistic, conclusion.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 400

McGrath’s poems are characterized by incredible formal variety. Though much of his later work is free verse, he sets an adroit pen to seemingly any formal exercise, including “The Heroes of Childhood.” The poem is written in fairly regular iambic tetrameter, with an end-rhyme scheme of aabba. Though these formal choices contribute to the folk-songlike quality of the piece, the meter is never so regular and the end rhyme never so direct as to reduce the poem to pure playfulness or silliness. The first stanza, in fact, demonstrates his skill at slant rhyme: “austere,” “fire” and “there,” as well as “dice” and “face.” The second stanza includes “pure,” “car,” and “poor,” as well as “Marx” and “works.” These off rhymes blunt the potential singsong effect of true end rhyme. In a poem about both childhood innocence and hard adult realities, McGrath’s rhyme scheme seems here to be just right.

Typical also of McGrath’s work is an impersonal point of view. Though some of his poems are indeed intimate, he more often employs distancing devices to address universal political issues. In the case of “The Heroes of Childhood,” McGrath accomplishes this distance through a first person plural angle of vision. One could easily substitute “I” for each “we” in this poem; the particularly American childhood, the conversion to Marxism, the subsequent doubts and even blacklisting—these are biographical elements of McGrath’s own life. His choice of the plural pronoun, however, generalizes the poem, and underscores the universality of social concerns he felt took precedence over personal biography.

Point of view and sound patterns are important devices in “The Heroes of Childhood.” More than anything, however, the poem relies on a central, extended figure: the American West as an emblem of American innocence. The Hollywood-style Wild West described in this piece, with its “Dead Eye Dans” and pure-hearted outlaws, is like the philosophic childhood of the speaker, and perhaps America generally. The key feature of such a philosophy, as of Hollywood popular film, is illusion. According to this vision, morality is unambiguous, the good guys always win and the good guys are always on our side. By the end of the poem, however, the figurative West has become “this dead world’s Indian Nation.” The immature vision of the speaker thus gives over to a single, real, and terrible image: the mass grave of America’s native people.

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Themes