Edna St. Vincent Millay is known for poems like ‘Ashes of Life,’ ‘I, Being Born a Woman and Distressed,’ and ‘What My Lips Have Kissed, and Where, and Why.’ These poems are quite different from ‘Grown-up.’ This piece is far more lighthearted than the others listed here. Young and old readers will take pleasure in reading the four short lines of this poem, and those with more experience will likely be able to read deeper into the text and understand Millay’s simile to a greater extent.
Summary of Grown-up
In the lines of ‘Grown-up,’ the speaker describes the fact that as a child, she used to fight with all her might for the freedom to do what she wanted. She alludes to staying up later than she was allowed to as one thing she would’ve preferred. As a girl, she “uttered prayers” and sobbed when told to go upstairs. Now, she realizes that the freedom of adulthood was not what it appeared to be.
Themes in Grown-up
In ‘Grown-up,’ Millay primarily addresses the theme of aging. In the four short lines that make up this poem, Millay suggests that aging and living as an adult is not all it’s cut out to be. What seemed like the best part of life as a child is not as wondrous as it appeared. She looks back on herself as a child and wonders over the fact that she ever fought so hard to stay up late with the adults.
Structure and Form
‘Grown-up’ by Edna St. Vicent Millay is a four-line poem that is contained within a single stanza of text. The lines follow a simple rhyme scheme of AABB. The meter is also quite consistent. Each of the lines contains eight syllables that mostly follow a pattern of iambic tetrameter. This means that each line contains four sets of two beats, the first of which is unstressed and the second is stressed.
Millay makes use of several literary devices in ‘Grown-up’ despite the brevity of the poem. These include but are not limited to caesura, imagery, humor, and alliteration. The latter is a type of repetition that’s concerned with the use of the same consonant sound at the beginning of words. For example, “sobbed” and “stairs” in line two as well as “prayers” and “plate” in lines one and three. Due to the length of the poem, the moments of repetition are more obvious and more impactful.
Imagery is a very important technique that the best poets make successful use of in their work. In this case, readers can find a great example in Millay’s phrase “uttered prayers.” These two works evoke different responses and, when put together, form the perfect image of an irritable child who has no desire to go to bed when her parents tell her to. This is only expanded in the second line with words like “sobbed” and “cursed.”
Caesurae are pauses in the middle of lines that occur either due to the poet’s use of meter or punctuation. The third line is a great example. It reads: “That now, domestic as a plate.” The first line of the poem is another example, one that uses meter rather than punctuation to create a pause.
Humor is a less valued, although a highly important part of a great number of poems. In this case, Millay adds humor into the text in order to connect with the largest number of readers possible. The poem allows one to reflect on their own childhood while also laughing at themselves and their perceptions as they’ve aged.
Analysis of Grown-up
Was it for this I uttered prayers,
And sobbed and cursed and kicked the stairs,
In the first lines of ‘Grown-up,’ the speaker begins by asking the first part of a question. It’s not until the fourth line that the question concludes, but its first two pieces provide insight into how it’s going to finish. The speaker is looking back on her youth and trying to remember the desire to be treated as an adult and have free rein over when she went to bed, how she acted, and where she went. She starts out with the words “Was it for this,” making it clear before the second half of the question is even presented that she’s not going to be speaking about adulthood as something worth fighting for.
She uses imagery in these lines to describe herself as a child, something that many readers will likely be able to relate to. She recalls sobbing and cursing and kicking the stairs when she was told what to do or perhaps told she had to go to bed. She “uttered prayers” that she didn’t really feel like saying and grudgingly went along with what her parents told her. As a child, she saw the grown-up world as something greater and more magical than it is. This is something she learned quite quickly as she aged.
That now, domestic as a plate,
I should retire at half-past eight?
In the third line of ‘Grown-up,’, the speaker gets slightly more serious. Now, as a grown person, she is living a very different life, or at least a different feeling one, then she thought she would as a child. Rather than a life of freedom and excitement, she’s as “domestic as a plate.” This similarity is quite impactful, suggesting that the speaker feels drab, confined to her home, and incredibly normal, not things she likely thought she’d be when she was younger.
The final line suggests that there’s nothing grand or wonderful about staying up later than one wants. Either by choice or necessity, she now retires at “half-past eight.” This also alludes to the fact that there’s nothing worth her time to stay up later for. Despite the underlying feelings go depression, solitude, and confinement, there is humor in these lines. This is enhanced by the perfect rhyme scheme.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Grown-up’ should also consider reading some other poems about getting older. For example,
- ‘Growing Old’ by Matthew Arnold – is filled with questions about what old age is like and accompanied by a few answers.
- ‘Clocks’ by Gillian Clarke – is an intricate poem in which the poet discusses the nature of growing up and how time impacts children.
- ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood‘ by William Wordsworth – one of Wordsworth’s best-known poems and one that speaks in-depth on his ideas about aging and the value of childhood.