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Stephen Spender

An elementary school classroom in a slum

Stanza One

Keith Tankard
Updated: 22 January 2014
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The poet looks at the grim conditions prevailing at a primary school in a British slum. He calls on the authorities to do something to lift these children from their situation of educational squalor to a world of real literacy and learning.


Spender was born in London in 1909. His parents were both literary people, his father being a journalist while his mother was a painter and a poet.

Theirs was middle class society and, typically for those days, they tended to despise the ways of the working class. His parents' attitude would naturally influence the poet as a young boy -- hence the theme of his poem "My parents kept me from children who were rough".

The poet initially attended Oxford University but did not finish his degree. Indeed, he later boasted about the fact that he had never ever passed an exam in his whole life.

While he was at Oxford, however, he fell under the influence of the poet W.H. Auden with whom he did some major collaboration. Later he would also pal up with both Louis MacNeice and Cecil Day-Lewis, as well has many other rising English poets.

Instead of finishing his degree, Spender spent time in Germany where he studied some of the German poets.

Germany during the 1920s was a hotbed of socialism and Spender became caught up in this political movement -- becoming for a time an ardent admirer of communism itself.

The world in which he lived, however, quickly came to be dominated by a struggle between fascism and communism, and Spender became involved in this clash of ideals. Indeed, he even launched himself into the Spanish Civil War where he sided with the socialist forces opposed the fascist dictator, General Franco.

Despite his lack of a degree, Spender's proven poetic track record allowed him to teach at various American universities. In 1965 he was appointed "Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry" to the United States Library of Congress.

He would eventually return to England, however, where he took up a post as Professor of Rhetoric at Gresham College and, later, Professor of English at the University College in London.

As early as 1962, Spender was awarded a C.B.E. and in 1983 he was honoured with a knighthood for his poetry. He died in 1995 at the age of 86.

Have you looked at the questions
in the right column?
Read the left column and then answer
the following questions:

"Far far from gusty waves these children's faces.
Like rootless weeds, the hair torn around their pallor."

The poet begins with two non-sentences, each of which is missing a verb. He also uses inverse word order.
  • Rewrite each sentence, using standard word-ordering and adding the verbs -- ensuring, of course, that your sentences make clear the poet's meaning. (4)

[Need help?]

  • Explain the link between the "children's faces" and the "gusty waves". (4)

[Need help?]

  • Why would the "torn hair" be compared to "rootless weeds"? (4)

[Need help?]

  • Why does the poet use the word "pallor" instead of "faces" in "the hair torn around their pallor"? (4)

[Need help?]

"The tall girl with her weighed-down head. The paper-
seeming boy, with rat's eyes. The stunted, unlucky heir
Of twisted bones, reciting a father's gnarled disease,
His lesson from his desk."
  • Why would the tall girl have a "weighed-down head"? (4)

[Need help?]

  • Why is the boy "paper-seeming", and why does he have "rat's eyes"? (4)

[Need help?]

  • Comment on the bitter irony of the boy "reciting a father's gnarled disease". (4)

[Need help?]

"At back of the dim class
One unnoted, sweet and young. His eyes live in a dream,
Of squirrel's game, in the tree room, other than this."
  • What is the difference between this boy and the children in his class? (4)

[Need help?]

Try another worksheet?

See also:
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