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Stephen Spender

An elementary school classroom in a slum

Stanza Two

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:

"On sour cream walls, donations. Shakespeare's head,
Cloudless at dawn, civilized dome riding all cities.
Belled, flowery, Tyrolese valley. Open-handed map
Awarding the world its world."
  • What is a pun? Comment on the pun contained in the words "On sour cream walls". (4)

[Need help?]

  • Why does the poet refer specifically to the fact that the pictures were donated? (2)

[Need help?]

  • A poetry anthology states that the "civilized dome" refers to Shakespeare's bald head. Is this the only meaning? Explain. (4)

[Need help?]

  • In what way is the map "open-handed"? (4)

[Need help?]

"And yet, for these
Children, these windows, not this world, are world."
  • Rewrite this sentence in such a way that the meaning is clear. (4)

[Need help?]

"Where all their futures painted with a fog,
A narrow street sealed in with a lead sky,
Far far from rivers, capes, and stars of words."
  • What is the poet predicting about the future for all these children? (4)

[Need help?]

  • Comment on the image in "Where all their futures [will be] painted with a fog". (4)

[Need help?]

"Far far from rivers, capes, and stars of words."
  • What is meant by CLIMAX in literature? (2)

[Need help?]

  • Is the poet using CLIMAX in the line above? If so, please explain it. (4)

[Need help?]

  • What is the significance of "stars of words"? (4)

[Need help?]

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See also:
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