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Stephen Spender

An elementary school classroom in a slum

Stanza Three & Four

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 their slag heap, these children
Wear skins peeped through by bones and spectacles of steel
With mended glass, like bottle bits on stones."
  • What words tell us that the poet probably does not have the slums of London in mind? (2)

[Need help?]

  • What do we learn about these children from the words "these children wear skins peeped through by bones"? (4)

[Need help?]

"Unless, governor, teacher, inspector, visitor,
This map becomes their window and these windows
That shut upon their lives like catacombs."
  • What is the purpose of mentioning this list of people? (2)

[Need help?]

  • Explain the image of the windows opening on their lives "like catacombs". (4)

[Need help?]

  • What does the poet suggest can be done for the children? Is he being realistic? (4)

[Need help?]

"Let their tongues
Run naked into books, the white and green leaves open."
  • What does the poet mean when he begs the authorities to "let their tongues run naked into books"? (2)

[Need help?]

  • Explain the contrast between "the white and the green leaves". Why is each "opening"? (4)

[Need help?]

" Theirs whose language is the sun."
  • Contrast this language with the world in which the children live. (2)

[Need help?]

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