Analysis of the poem "The truly great" by Stephen Spender

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Written By Shaun Kearney 6E 2003

"The Truly Great", a treatise on greatness.

(Poem written by Stephen Spender)

This poem, broadly, is an attempt to describe what makes a person "truly" great. The poem was written in the 1930's during wartime, this no doubt influenced the poet. However, soldiers are not the only people he is referring to. He is essentially referring to anyone who selflessly fights for what they believe in.

"I think continually of those who were truly great

Who, from the womb, remembered the soul's history

Through corridors of light where the hours are suns,

Endless and singing."

Here the poet makes an important defining point in the word "truly", it sets the theme for the rest of the poem which expands upon this idea of truth showing what it is and how it effects the air it touches. Another important word here is "continually", in my mind something cannot be thought of continually without some form of prompting: this prompting is his musing or concern over the men in the war.

In the next few lines he defines artistically a characteristic he believes to be endowed in men of true greatness, that of passion. He says that even before birth these men are filled with passion and love ("soul's history"), where they enjoy every moment in and "endless" indulgence in passion and enjoyment ("singing"). In comparing them to a child in the "womb", he endows these men or woman with a child's willingness to participate or enjoy things: old and new.

Was that their lips, still touched with fire,

Should tell of the spirit clothed from head to foot in song.

And who hoarded from the spring branches

The desires falling across their bodies like blossoms.

The poet continues to talk about the idea of passion in this passage. He refers to the "endless singing", emphasizing the idea of childlike exuberance from the womb with the word "still". He says that their actions ("lips" with reference to "singing") still filled with passion ("fire") tell of the spirit or their strong beliefs in every thing that they do ("clothed from head to foot"). The repetition of this idea of a song of the spirit gives us the idea that their beliefs are unwavering, steady and strong. The next two lines discuss dreams and the ability to dream unrestrained again almost like a child. This idea of unrestraint is emphasized by the word "hoarded". In the words "spring branches" we get the idea of newly growing dreams or "desires" as he puts it. The desires are compared to newly grown blossoms being taken from a spring branch. This idea of newness, spring and dreams again seems to illustrate ideas pointing to the character of a child. The use of the word "bodies" could shed a different interpretation of this, the flowers are dreams and desires as was established but could they be the same flowers thrown over a coffin as it lies waiting for dirt in a grave?

What is precious is never to forget

The delight of the blood drawn from ancient springs

Breaking through rocks in worlds before our earth;

Never to deny its pleasure in the simple morning light,

Nor its grave evening demand for love;

Never to allow gradually the traffic to smother

With noise and fog the flowering of the spirit.

In the first paragraph Spender focused on passion, here he focuses on human ideals. He says that even before we lived ("before our earth") men have needed and delight in the things and sustenance ("blood") that make us who we are. In this with the reference to "our earth" I feel not only is he making a point about another time, but with emphasis on the word "our" we see that he is also referring to other people. Here he cleverly blends these ideas, suddenly he has illustrated that not only do we require what makes us human but that we all are men and require similar things: this is potent phrase on human rights with reference to race and gender.

He continues to expand on this idea. He says we should never "deny its...
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