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Stephen Spender

February 28, 1909July 16, 1995

Stephen Spender (1909-1995)

English poet, essayist and writer

Briefly taught in a school in Devon
Professor at University College, London
Professor Emeritus
Focus on social injustice and class struggle in work
Tension between poetic lyricism, romantic idealism and a
strong political consciousness

An Elementary School
Classroom in a Slum
Published in Selected Poems (1964)

Background of the poem

Published in 1964- outstanding example of political voice
Expresses his ideology on government , economics and
Written during the Civil Rights Movement in the US
Commentary on racist issues
Socialist Proclamation against Capitalism and Social
Though British, his extreme left- leaning political
ideologies were in response to the global question
concerning social injustice
Hence, the poem has a universal significance

The opening stanza
provides a clear, but dreary depiction of the students in the classroom.
The first child is a "tall girl with [a] weighed-down head.
is physically and emotionally exhausted,
life seems to have dredged from her body and sapped from her mind.

Her classmates are in no better condition. "The paper- / seeming boy, with rat's
eyes" is paper-thin and weak.
eyes are defensive and scared, like a scavenger, a rat.
prospect for survival, let alone success, is bleak.

Another student, "the stunted, unlucky heir / Of twisted bones," is the victim of
a genetic disorder.-"father's gnarled disease";
left disfigured,
trapped in a physically challenged body.

The opening stanza (contd)

Spender then describes the boy "at back of the dim class," stating, "His eyes
live in a dream."
a glimmer of wary hope , a shiver of mental damnation

he is dreaming of a life he may achieve or has lost his mind to the "squirrel's
This vague distinction between these two conflicting interpretations
exposes all the students' futures - there is little or no expectation that
they will succeed, and the best they can hope for is to keep their sanity
and not fall victim to a the reality.
Alternately, the boy's dreaming eyes may harbor an honest desire for true
success. This last boy, "unnoted, sweet and young," may understand his
position in society and see the sadness of his fellow students. With this
understanding, he may represent hope for social change, instead of
merely being an individual who has lost his mind.

The second stanza

The children are from the lowest class; they are the children of the poor.
Spender describes the classroom and its contents.- It is full of "donations - of others'
capital The maps, books, and "Shakespeare's head" They are tools to hold them in
place , hope for a better existence and also help them escape
Spender writes,
... for these
Children, these windows, not this map, their world,
Where all their future's painted with a fog,
A narrow street sealed in with a lead sky
Far far from rivers, capes, and stars of words.
The "donations" may give a glimpse of some world to the students, but not of their world.
Their world is not pleasant it is unpleasant. Their future is bleak, unknown, and
The children in "An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum" are trapped by their social
and economic status as children of the have-nots.

The third stanza

Spender's cynicism is a commentary on the upper class and their
circumventing tactics in the effort to hold a firm grip on lower-class citizens :
hope for a better future
initiation into a world of crime

The true victims of the injustice of the class struggle: the children.

Spender is making a resounding humanist statement about the treatment of

children in this poem. It appears that he is more sickened by humanity's
disregard for the children than by the social and economic framework that has
doomed these children to the slums.

The fourth stanza

Spender comes full circle.- replaces cynicism with hope, a plea for a new
manifesto for the children.
Petitions the powers that be
Begs for a change
Free the children
Show them the world directly

Spender further hopes that the children will be able to "let their tongues / Run
naked into books the white and green leaves open.
Spender claims that if students are truly allowed free exploration--naked
tongues running freely through donated books--then their education and their
"language" will become the "sun" burning away the "fog" that has sealed their
fates and doomed them to "An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum."

History theirs whose language is the sun

considered in the context of all that has gone before:
Spender has been picturing the drab, dull & dreary lives of the children in
their classroom - 'where all their future's painted with a fog'.
By way of contrast, there is the 'escape' into imagination, into new 'worlds':
the vista of 'rivers' and 'capes' (projecting masses of land) in the poster
pictures on the walls. 'Stars of words' conjures up the role of literature
as something 'magical' like the stars at night.
These stars are sometimes seen as 'beacons' or 'points of reference' which
serve to show us the way, both literally & metaphorically -the 'sprinkling'
of words on a page with that of stars in the sky is noteworthy.
Spender ends with a hope for a bright future for these children!

Poetic Technique

Homeric beginning- lofty nature

Natural descriptions- the waves in the picture are fascinating but
also reminiscent of the stirrings of Nationalism in Europe.
Antithetical imagery-contrast between the condition of the children
and the subjects of their learning
Metaphoric merger of the children with the environment in which
they live
Implied questions

Is Shakespeare wicked as well as liberating?

Are the maps a temptation or hope for a new future?

Escapism- a sudden desire in the last stanza that these children will be magically
released form bondage into freedom

Poetic Technique (contd)

Focuses on the rigid class distinctions in civil society

Shows the impact of capitalistic domination
Hence, their classroom is portrayed metaphorically
A narrow street sealed in with a lead sky
Shows the failure of education to improve the lives of the children
Highlights the pathos in the poem
Ends on a note of prophetic hope

Our assessment
In this poem, Spender speaks about the poverty and lack of
facilities for the poor in a manner so as to awaken the
conscience of the Capitalist rulers in his country.
Incidentally, he also reaches out to the millions of other
readers in whose countries similar situations exist.

Thank you