‘Air Raid,’ is a vividly pictorial poem written in a matter-of-fact style by the English poet Stephen Spender, popular for his writings on class struggle and inequality. This poem is set in the Second World War period, exactly during the Blitz that lasted from September 1940 to May 1941. The poem was written for the February 1941 issue of Horizon magazine, co-founded by Spender and two others. In this serious poem, Spender projects how one blistering force can destroy every hope and dream within a flash.
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‘Air Raid’ by Stephen Spender describes how people’s homes and hopes were destroyed by the German air raid during World War II.
This poem begins with calm and pedantic images of English domestic life during the Second World War. The speaker describes human beings in a mechanical fashion in order to draw readers’ attention to the fact that they all were unimportant to the mighty force. They carried on with their lives, their hopes, and their dreams without bothering much about what was happening outside. Everything was alright until the German bomber planes destroyed their hearths within a flash and turned their homes inside out, burying them decently under the debris of humanity.
You can read the full poem here.
In this room like a bowl of flowers filled with light
Family eyes look down on the white ceiling
Pages of a book, and the white ceiling
Like starch of a nurse, reflects a calm feeling.
The daughter, with hands outstretched to the fire,
Transmits through her veins the peaceful desire
Of the family tree, from which she was born,
To push tendrils through dark to a happier dawn.
Interestingly, Stephen Spender’s poem ‘Air Raid’ does not begin with the titular idea that is about air raids and their impacts on human lives. Rather the poet chooses to depict the sedentary lifestyle of the common people just before the Blitz that took place in England during World War II. He presents a comforting image of a room where a family is reading a book together. The family appears to be a bowl full of flowers filled with light.
The white ceiling of the room, as well as the white pages of the book, reflect a sense of comfort and peace inside the four walls of the home. In order to enhance the importance of the color white, the poet draws an analogy of a nurse’s white clothes. Like a nurse’s attire soothes the eyes and brings a sense of safety to the heart, a happy home’s white walls do the same. They reflect a calm feeling that resonates with the peace of mind of the inhabitants.
In the second quatrain, the speaker refers to the daughter of that house. Her hands are outstretched to the fireplace. The blood pumping inside her veins reflects a desire to live peacefully with her family members. This is not her sole wish, rather, it is the wish of her entire family, as described through the phrase, “Of the family tree.” Spender compares their collective hope to plant tendrils that extend from darkness to sunlight, following the direction of light at each dawn.
In the ancient house or the glass-and-steel flat
The vertical descendants of the genes that
With limbs utilizing chairs, tables, cups,
All the necessities and props.
In the third quatrain of ‘Air Raid,’ Spender’s poetic persona takes a cold and objective stance in order to describe humanity. He visualizes them as “vertical descendants of the genes,” going far back to the past when humanity first walked on the face of the earth. The present generation is supported by their houses. Some reside in their old, ancestral houses, while others are in modern “glass-and-steel” flats. Overall, the four walls of their respective homes bring comfort and safety to their hearts. On top of that, they separate them from the “weather,” an umbrella term for the external happenings, “outdoors.”
The following stanza depicts humans as mere actors playing out their parts. They do what their hearts tell them to do. Moreover, mechanically, they move their limbs to execute their actions. According to the speaker, the things they use to perform their necessities are mere “props.” This way of presenting humanity reflects how they were viewed during the two Great wars entire humankind ever witnessed.
They wear the right clothes and go the right ways,
Read the news, and play golf, and fill out their days
From an enemy’s vision of life, on their hearth.
And explodes. And tears their loved home down to earth.
The common people, according to Spender, always follow what is right. They are not like the Luftwaffe bombers, who lit thousands of people’s hopes, within a moment, to ashes. They wear what is right for them and go on about their right ways. They get up in the morning and read newspapers. Then they carry on with their daily schedule. Those who have hobbies, such as playing golf, try to make some time out of their daily schedule. At night, they eat and then go to sleep. According to the speaker, there is nothing unusual and strange in what they do every day.
In the following stanza, Spender uses short lines in order to mark a shift. This stanza begins with the phrase “In all this,” which is connected with the last line of the previous stanza. He admits that they could be right in what they find out about their daily lives. However, they find their worlds turned upside down or inside out when “an unreasoning fury,” a metaphorical reference to war, penetrates their lives. This fury impinges on the enemy’s vision of life. Here the “enemy” is none other than the German Luftwaffe. The bombs they dropped on the miniature-like tiny dots from high above exploded and tore their loved homes down to the earth.
Then the inside-turned-outside faces the street.
Rubble decently buries the dead human meat.
Convolvulus patterns of pink and blue line
That rectangle high up where they once used to dine.
The seventh stanza of ‘Air Raid’ continues the imagery of the previous stanza. It depicts the aftermath of the air bombing that sporadically destroyed several lives in the United Kingdom between 1940-41. Spender portrays the “inside-turned-outside” homes that face the streets. The rubble created by the immense impact of the bombing buried the dead humans. Their bodies were blasted into pieces. There were piles of furniture and the things used by the inhabitants. The speaker sighs by saying how those who could answer the telephones are gone.
While reading the eighth stanza, it seems Spender is talking about a particular city he witnessed next to the bombing. He depicts a wall of a destroyed house supported by its half-destroyed floor. The structure could have forgotten to fall, considering the large-scale destruction everywhere around. In the next lines, Spender draws readers’ attention to some flower-like patterns of pink and blue lines that reach high up to the place where the inhabitants used to dine. The lines could be formed by the torn clothes. Besides, the reference to Convolvulus, a genus of flowering plants, is ironic.
Bemused passers-by are bound to observe
That inside-shown-outside like the deep curve
And the tender sensitive life thrown away
By the high-flying will of the enemy’s day.
In the last two quatrains of ‘Air Raid,’ Spender uses the metaphor of a shell in order to describe the house debris. He compares the shell to the walls of the house and the mother-of-pearl to the inside of the house. According to the speaker, the passers-by were bemused at the scene. The devastated houses looked like the inside-shown-outside of a shell showcasing its mother-of-pearl. The mollusk living inside the shell was no longer there, along with its prized possession.
The shell-like houses were cracked open by the enemy’s ruthless claws. Here Spender compares the enemy to a clawed beast. By opening the houses inside-out, it not only devoured their contents but also “Years of love” and hopes. The sensitive parts of the houses, the humans, were rejected straight away that went beneath the debris. The phrase “high-flying will” is used to refer to the German Luftwaffe.
Structure and Form
The text of Spender’s ‘Air Raid’ consists of ten quatrains or stanzas having four lines each. In the first stanza, Spender uses the ABBB rhyme scheme, which means all the lines end with the same rhyme except the first one. Other stanzas follow a strict rhyming pattern of AABB. For instance, in the second stanza, “fire” (line one) rhymes with “desire” (line two); “born” (line three) rhymes with “dawn” (line four). There is no set metrical pattern in the poem. The point of view of the poem is interesting as it presents a calm, distanced speaker coldly commenting on the people’s pedantic lifestyle and the aftermath of the air raids.
In ‘Air Raid,’ readers can find the use of the following literary devices:
- Simile: The poem begins with a simile: “In this room like a bowl of flowers filled with light.” Spender compares the family to a bowl of flowers. Similarly, the white color of a nurse’s clothes is compared to that of the ceiling pages of a book.
- Repetition: In the first quatrain, the poet uses the phrase “white ceiling” twice in line two and line three. The use of the word “white” signals the peace and comfort of a home.
- Metaphor: In the second quatrain, Spender refers to plant tendrils in order to compare them to people’s hopes metaphorically. Similarly, “vertical descendants of the genes” are a metaphor for the present generation descending from their ancestors.
- Enjambment: In this poem, Spender cuts short some lines in order to break the flow in the middle and force readers to proceed to the next line, as in “In all this. And perhaps they are right. Nothing is/ Until an unreasoning fury impinges.” This sudden break in this line aptly resonates with the subject matter.
Stephen Spender’s war poem ‘Air Raid’ is about the impact of the Blitz or the bombing by the German Luftwaffe in the United Kingdom during World War II. This poem shows how domesticity is devastated by dooming forces of war.
Spender wrote the poem while the Blitz took place. It was first published in Horizon magazine in February 1941. The poem was later included in the collection Dolphins (1994) by Spender.
This poem taps on the themes of the horrors of war, destruction of human homes, loss of human lives, and domesticity. Through this piece, Spender shows how uncertain and insignificant human lives are in times of war.
‘Air Raid’ is written using a fixed stanza pattern and rhyme scheme. The text consists of a total of ten quatrains (stanzas with four lines each). The overall rhyme scheme of the poem is AABB. Besides, it is written from the third-person point of view.
Here is a list of a few poems that tap on the themes present in Spender’s shocking poem ‘Air Raid.’ You can explore more such Stephen Spender poems.
- ‘Air Raid’ by Chinua Achebe — This piece provides glimpses into the Nigerian Civil War from a civilian’s perspective.
- ‘Ballad of Birmingham’ by Dudley Randall — This moving piece is about the last moments of an innocent girl killed in a church bombing.
- ‘Casualty’ by Seamus Heaney — In this poem, Heaney describes the death of one of his friends after the events of Bloody Sunday in 1972 in Northern Ireland.
- ‘Still Falls the Rain’ by Edith Sitwell — This poem meditates on the suffering of English people during the Second World War.
You can also explore these best-known war poems.