‘An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum’ by Stephen Spender is a poem about the children who live in a slum. The poet describes the harsh living conditions of those poor kids. He also talks about the lack of opportunities from which they are betrayed. The difference between the educational institutions of the higher class and lower class people makes it clear why the latter is lagging. A child’s early years build the foundation of the future.
In the case of the poor children, they do not get a quality education in their elementary school. They are deprived not only of quality education but also of the cozy infrastructure which a privileged kid gets easily. Somewhere in the middle of the poem, the presence of the poetic persona also illustrates the concept of “otherness,” which depicts the social inequality between the poor “them” and the fortunate “us.” You can read the whole poem ‘An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum’ here.
Summary, Stanza by Stanza
‘An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum‘ by Stephen Spender is a poem about the condition of elementary schools situated in slums.
‘An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum’ by Stephen Spender presents the description of the poor children in the first stanza. The children who read in that elementary school have some common physical features. Their faces seem to the poet as “rootless weeds” and their “hair torn around their pallor” or pale face. There is a tall girl in the class. Her physique is so weak that her body cannot hold the weight of her head. The eyes of a boy in the class look like that of a rat. Another boy sitting in the classroom has some hereditary bone disorder. He is seen by the poet reading his lesson. “At the back of the dim class,” an “unnoted, sweet and young” boy is dreaming about the “squirrel’s game.”
In the second stanza, Stephen Spender says that the white walls or “sour creams walls” of the classroom contain the inscriptions of donations besides the picture of Shakespeare. Thereafter the poet provides the details of the outside world, which is much different from that of the slum kids. There are “civilized domes” and the “flowery” valleys like Australian Tyrol. The kids living in that world have an “open-handed” map to discover whatever places they want. In contrast, the children of the slum school cannot come out of “their world.” The “narrow street” of their world is sealed in with the “lead sky,” symbolizing darkness and pessimism. At last, the poet reiterates that those kids are deprived of the scenic beauties of the “civilized world” mentioned above.
The poet thinks that the ships, sun, and love in Shakespeare’s works might have tempted the slum children to dream. When they come out of their dreamy world, they find themselves in their “cramped” hole-like rooms and the heap of “slag” around. These children suffer from malnutrition. They have other physical ailments too. There are no scopes of improvement in their “foggy slum.” That’s why Stephen Spender tells the privileged class to “blot their maps with slums as big as doom.”
At last, the poet is sure about their upheaval. The agents of the upper class have tried to shut the window of opportunity upon their lives. Spender thinks it cannot stop them. One day they will break open the shackles and run to the green fields. The golden sands below and the azure sky above will be their world. Nature with her books’ white and green pages will provide knowledge and inspiration. They don’t need the linguistics of the “class” since they know the language of nature. With this note of optimism, Stephen Spender ends his poem, ‘An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum.’
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
Far far from gusty waves these children’s faces.
Of squirrel’s game, in tree room, other than this.
In the first stanza of ‘An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum,’ Stephen Spender presents the images of the children studying in the elementary school. The first line of the poem makes it very clear that those kids do not belong to the society of high-class people. Their faces depict who they are. Most of them suffer from some underlying disease. For example, a boy in the class has been suffering from some genetic bone disorder. Apart from the dark picture of the children suffering from malnutrition, a boy is brimming with hope and dream on the last bench of the class.
Stephen Spender provides the image of the children and presents a wholesome picture of the children living in the slums. Those small girls and boys experience many problems like poverty, disease, malnutrition, and, last but not most minor social stigma. Yet, the poet thinks a few kids have dreams in their eyes. They have the power of imagination. A hidden urge of coming out of their slums and proving their worth is there in their hearts. Thus the boy suffering from the “gnarled disease” rejects his physical limitation. He comes to the elementary school and tries to focus on his lessons in the classroom. He has a dream.
On sour cream walls, donations. Shakespeare’s head,
Far far from rivers, capes, and stars of words.
In the second stanza, the poet presents a graphic description of their classroom. The color of the classroom walls clarifies the mental state of the kids. For them, life tastes like sour cream. It is also a reference to the poor condition of the walls. Then the poet quickly shifts to the flowery world outside the slums. It is meant for creating an ironic representation of the poem’s context.
In the world of the privileged, the day begins with hope. The poor kids thrive in their filthy slums. In contrast, the wealthy class lives comfortably in their “civilized domes riding all cities.” Their kids have all the opportunities. In front of them, the bright world awaits with her rivers, capes, and starry sky. The map of options assists them while the poor kids have only the classroom window to look outside. There is nothing to savor as they live beside the narrow street under the dark sky. It provides an idea of the geographical location where the slums are generally found.
Surely, Shakespeare is wicked, the map a bad example,
So blot their maps with slums as big as doom.
Now, the poet thinks that in the works of Shakespeare, the wandering ships, the bright sun above, and the love between two souls might have tempted the poor children to dream. Those things have also tempted them to steal as they don’t have enough money to prosper in their lives. The poet asks readers what they can do instead of resorting to unfair means. Those who suffer in the unhealthy conditions of the slum have nothing but the foggy future waiting for them. The endless night of their lives is like an imposed enslavement.
Those children are so weak that one can see their bones under the skin. The poet uses an image of the “spectacles of steel with mended glass” to portray their conditions. According to him, they are like “bottle bits on stones.” Fate has broken their dreams as one breaks the frail glass. Those kids are doomed. The society of the upper-classmen does not allow them to come out of their slums. So the poet tersely says that those men are free to remove their geographical existence. There is no need to give the slums any place in their maps.
Unless, governor, inspector, visitor,
History theirs whose language is the sun.
The snobbish men who feel tense about the poor kids’ existence near their world do not stop here. They send their official friends to evacuate them like dirt. Those kids have no place in their world to explore. What they have, is only the window to look outside and think. Those men try to shut upon the windows of their world. Their ultimate aim is to close them in the metaphorical catacombs or underground cemeteries. Then there will be a sense of satisfaction in their hearts. The poet leaves an open-ended question here. Isn’t life in a slum similar to dying alive in a suffocating coffin?
Stephen Spender cannot tolerate it. He implores the kids to come out of their hides and break all the hindrances. It is their right to run in the green fields. The world is also for them. They can run under the bright blue sky. The poet invokes nature to open her books for those poor kids who cannot afford quality education. Nature is their only book. They can get knowledge of it. From time immemorial, mother nature always assisted those rejected by society. The poet thinks that their history can inspire those poor kids. They can learn the language of nature from them.
‘An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum’ by Stephen Spender is in free verse. There are some imperfect rhyme schemes in the poem. While taking the poem as a whole, the rhyme scheme does not seem to follow a specific order. The loose lines without any intricately woven decorum depict the poet’s disillusionment with any order. Whatsoever, the text of the poem contains four stanzas. Each stanza of the poem consists of eight lines having uneven line lengths.
Poetic Devices, Stanza by Stanza
‘An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum‘ by Stephen Spender contains some important poetic devices which bring out the internal meaning of the lines. The literary devices used in each stanza are significant concerning the theme of the poem.
In the poem’s first stanza, Stephen Spender uses a simile while comparing the “children’s faces” to “rootless weeds.” “The paper-seeming boy” is a metaphor. It signifies the weak health of the boy. In the following line, the poet makes use of zeugma. It is a zeugma since the verb “reciting” in this line applies to the “gnarled disease” and “his lesson.” There is a synecdoche in the line, “His eyes live in a dream,” in which the poet refers to the eyes of the boy in place of himself.
In the second stanza, “sour cream walls” is a metaphor. Here the poet compares the color of the sour cream with the wall’s color. There is a personification in the line, “civilized dome riding all cities.” There is a metonymy in the line, “Awarding the world its world.” In this case, the poet refers to the privileged class by using “world.” The variety of metonymy used here is the container for the thing contained. The poet uses another metaphor by comparing the window of the class to the poor children’s world. It is a reference to nature outside the windows. In the upcoming lines, “future’s painted with a fog,” “lead sky,” and “stars of words” are also metaphors. Apart from that, the poet uses alliteration in the following phrases, “Street sealed” and “Far far from.”
In the first lines of this stanza, there is a metonymy. The poet refers to the works of Shakespeare by using only his name. There is a climax in the phrase, “ships and sun and love.” The use of “and” twice in this line makes it also an example of polysyndeton. “Cramped holes” is a metaphor for slum houses. The poet makes use of rhetorical question or interrogation in these lines, “For lives that slyly turn in their cramped holes/ From fog to endless night?” Structurally, the meaning of these lines becomes clear when the part of it in the following line is added to the former one. It is called enjambment. There are many instances where the poet uses this device to connect the sense of the lines intricately. There is a simile comparing “spectacles” and “bottle bits of stones.” In the last line, there is another simile.
“Unless, governor, inspector, visitor” is an anticlimax. Here the poet uses this order for the sake of poetic irony. In the line, “That shut upon their lives like catacombs,” the poet uses a simile to compare their slum to “catacombs.” There is an apostrophe in the fourth line as the poet invokes the children to break their barriers. The phrase “gold sands” might be a metonymy as it references the color of sands under sunlight. There is a personification in the line, “white and green leaves open….” The last line contains a natural metaphor. The poet uses the sun as a symbol of nature and power in this line. Hence it is also an instance of metonymy.
Stephen Harold Spender, the poet of ‘An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum,’ mainly concentrated on social injustice and class struggle. He had a bent towards socialism and the ideals of Marxism. Like his other works, Spender voices his opinion against Capitalism and its effects in this poem. There are certain areas where the poem reflects Spender’s disgust for the privileged class. He is sympathetic towards the people of slums. Their condition pains the poet deep. But he is not a silent listener. The last stanza of the poem makes it clear to the readers.
The central idea is that the children living in impoverished communities do not get the same quality education as those living in wealthier areas. This helps to promote a cycle of inequity throughout the years.
The poet concludes the poem on a hopeful note, wishing for a different future for these children. He hopes that their history will inspire them to seek out freedom, inspired by nature.
The main theme of this poem is education. The speaker contrasts the education the “slum kids” receive with that wealthier children experience. He also brings in the concept of education itself and what dictates a good education.
The speaker is someone who has a great deal of insight into the lives of children living in slums. It’s probably that Spender saw himself as the speaker. His poetry often deals with themes of social justice.
There are a handful of poems that are similar to the theme of ‘An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum’ by Stephen Spender. Here is the list of a few of these poetic works below.
- ‘My Parents‘ by Stephen Spender – In this poem by Stephen Spender the sociological gap between “them” and “us” is present.
- ‘The Chimney Sweeper: A little black thing among the snow‘ by William Blake – In this poem, William Blake presents the mental suffering of a child belonging to the lower section of society.
- ‘To the Poor’ by Anna Lætitia Barbauld – There is a religious perspective of poverty in this poem by Anna Lætitia Barbauld. In a nutshell, it provides two different spectacles to see the theme of poverty.
- ‘Poverty‘ by Marinela Reka – In this poem written by Marinela Reka, there is a poetic musing on the theme of poverty.
At Poem Analysis, you can find the list of poems analyzed from Educational Syllabuses here. You can also find CBSE English Literature Class–XII “Flamingo” Poems Analyzed by our poetry experts.