Stephen Spender

In Railway Halls (XXX) by Stephen Spender

‘In Railway Halls’ challenges the reader for their complicity in the suffering of the vulnerable in society.

Stephen Spender’s ‘In Railway Halls‘ depicts the tragic circumstances of homeless people sheltering in the titular railway hall. The poem is typical of Spender insofar as it showcases his sympathies for the poor and destitute. The poem is not passive in the face of this suffering, but instead functions as a critique of the rich and powerful by reminding the reader they have allowed suffering to exist in perpetuity.

In Railway Halls (XXX) by Stephen Spender


Summary

In Railway Halls‘ is an impassioned critique of those who allow suffering to exist in society, both in the present and the past.

The poem begins by describing the homeless people and the places they ordinarily reside. As the poem progresses, Spender declares his unwillingness to elevate the experience of these people through his poetry, preferring to show them as they really were, rather than abstract them. Ultimately, the poem establishes a direct connection between the destitute figures Spender saw and the countless examples of human suffering throughout history. The poem is widely studied in academic institutions in the UK and beyond.

You can read the full poem here.

Context

Stephen Spender was born in London in 1909 and was a respected poet, essayist, and novelist who spent time with some of the most iconic literary figures of the twentieth century, including Ernest Hemingway, T.S Eliot, and Pablo Neruda. In later life, Spender was a Professor of English at University College London. His poetry shows his sensitivity to the human toll that modernity was taking. Spender’s work often engaged with technology, so much so that he became known, alongside other 1930s writers, as one of the ‘Pylon Poets.’ It was during this decade that he wrote ‘In Railway Halls,’ and the poem contains many examples of the principles that pervade his poetry.

Detailed Analysis

Stanza One

In railway halls, on pavements near the traffic
They beg, their eyes made big by empty staring
And only measuring Time, like the blank clock.

The setting of the poem is significant as the railway hall embodies the feats of modernity and technology. Spender could therefore be inviting the readers to question why, if they are capable of such impressive feats, they cannot protect the vulnerable. The use of the ambiguous pronoun “they” emphasizes the scale of the suffering as it has no upper limit. It also strips the homeless people of their identities to showcase the severity of their struggle.

Spender metaphorically suggests that, through the eyes of the homeless, it is possible to measure the passage of time. This could suggest he believed human history should not be encountered through the lives and deeds of individuals but through the weight of human suffering. This connection is reinforced through the simile on the third line. The fact it is a “bank” clock further reminds the reader that money has always been valued above the needs of the vulnerable.

Stanza Two

No, I shall weave no tracery of pen ornament
(…)
As tides push rotten stuff along the shore.

The second stanza outlines the poet’s reluctance to elevate the suffering of those around him in his poetry, preferring to capture the realities of their existence as he saw them. The repetition of “lives and “live” in the third line encourages the reader to examine whether their views on the value of a life defined by pain and misfortune. Spender uses the simile in the fourth line to emphasize the vulnerability of the homeless people by suggesting they have little agency in the face of overwhelming circumstances. To Spender, the tides represented systemic inequalities that portrays the homeless people as victims of a wider struggle.

Stanza Three

There is no consolation, no, none,
(…)
Starves and deprives the poor.

The use of the declarative “no” in the opening line mirrors the earlier use of the word in the second stanza, but this time it is more emphatic. This suggests that the poet’s sense of outrage grew stronger and more urgent the longer he witnessed the suffering around him. Once again, he refuses to find comfort in the struggle, instead choosing to direct his fury towards an ambiguous “oppressor.” The use of the singular ensures that the specific people in Spender’s time who he felt were abusing their privileges become indistinguishable from those in the past. This decision to establish a single, identifiable enemy helps focus the poem’s argument and creates a sense of urgency in the face of a power that wishes to perpetuate the suffering of the poor.

Stanza Four

Paint here no draped despairs, no saddening clouds
(…)
This time forgets and never heals, far less transcends.

The use of dental alliteration in the opening line creates a thudding directness to reflect the poet’s desire for clarity, rather than poetic obscurity, when it comes to the plight of the suffering. The personification of eternity further shows how the injustices Spender witnessed were not limited to his present moment but were indicative of the mistreatment of the poor throughout human history.

Finally, Spender uses a simile to compare the wrongs he witnessed to actual wounds in order to remind the readers that, in his mind, the mistreatment of these people was no worse than if they were being maimed. He further creates a sense of urgency by claiming that, unlike most wounds, time will not help these people, and it never has. Therefore, the poem ends with the inevitable conclusion that if something is to change, it will require active and deliberate alterations from those in power.

FAQs

What is the structure of ‘In Railway Halls‘?

The poem is written in four stanzas, the first of which has three lines while the rest have four each. There is no rhyme scheme which gives the poem a less predictable quality. This could potentially reflect Spender’s desire to see social change, and a separation from the way things had been done before.

What is the significance of the title, ‘In Railway Halls‘?

Spender could have listed any number of urban places in which he saw homeless people struggling for warmth and shelter. The railway hall, however, retains a symbolic significance as it represents the technological legacy of the Victorian era. Therefore, the presence of the suffering people becomes all the starker as the reader is invited to feel a sense of shame for living in a country capable of much but that does not protect and house its most vulnerable citizens.

What is the voice in the poem?

The voice represents that of Spender himself insofar as it displays his growing outrage and disgust at the treatment of the people in the railway halls. Spender was a socialist who wrote about the plight of workers throughout his life.

What are the themes of ‘In Railway Halls‘?

The principal theme is the suffering of the poorest members of society, but Spender also explores history in the poem, especially the history of ordinary people and their lives. Finally, the poem also touches upon the role of the artist and their responses to suffering.


Similar Poetry

Readers who enjoyed ‘XXX In Railway Halls‘ might want to explore other Stephen Spender poems. For example:

  • The Express‘ – Once again, rail travel is the focus of Spender’s attention, this time the journey of a new, high-speed train.
  • The Truly Great‘ – A poem in which Spender pays tribute to those who came before him.

Some other poems that may be of interest include:

Discover the Essential Secrets

of Poetry

Sign up to unveil the best kept secrets in poetry,

brought to you by the experts

Joe Santamaria Poetry Expert
About
Joe has a degree in English and Related Literature from the University of York and a masters in Irish Literature from Trinity College Dublin. He is an English tutor and counts W.B Yeats, Emily Brontë and Federico Garcia Lorca among his favourite poets.
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Discover and learn about the greatest poetry, straight to your inbox

Start Your Perfect Poetry Journey

The Best-Kept Secrets of Poetry

Discover and learn about the greatest poetry ever straight to your inbox

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap