Stephen Spender’s ‘Polar Exploration‘ is an examination of Spender’s modern world, principally achieved through his decision to contrast it with the barren landscape the narrator recalls on their polar journey. The poem also comments upon male friendships as well as foreshadowing the destruction that would go on to decimate Europe in the years that followed.
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‘Polar Exploration‘ contrasts comfortable, urban life with extreme hardship, yet seems to prefer the latter.
Written over two stanzas, the poem juxtaposes the narrator’s isolated, barren experience of exploring the remote pole in the first stanza with their busy, urban life in the second. Perhaps surprisingly, the narrator seems to long for their former life in spite of its obvious hardships. Spender presents modern life as overwhelming and oversaturated, imbuing his descriptions of it with sinister associations.
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.
Spender’s poetry shows his sensitivity to the human toll that modernity was taking. His 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 ‘Polar Exploration,’ which evokes his typical cynicism with regard to technology. It also appears to foreshadow the forthcoming Second World War and the Spanish Civil War, which Spender went on to be involved in as a reporter.
Stanza One: Lines 1-12
Our single purpose was to walk through snow
With faces swung to their prodigious North
Like compass iron. As clerks in whited Banks
With bird-claw pens column virgin paper
To snow we added footprints.
Extensive whiteness drowned
All sense of space. We tramped through
Static, glaring days, Time’s suspended blank.
That was in Spring and Autumn. Then Summer struck
Water over rocks, and half the world
Became a ship with a deep keel, the booming floes
And icebergs with their little birds.
The poem begins with the hyperbolic claim that the explorers’ “single purpose” was to walk through the snow, implying they had a sense of clarity that people in more normal walks of life might lack. Likewise, Spender’s use of the simile when describing the explorers’ faces to be “like compass iron” further creates a sense of purpose and certainty because they always know the direction they’re meant to be moving in.
The poet uses more hyperbole when describing how “whiteness drowned all sense of space.” This could arguably evoke an unsettling atmosphere by suggesting the explorers were helpless and had no means of finding their way back due to the lack of visible landmarks. However, there is also a possibility that the whiteness represents a blank canvas which the explorers could project their hopes and dreams upon. Finally, the blankness could also symbolize calmness and inner peace, implying the narrator may have found these qualities on their journey.
Stanza One: Lines 13-25
Twittering Snow Bunting, Greenland Wheatear
Red throated Divers; imagine butterflies
In that, different from us.
The listlike nature of the second stanza’s opening evokes the boredom that must have ensued amongst the explorers, who were greeted with few landmarks or discernible features for days upon end. The banality of life while exploring is conjured through Spender’s descriptions of the mundane habits and behaviors of the narrator’s companions. Likewise, the poet juxtaposes the dogs, who appear more effective when there is a female amongst them, with the men, who are curiously described as being the opposite. Chauvinistic though it may be, this detail does further reinforce the notion that the all-male exploration was, in spite of its difficulties, devoid of complications and distractions, which the narrator suggests women be.
Stanza Two: Lines 1-9
Return, return, you warn. We do. There is
A network of railways, money, words, words, words.
Skies, were these the spirit’s hunger?
Spender’s use of the accusatory direct address in the opening line immediately establishes the sense of bitterness the narrator felt upon their return to normal society. Likewise, the collective pronoun “we” emphasizes the symbolic, if no longer physical, distance between the explorers and everybody else. The repetition of “words” creates an overwhelming effect to mirror the narrator’s feelings of panic and confusion, having returned from a place of solitude and quiet to the busy city in which stimuli seem without end.
The simple pronouncement that the explorers “cannot sleep” serves to suggest their experiences are all the same as the narrator’s. It also reminds the reader that, for these men, the city is a place where they cannot find refuge or peace of any kind. The metaphorical suggestion that ice might be the men’s anger transformed could imply that the explorers grew emotionally cold and cut off while away and felt threatened by the symbolic and literal bright lights of the city. Finally, the use of rhetorical questions further shows how unsettled and uncertain they feel in this environment.
Stanza Two: lines 10-19
The continual and hypnotized march through snow
The dropping nights of precious extinction, were these
A new and singular sex?
The final lines of the poem achieve an ominous tone, with talk of madness and a mysterious threat somewhere in the nearly visible distance. The vague nature of the phrase “over there” stands in stark contrast to the certainty of the explorers when they were on their journey. This suggests that the city, and modern life more generally, has served only to obscure their sense of purpose. The oxymoronic “precious extinction” captures the complexity of the narrator’s feelings towards his exploration, which many would consider suicidal, yet he looks back upon it fondly. However, it could also speak to the future, with war and destruction on the horizon, by implying that the following years of relative luxury should be enjoyed before it is too late.
The poem’s message is myriad and not always clear, but it certainly seems to suggest that modern, urban life is unnatural, especially when one is used to a more simple life.
The poem’s tone is very disturbed and, at times, aggressive; its vitriol is motivated by panic at having returned to a world that seems overwhelming. There are, however, more tender descriptions too, which speak to the fact the narrator may not always be the way they appear.
The nameless narrator appears to be an explorer that has recently returned from a journey to the North Pole.
The poem is written in free verse over two stanzas. Spender uses lots of caesura throughout to prevent the poem from achieving a sense of flow or momentum. This could reflect the narrator’s inability to successfully reintegrate into society upon his return from the North Pole.
It is not clear who, if anyone, this description relates to. However, it may have been inspired by one of several dictators, including Mussolini and Hitler, that was rising to prominence in Europe at the time. The oxymoron would be appropriate were this the case, as both men were impressive on stage, yet the substance of their beliefs was, to Spender, foolish and subsequently shown to be abhorrent and evil.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Polar Exploration‘ might want to explore other Stephen Spender poems. For example:
- ‘A Stopwatch and an Ordnance Map‘ – A tragic poem about the death of a man in the Spanish Civil War.
- ‘The Express‘ – Another poem that displays Spender’s hesitant attitude towards technological progress.
Some other poems that may be of interest include:
- ‘Nightscapes‘ by Jean Bleakney – Another poem that captures the struggle between rural and urban ways of living.
- ‘90 North‘ by Randall Jarrell – A reflection on failure, symbolized through an imagined journey to the North Pole.