Stephen Spender’s ‘The Pylons‘ offers a hesitant and cautious depiction of the arrival of technological advancements to the English countryside. The poem focuses on the uncanny sight of of electrical pylons that dominate the landscape which had previously existed undisturbed for hundreds of years.
‘The Pylons‘ describes the sadness that accompanies technological change as, despite the improvements that it might bring, the countryside will be visually changed forever.
The poem begins by describing a rural scene before the pylons were erected, drawing the readers’ attention to the simplicity of English country life. However, once the pylons are introduced in the second stanza, the poet begins to use oddly unsettling imagery to reflect the incongruity of the pylons, which were symbols of modernity, with the rustic environment. Ultimately, Spender appears to concede that the pylons are the unstoppable signs of progress but the poem never truly accepts them as part of the scene and they forever seem out of place.
You can read the full poem here.
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. He remained sensitive 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’.
The secret of these hills was stone, and cottages
Of that stone made,
And crumbling roads
That turned on sudden hidden villages
The sibilance in the poem’s first line imbues it with a sinister atmosphere which foreshadows the arrival of the pylons as the narrator regards them with suspicion. The repetition of “stone” is significant as it later juxtaposes the concrete because, in spite of their similar uses, the former is considered natural and local whereas the latter is thought to be alien and intrusive.
The use of the adjective “crumbling” reminds the reader that these rural communities were not thriving before the decision to erect the pylons and perhaps could not afford to resist them. Spender’s sympathies appear to be with the villagers who he felt were being taken advantage of. This interpretation is strengthened by the use of the word “hidden” in the final line which portrays the villages as frightened, possibly even infantilized, such is their fear of the new technology.
Now over these small hills, they have built the concrete
Bare like nude giant girls that have no secret.
The decision to reference the “small” size of the hills juxtaposes the pylons themselves which appear to tower “over” them in order to provide a sense of scale. Whilst this comparison may have been intended to be hyperbolic, it demonstrates the anxiety of the villagers because the man-made structures dominate the landscape which had previously been undisturbed for hundreds of years.
The use of plosive alliteration in the third line creates a harsh, uncompromising tone which reflects the manner in which the pylons seem to have been imposed upon the communities against their will. Finally, the simile in the last line is an example of the surreal imagery that is used to showcase how incongruous the pylons are with the landscape. The reference to secrecy alludes to the paranoia that would undoubtedly have accompanied the decision to put up these vast structures.
The valley with its gilt and evening look
Are mocked dry like the parched bed of a brook.
The opening line features a metaphor when describing the valley’s “gilt” which showcases the fragility of the beauty that existed in the valley before the pylons and foreshadows the destruction of that beauty. This notion is supported by the use of natural imagery when describing the “green” of the chestnut and the dryness of the river bed. The pylons themselves appear to be personified when they “mocked” the area dry, which affords them a degree of sinister agency and suggests they desire to destroy the rural world. The simile in line four evokes a sense of aridity to suggest that the rural area will be impossible to inhabit soon unless the technological advances are scaled back.
But far above and far as sight endures
There runs the quick perspective of the future.
Spender uses hyperbole in the first line to emphasize the enormous scale of the pylons, implying that there is no longer any patch of sky that can be seen without the sight of them getting in the way. His use of the simile in the second line implies that the locals are somehow enslaved by these metallic structures due to the reference to whips and their connotations of slavery and imprisonment.
The use of the word “lightning” reminds a modern reader that, unlike today, not everybody had a scientific grounding in the nature of electricity. To people at the time, the electrical currents they were told were running through the pylons would have been immensely frightening, like lightning. The final line is a metaphor that suggests a bitter kind of acceptance as the narrator knows they cannot stop the path of scientific progress, even though he has his doubts.
This dwarfs our emerald country by its trek
Where often clouds shall lean their swan-white neck.
The poet uses the verb “dwarfs” to again distort the readers’ sense of scale so that they might be frightened or intimidated by the size of the pylons relative to their surroundings. He uses the adjective “emerald” to reinforce his views that the beauty of the natural world is more valuable than any benefits they might glean from new technology as emeralds refer to both the color and to precious stones. In spite of his reference to dreaming and the serene imagery of the poem’s final line, Spender’s offering is closer to a nightmare, where traditions are washed away and customs shrivel and die.
‘The Pylons‘ is written in five quatrains with a loose ABBA rhyme scheme that is interspersed with half-rhymes. These half-rhymes have the effect of mirroring the transitional period that the setting is going through, where the locals no longer recognize the place they have always called home. However, the echoic nature of the rhyming creates a nostalgic effect for the area which, although seems to be dying, is still alive for the moment.
Pylons are large metallic structures that hold electrical wires that punctuate many rural landscapes. They are used to carry electricity from power stations or, more recently, wind farms to homes and businesses.
A gilt refers to a thin layer of gold paint that might cover jewelry, antiques, paint frames, and much more. This poem emphasizes the beauty and value of the local area but also implies that the area is vulnerable because a gilt is only a thin layer. It could suggest that, once the area’s thin layer of beauty has been claimed, it will be left with nothing.
‘The Pylons‘ is principally concerned with the clash between tradition and modernity, with a particular focus on the human suffering that Spender foresaw arising from this conflict. To him, the pylons represented a new, frightening form of existence which he saw as incompatible with more simple, rural ways of living
Readers who enjoyed ‘The Pylons‘ might want to explore other Stephen Spender poems. For example:
- ‘An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum‘ – Another poem that displays Spender’s sensitivity to the working class.
- ‘That girl who laughed and had black eyes‘ – A hauntingly beautiful poem about lost love, grief and memory.
Some other poems that may be of interest include:
- ‘London‘ by William Blake – An iconic poem that explores the cruelty of industrialization, this time in an urban context.
- ‘How We Made a New Art on Old Ground‘ by Eavan Boland – An interesting companion piece that explores how art, not technologically, can alter a landscape.