Stephen Spender

The Truly Great by Stephen Spender

In Stephen Spender’s Poem ‘The Truly Great’, he discusses the traits of heroes who have passed away before us.

In Stephen Spender’s Poem ‘The Truly Great’, he discusses the traits of heroes who have passed away before us. Spender has artistically developed a sort of reminiscent piece of writing in which he elaborately glorifies the doings, and particularly, the traits of those historical figures that have passed before us, leaving a lasting mark in this world. It is interesting to note that Spender chooses to only glorify figures of the past and not of the present. This could be a way of mourning the decreasing amount of ambition in people today, or it could simply be that Spender wanted to write a tribute to all those great people who sacrificed their lives, from the womb to the grave, in order to make a difference in the world. The latter is most likely the case because throughout the entire poem there is a very positive and optimistic attitude, nothing bitter or contemptuous which would imply that Spender wanted to shame this generation for lack of ambition.

‘The Truly Great’ consists of 3 stanzas of free verse poetry. Spender has incorporated the poetic devices of enjambment, heavy symbolism, and metaphors to beautifully describe the traits of the great heroes of the past. You can read the full poem here.

The Truly Great by Stephen Spender


Analysis of The Truly Great

First Stanza

I think continually of those who were truly great.
Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history
And who hoarded from the Spring branches
The desires falling across their bodies like blossoms.

Spender commences his poem with an open statement saying that he thinks often of those individuals who have made a big difference in the world. He refers to these individuals as ‘the truly great’, which is fairly straightforward. However, his description of them which comes in the following line is not so blunt. Spender describes these truly great people as those ‘who remembered the soul’s history from the womb’. This could hold multiple meanings. The first and most obvious meaning is in which the word soul can be taken as symbolism to represent people, for all people have one thing in common which is a soul. Spender could be saying that these truly great people are those who literally always kept in mind the history of people. By forever remembering what humankind had gone through from the beginning of time, it allowed these individuals to be passionate about making a change and therefore they become so great. ‘Those who remembered the soul’s history from the womb’ could also be a way of saying that these people remembered that they had come from God and therefore focused their life on trying to achieve something more because materialistic pleasures did not appeal to them. Spender uses Enjambment at the end of this line to transition on to the next few lines in the stanza which shows that the next few lines are further discussing the traits of the truly great.

The next few lines of the first stanza are heavy with metaphors and symbolism.

Through corridors of light, where the hours are suns,

Endless and singing. Whose lovely ambition

Was that their lips, still touched with fire,

The above portion of the first stanza is using metaphors to relate hours to suns and symbolism to relate their noble words to lips on fire. Spender is revealing to us here that these truly great people dwell in a constant light where the hours are suns. The sun is the main source of energy on earth. It is brilliant and a source of great inspiration, therefore Spender could be saying that their every hour was a source of great inspiration full of achievement. Spender goes on to state that these great people had ambition, and their ambition could be seen by the words that they spoke to the people. Over here one can question whether Spender was referring to himself, or all renowned poets, as poets are known for making an impact on the world through their words. Spender concludes the first stanza by stating that the truly great discussed their ambitions with full energy, like the blossoms of spring which are another symbol of life itself, they brought much change and happiness into the world through their constant toils.


Second Stanza

What is precious, is never to forget
The essential delight of the blood drawn from ageless springs
Never to allow gradually the traffic to smother
With noise and fog, the flowering of the spirit.

The second stanza uses Symbolism again to refer to the hard work of the truly great as blood drawn from springs. He states that there is an essential happiness that accompanies drawing the blood from springs, showing us that these individuals conducted all their great acts and hard work with true happiness and not while complaining. Spender states that their effort has broken through rocks before our earth, which is another way to say that their efforts are timeless. Spender concludes this stanza by discussing how the truly great never allowed traffic, or rather, discouraging words and distractions to prevent them from reaching for their goals and ambitions. Spender once again discusses ‘the spirit’ which most likely refers to the vision and willpower these great individuals possessed.


Third Stanza

Near the snow, near the sun, in the highest fields,
See how these names are fêted by the waving grass
Born of the sun, they travelled a short while toward the sun
And left the vivid air signed with their honour.

The last stanza is very descriptive and full of imagery. This stanza has one main message and that is that these people will never be forgotten. This is an elaboration of his statement in the second stanza in which he states that ‘what is precious is never to forget’. Apart from referring to the work of the individuals as something precious, Spender now refers to the individuals themselves as precious too. Spender is stating that in every high place on earth; the snow of the mountaintops, the waving grass-filled meadows, the clouds, and the winds all whisper the names of these great people. In this stanza, Spender reveals that these heroes may not be poets but rather military individuals who lost their lives fighting for their country because of his description of their effort as ‘fought for life’. The first stanza also mentioned their efforts as blood drawn from wells so it is very likely that Spender had written this poem about military individuals, especially since ‘The Truly Great’ was written shortly after World War I.

The last verse in the poem is truly artistic in the way it glorifies these great people. Spender states that they were born of the sun which is a metaphor for the fact that they were so full of energy and life that they followed their dreams and ambitions and in doing so signed the air with their honor, or in other words, they left a lasting mark on the world.

Using metaphors, symbolism, enjambment, and beautiful imagery; Stephen Spender has created a wonderful piece of literary art in which he successfully manages to glorify and remind the reader not to forget those who have made great sacrifices to bring better changes into our lives. Spender successfully guides the reader through the achievements of those of the past, without directly mentioning any particular event. It is not exactly clear who is being praised in ‘The Truly Great’, but it could be a poem about poets and how much they have contributed to bringing change in the world, or it could be a poem about war and glorifying the military persons who lost their lives trying to defend us. Lastly, it could be a poem defining what greatness truly is in all aspects of life.

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Maha Rehman Poetry Expert
Maha has a BSc Honors from the University of Toronto and is an Author and Writer by profession. She loves writing and genuinely idealizes the idea of science and literary art combining together into a liberating force of intellectual enlightenment. You can check out her YA novel 'Sole Silence'.
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