Stephen Spender’s ‘What I Expected‘ is a poetic reconciliation between the heroic ending the narrator envisioned for himself and the anticlimactic one they are faced with. Like many of Spender’s poems, ‘What I Expected‘ is rooted in the experience of ordinary men and women whose lives were shaped by forces beyond their control.
XIII What I Expected
The poem begins by outlining the death that the narrator assumed they would have. It describes how they would go down fighting, seemingly in some epic battle between the forces of good and evil. However, as the stanzas progress, it becomes clear that, rather than via the epic showdown he envisioned, the narrator is actually dying slowly and inexorably over time. The poem, therefore, reflects how our perception of mortality evolves throughout the years and evokes the personal sense of loss when one realizes their vitality is slipping away from them.
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. 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.’
In the case of ‘What I Expected‘ Spender attempted to replicate the turmoil of the 1930s across Europe and the world. Economic hardship and the constant threat of global war ensured that everyday people’s lives were being shaped and influenced by forces they had little or no influence over.
What I expected, was
Long struggles with men
After continual straining
I should grow strong;
Then the rocks would shake
And I rest long.
The narrator begins by outlining his expectations of heroism which ultimately went unrealized. The pathetic fallacy in the second line imbues his vision with intensity and an almost biblical quality, as though he expected to meet his death in some apocalyptic battle against evil itself. The stanza ends with the hyperbolic description of how the “rocks would shake,” which elevates the scene and further suggests the conflict would be greater than a death in a normal war if such a thing existed. The final, ambiguous line strengthens the biblical connection by suggesting that his soul will find rest even after his body is destroyed. This indicates his view that his end would not just be dramatic and glorious but also morally just and pure.
What I had not foreseen
Was the gradual day
Smoke before wind,
Those previous hopes and dreams are juxtaposed by the realities revealed in the second stanza, in which it is clear that his decline is much less dramatic than he imagined. The alliterative “weakening the will” embodies the gradual defeat he is experiencing, in which he is gradually chipped away rather than being killed outright. Moreover, the verb “leaking” emphasizes the slow and painful nature of his demise, contrary to his wishes.
Likewise, the hyperbolic claim that his body and soul are fading links back to the first stanza’s connection with spirituality. Spender is implying that not only is a slow death more painful and less heroic, but also that it erodes the purity of his soul. This reading is corroborated by using the adjective “corrupt” in the final line, further reinforcing the narrator’s panic.
The wearing of Time,
And the watching of cripples pass
The sick falling from earth –
These, I could not foresee.
This stanza begins to showcase the scale of the decay that the narrator fears and highlights how his experience of it is far from unique. The morbid description of the people with “limbs shaped like questions” would have been particularly pertinent to his 1930s readership, to whom the sight of war wounds would have been all too familiar. The simile’s connection to questions also suggests Spender wished to discover those responsible for the disfigurement of the people he saw.
The metaphorical description of the melting “bones with pity” strongly evokes the narrator’s bitterness and preference for a quick death over disfigurement and continued pain. It also subverts the notion that pity would help a person by implying it actually harms them even more. The stanza’s ending shows how the narrator’s initial idyllic vision for themselves has been eradicated by their circumstances, which have left him cynical and embittered.
Some brightness to hold in trust
Like the created poem,
Or the faceted crystal.
The poem ends on a pessimistic note, made all the more tragic as the narrator has not forgotten his hopes and, therefore, cannot escape the truth that they have not come to pass. The innocence he once possessed is now metaphorically covered in dust to showcase how long it has been since he could describe as innocent. This image is a microcosmic of Spender’s view of the 1930s, as he felt nobody could forget the horrors and hardships of the previous twenty years.
However, the narrator can still envision the ending he wished for himself, even if it is embodied by seemingly unattainable things like the completed poem or a crystal. The use of the verb “dangle” implies that it lies beyond the narrator’s reach and, while he can imagine reaching it, in reality, it will remain tantalizingly out of his reach.
The main themes of the poem are related to dreams and hopes, particularly ones that did not come true. In that sense, the poem could be viewed as a kind of bildungsroman because it follows the narrator’s spiritual journey and loss of innocence.
The poem has four stanzas and mostly uses short lines to create an episodic and disconnected atmosphere. It also uses occasional rhymes, notably that of “trust” and “dust” in the final stanza. These rhymes act as an anchor to the narrator’s childhood and dream of heroism as they invoke the memory of epic poems of war and conquest. Their fleeting presence reminds the reader that these dreams are all but gone.
Spender was a pacifist and did not fight in WWII. Instead he worked as a firefighter in London and continued writing and translating poetry. However, he had traveled to Spain during its civil war in 1937 to join the International Brigades where he was famously told to get himself killed so the cause could gain a martyr.
The speaker is never definitively identified. They appear to be the voice of the poet, as it reflects Spender’s pessimistic attitudes on the state of society in the 1930s. It should also be noted that Spender was not alone in holding these views, and they would go on to be proved correct as fascism took hold in Europe.
Readers who enjoyed ‘XIII What I Expected‘ might want to explore other Stephen Spender poems. For example:
- ‘The Express‘ – One of Spender’s explorations and critiques of the prevalence of new technologies and their relationship to the people who use them.
- ‘The Truly Great‘ – Another poem in which Spender depicts epic heroism.
Some other poems that may be of interest include:
- ‘Expect Nothing‘ by Alice Walker – A poem that advocates for life to be lived without expectations.
- ‘They Did Not Expect This‘ by Vernon Scannell – Another poem about failed dreams, this time relating to a relationship.