Stephen Spender’s ‘Without That Once Clear Aim‘ laments what he perceived to be the lost role of the artist in the twentieth century, as it appears to suggest they can no longer create work that possesses real meaning. At times both pessimistic and hauntingly beautiful, the poem captures the essence of Spender and his literary circle during the tumultuous 1930s.
XXI Without That Once Clear Aim
‘Without That Once Clear Aim‘ explores a sense of desolation experienced by the artist as they tussle with their circumstances.
The poem begins by lamenting the loss of artistic clarity and quickly goes on to blame this loss on the writer’s historical circumstances. The poet regards their environment as stifling, claustrophobic, and utterly incompatible with poetic expression. However, it becomes clear that he also regards poetry as his best chance of transcending the horrors that surround him, and so feels compelled to keep writing as best he can. Like many of Stephen Spender’s poems, ‘Without That Once Clear Aim‘ is widely studied both in the UK and elsewhere.
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.’ His sense of pessimism at the state of life in the 1930s is particularly apparent in this poem, which seems to regard that environment with contempt and offers little hope for a reprieve.
Without that once clear aim, the path of flight
To follow for a lifetime through white air,
This century chokes me under the roots of night
I suffer like history in Dark Ages, where
Truth lies in dungeons, from which drifts no whisper:
We hear of towers long broken off from sight
Spender immediately establishes the two juxtaposing forces which ultimately define the poem. On the one hand, there is the pure and unadulterated inspiration that he associates with clarity and directness. However, he finds this force has been stifled by the moral ambiguity and obscurity of his circumstances, as demonstrated by the references to darkness and night. This malevolent force is personified in the third line when it is described as an attacker. This serves to imbue his surroundings with sinister agency and evokes a sense of danger and paranoia.
Spender’s use of a simile in line four implies he felt, despite the technological developments of the age, that society was in danger of imminent collapse or regression. One could retrospectively view this as prophetic of the impact that mechanized warfare threatened to have on the world in both WWII and the Cold War. The final two lines suggest a kind of artistic censorship as they rely heavily upon the imagery of incarceration and silence. Once again, this elevates Spender’s preoccupation from simply writer’s block to a far broader-reaching apprehension about the path he felt society was taking.
And tortures and war, in dark and smoky rumor,
But on men’s buried lives there falls no light.
The city builds its horror in my brain,
This writing is my only wings away.
The reference to “buried lives” is significant as, on the one hand, it foreshadows the conflicts that would soon tear Europe apart and lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands. However, the oxymoronic phrase appears to suggest people were being buried while still alive which reflects Spender’s view that, even before the war, society was consuming the lives of his fellow citizens, especially the poorest and most vulnerable. This reading is strengthened by the pathetic fallacy in line ten which metaphorically describes how the fog drowned out people’s cries.
The poet returns to their own artistic process as the poem concludes, claiming that these horrors have infiltrated his mind and poisoned his creativity. The metaphorical assertion that the “city builds its horrors in my brain” functions as a warning against the kind of reckless technological and urban expansion Spender witnessed in his lifetime. Finally, the poet uses zoomorphism in the final line to offer a glimmer of hope in the form of his poetry, which has the potential to soar above the squalor that surrounds the poet. Spender’s decision to use a natural example – a bird – is important as it juxtaposes with the earlier use of man-made imagery to remind the readers that true inspiration comes from nature and not from ever-expanding human influence.
The poem follows the form of a sonnet which is interesting as that form of poetry has long been associated with devotion and romantic love, which are at odds with the pessimism of Spender’s poem. By drawing upon such a form, Spender could have intended to further his view that art was being distorted by the economic, technological, and political realities of the 1930s.
The poem’s message is complex as, on the one hand, it claims that society is actively destroying the necessary stimulus required for creativity while also advocating for creative output as a means of escaping that society. The message thereby captures the essence of what Spender felt was a world of incongruous and competing elements.
The tone of the poem is extremely pessimistic and downbeat. It also showcases the narrator’s paranoia regarding the perceived threat to poetic speech. However, the poet does glean some satisfaction and hope from the act of creating art, as well as the natural world itself.
To say that Spender disliked modernity would be reductive as he was receptive to the myriad ways in which it benefited him and others. He remained skeptical about it, however, largely because of his socialist sympathies as he felt the benefits of new technologies were felt by the rich, whereas the poorest in society had to bear the brunt of the less desirable effects of the modern world.
Readers who enjoyed ‘XXI Without That Once Clear Aim‘ might want to explore other Stephen Spender poems. For example:
- ‘Darkness and Light‘ – A later poem in which Spender tussled with the two sides of himself.
- ‘Missing My Daughter‘ – Spender explores longing and loneliness in this heart-wrenching poem.
Some other poems that may be of interest include:
- ‘The Naked and the Nude‘ by Robert Graves – A contemporary of Spender, Graves’ poem also explores the conditions necessary for the creation of art.
- ‘A Clear Midnight‘ by Walt Whitman – Like Spender’s poem, Whitman’s longs for transcendence and escape from mundane, everyday life.