Martinelli is a Seattle-based freelance writer and editor. In this essay, Martinelli examines how Spender's poem delivers a Marxist message about Communism, education, and the need for social revolution.
Spender's poem "An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum" is an excellent example of his lifelong dedication to the pursuit of social change and human equality. During the earliest stages of his writing career in the 1920s and 1930s, Spender was a pacifist and Socialist. He was so stirred to action by the proletarian struggle that he joined the International Brigades—an international force of volunteer soldiers organized by the French Communist Party leader Maurice Thorez and the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. Clearly, Spender was an advocate for the working class and an avid supporter of sociopolitical reform. His poetry was a reflection of his support of social reform. Even as he aged, Spender continued to fight for social change and equality for all of humankind. Although he became less of a vocal supporter of Communism, these ideals were still at the foundation of his writing and his political ideology. In the turbulent decade of the 1960s, Spender wrote "An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum," a vivid, didactic poem calling for a Communist social reform that mirrors the writings of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels in their penultimate work The Communist Manifesto.
In 1848, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto as the platform of the Communist League, a workingmen's association. It was unavoidably formed as a secret society, because any organized uprising of the working class in Europe would result in a dramatic change both politically and socially for the ruling class. However secret the Communist League may have hoped to remain, by 1850 The Communist Manifesto was quickly translated into most European languages and the work became the doctrine of the proletarians, the exploited, working class, as they struggled for emancipation from the bourgeoisie, the exploiting, ruling class. Escape from this social hierarchy proved very difficult. In fact, neither Marx nor Engels saw the realization of the goals of their manifesto, yet it continues to fuel social revolutionaries across the globe.
The fundamental proposition that forms the nucleus of The Communist Manifesto states that every historical generation, since the dissolution of primitive society in exchange for political society and individual ownership of property, is built upon a socioeconomic structure that necessitates a struggle between two classes, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. In order to emancipate the proletariat, Marx and Engels contend that society at large must be freed from exploitation, oppression, class distinctions, and class struggles. Looking back to the shift from primitive to political society, the ownership of property is the fuel that powers the machine that oppresses and exploits proletarians. Marx writes, "Communists everywhere support every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things. In all these movements they bring to the front, as the leading question in each case, the property question." This is the base struggle for which the proletariat must fight: the dissolution of private ownership.
If dissolution of private property is key to the emancipation of the proletariat, then there is no peaceful resolution to the class struggle. The bourgeoisie will certainly not relinquish ownership of their capital and private land, and thus the proletariat must subvert and overturn the dominant social paradigm with a forcible revolution. Marx writes
The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at the Communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.
Workingmen of all countries, unite!
This is, effectively, the proletariat's war cry. The Communist Manifesto was much more than a political theorist document; it truly incited action among the working class, igniting and fueling revolution, uprising, and social reform. Marx was before all else a revolutionist. His life mission was to overthrow capitalistic...
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David R. Slavitt
In the following essay, Slavitt recounts a poetic incident at Yale during lectures given by Spender and Robert Frost.
The day I remember with greatest clarity of my four years as a Yale undergraduate was the one on which Stephen Spender and then Robert Frost appeared and I saw that poetry wasn't just a literary genre but, literally, a blood sport.
Spender had come two or three years before to read poems, so this time, when he offered Norman Holmes Pearson the choice of a reading or a lecture, Pearson suggested that, for variety's sake, the lecture might be agreeable. Spender said he would be happy to deliver it.
Happy, though, turned out not to be quite the right word. The trouble was that Cleanth Brooks introduced Spender. Cleanth, a short, courtly Southerner with thick eyeglasses and steel-gray hair, initiated the proceedings with a typically graceful few words from the stage of the large lecture hall in S.S.S. (Sterling Sheffield Strathcona Hall), and then sat down on an armchair at the side of the stage. Spender—not yet Sir Stephen, for this was 1955, I think—shambled to the lectern, drew a sheaf of folded pages from jacket pocket, and commenced to talk, the burden of his message being that we should never trust any critic who was not, himself, a poet. Ostensibly, he was attacking F. R. Leavis, but it was malapropos here, because Cleanth, on the stage with him, motionless, as if he were trying somehow to disappear into the crewel work of the large chair on which he sat, was a critic who was not, himself a poet. (Or, even worse, he'd published a couple of poems as a young man but then decided to give it up.)
It was an uncomfortable forty-five minutes, and, to make it even worse, there was a page missing from Spender's lecture—which mattered perhaps less than he thought, and for which, as I later learned, there was a glorious precedent. Dame Edith Sitwell—Litt. D., Litt. D., Litt. D, her letterhead proclaimed, because she had three of them—had two lecture fees, a thousand dollars and the bargain rate of five hundred, for which she would do every other page of the thousand dollar lecture, giving a flavor of her style but with some of the intricacy of the argument withheld. This, anyway, was the word I'd heard in the Elizabethan Club.
Spender's missing page, however, had no such assertive elegance. Tall, gangly, and awkward, he was rather like one of those bowler-hatted twits in Monty Python routines. He was also, I thought then and still think, a dismally bad poet. The one Spender line we all knew was the opening of his best known poem, "I think continually of those who were truly great." There are two adverbs in it, a sure sign that we are being told what to feel rather than given something that might legitimately arouse our feelings. It is, quite unintentionally, a funny line, because it invites the reader to supply at that point the names of Auden, Louis MacNeice, and Day Lewis, with whom Spender was always associated and of whose greatness he might well have been thinking often if not continually.
He was trendy in ways that seem dated now and nearly quaint. He was anti-Georgian, and showed his modernity with aggressively urban and industrial images, so that he could say, with a perfectly straight face, addressing a beloved that he "turned away, / Thinking, if these were tricklings through a dam, / I must have love enough to run a factory on, / Or give a city power, or drive a train."
I'm not being hideously unfair. I seem not to have a volume of Spender's poetry on my shelves, and those lines are from the Oxford Book of 20th Century English Verse, Chosen by Philip Larkin, presumably because the five poems Larkin included were the best that Spender had produced.
Spender's strengths and weaknesses as a poet had little to do with the argument he was making, but it now strikes me that Auden has written somewhere that practicing poets are unreliable critics, preferring what they can learn from, or can steal, to those qualities that an impartial reader might value. Still, even then, in the lecture hall, while I didn't have that counter-argument to what Spender was proposing to us, I remember being unconvinced. I was also puzzled about why there needed to be any a priori judgment of any kind about what kind of critic was better than what other kind. Why couldn't we just decide, on a case by case basis, whose insights were shrewd, or useful, or entertaining, or provocative? In any event, Dr. Leavis's influence was not high on my list of intellectual problems. And, like everyone else in the room, I was uncomfortable for Cleanth's sake.
That evening, Frost was appearing in Pierson College. He was a fellow of the college and came by every year. He would do a reading, meet with a few of the literary students in the living room of the master's residence, and then spend the night in the Pierson guest...
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