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How do "were" and "was" influence the theme of "The Truly Great" by Stephen Spender?

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Madeleine Wells eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The main theme of the poem is that the "truly great" individuals of our time deserve to be remembered, cherished, and emulated by all of us.

The verbs "was" and "were" indicate these great individuals are no longer alive. Therefore, in order to cherish and to emulate them, it is imperative that, we, like the narrator, "think continually" of them. The narrator warns us not to let the hectic, modern lifestyle crowd out all thoughts of these great individuals. To do so would impede our own personal growth ("the flowering of the spirit").

The narrator tells us how these "truly great" individuals were inspired by the "Spirit, clothed from head to foot in song." Here, the "Spirit" clothed in song may refer to God or divinity; it may also refer to the mythological Muses. In Greek mythology, the Nine Muses were the goddesses of Music, Art, Literature, and Science. They were often invoked at the beginning of lyrical poems to inspire eloquence in the poet. Thus, it is noteworthy Spender alludes to them in his first stanza.

Again, the verb "was" used in conjunction with the great individuals (whose lips were "touched with fire") reminds us these beings are no longer among the living. They may have been the great, ancient writers and poets, and the narrator maintains that, even as he thinks of them now, he can see how inspired they were by the Muses or divine spirit of God. Spender only uses "was" and "were" once individually in the first stanza, but his meaning is clear: the "truly great" are no longer among us; thus, we must do everything in our power to keep them in our memories, for this is the only way to achieve greatness in ourselves.

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How does "were" or "was" influence the theme in The Truly Great by Stephen Spender?