I think continually of those who were truly great

by Stephen Spender
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What is the meaning of the poem "I Think Continually of Those Who Were Truly Great"?

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Stephen Spender in “The Truly Great” shows reverence to those who have fought to enlighten the world. The speaker discusses people who “remembered the soul’s history” and “whose lovely ambition” has never failed. According to the speaker, those who are great will learn from history and will strive to fight the “traffic” that attempts to crush their spirit. We are reminded that the past holds great significance to the present, and we must always keep in mind lessons learned in the past so that we can move forward.

The speaker urges us to not forget the truly great, as they are remembered by everything around us. Their names are whispered by the wind, the clouds, and the grass. The great ones “wore at their hearts the fire’s centre” and “left the vivid air signed with their honour.” Therefore, it is impossible to forget the people who fought for everyone else, because their memory is everywhere. Although it’s unclear whether the speaker is talking about war heroes, or just heroes in general, the message itself is very clear that we must not forget them and must draw inspiration from them.

The speaker’s deeming the heroes and their deeds as “precious,” “touched with fire,” and ‘"Born of the sun” places a majestic value on them. One who is “of the sun” would be considered to be filled with light, being supernatural and perhaps one from God. Thus, the speaker’s diction indicates great reverence for those enlightening figures who have fought to improve the world. Such heroes used “the fire’s centre” to accomplish their goals; it is up to us now to learn from them and continue their legacy.

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In this poem, the speaker considers the truly great not to be great generals, famous politicians, celebrities, or people who made billions of dollars, but the poets and visionaries of the world.

These are the people who, the speakers says in stanza one, are born with a special spiritual sensibility. From the "womb" they carry with them the "soul's history." In other words, they bring with them from a pre-born state a divine glory. They are born with a destiny: to "tell of the Spirit."

In the second stanza, the speaker says these great people are those who never forget the spiritual and never allow it to be smothered. They remember enjoy, and transmit to others the "essential delight . . . drawn from ageless spring."

They live from a deep spiritual center, the speaker says in stanza three. They are those who, while alive, "wore at their hearts the fire’s centre." They are people touched with the divine. They were

Born of the sun, they travelled a short while toward the sun
And left the vivid air signed with their honour.
Spender's speaker never says that these "truly great" individuals were poets, creative geniuses, and visionaries, but this emerges from the traits he describes.
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The poem starts out sounding like an homage to great people in history. As the first stanza develops, however, the speaker seems to be saying more about how greatness is born of the connection between generations and the connection between humanity and nature.

The great ones remember the soul's history, meaning they understand the past. They have a significant, maybe even spiritual, connection to human history and world history. The "endless and singing" "corridors of light" represent the perpetual enlightenment that is always available for human potential. The energy of the world and the universe runs through that greatness. Everything is connected.

In the second stanza, the speaker entwines notions of human life and the natural world. This suggests an inherent connection. There is something ecological or symbiotic about this. Note that in this stanza, the speaker warns:

Never to allow gradually the traffic to smother

With noise and fog the flowering of the spirit.

The speaker is suggesting that "traffic" (technological noise and distraction) can disrupt the human/nature connection. Spender uses the "flowering of the spirit" metaphor to emphasize this connection between nature ("flower") and the human "spirit."

In the final stanza, the speaker personifies aspects of nature, claiming that they praise (fete) the great ones in history. In the final two lines, the speaker concludes by describing how the influence of great people is left in the "vivid air." Their influence can be seen and remembered in human culture. Spender ends with another notion of nature ("air"). It's as if to say their influence is not only written in books, but also in the natural air itself.

Humans are of the earth. Their energy comes from the Sun. Therefore, their greatness is literally and poetically linked to nature. Connection is an important theme here. The greatest ones remember the soul's past. Spender is showing how they are connected to others across time and how they are connected to nature itself. It is a very optimistic and hopeful poem because it is all about human potential as well as historical, ecological, and spiritual connection.

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