I think continually of those who were truly great

by Stephen Spender
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What legacy do great people leave behind them?

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"The Truly Great" by Stephen Spender is sometimes known by its incipit, or first line, "I think continually of those who were truly great." What is left behind by the "truly great" of the poem is determined by Spender's attempt to redefine "true" greatness and separate it from what is conventionally called "great."

Many history books tend to associate greatness with wealth or power, describing political or military leaders, technological innovators, and the wealthy and powerful as great. For Spender, greatness is something internal, determined by people's inner spirit or nature rather than by their external accomplishments.

What the truly great leave behind is "the flowering of the spirit," which inspires even nature itself with its overflowing lightness, brilliance, and intensity. It is not something concrete but something spiritual, and this legacy of spirit, Spender suggests, transforms our world even if we have never directly met or encountered the (perhaps humble) people who have great spirits.

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Traditionally, those who are considered great in a standard sense leave tangible, physical legacies behind them. They win awards, people name things after them, people build monuments to them, and so on.

In this poem, though, the great leave a different legacy behind them. Instead of being celebrated by crowds of people, their names are celebrated by "waving grass." The clouds celebrate them, as does the wind. In other words, the great leave no coarse or crude legacy. Instead, nature celebrates them, invisibly.

These natural forces celebrate the great because of the superior quality of their spirits and their passions. Rather than focusing on money or winning battles, the great spent their lives fighting for life. That's a subtle thing, but a lovely one, yes?

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The legacy of those who were truly great is hinted at throughout the poem, even in the first line, where part of their legacy lies in the poet's continual thoughts of them. In the second stanza, this continual thought is amplified and extended by "never...forget[ting]," with a series of images drawn from the natural world in danger of being smothered by the unnatural "traffic."

It is the third stanza, though, that primarily deals with legacy:

See how these names are fêted by the waving grass
And by the streamers of white cloud
And whispers of wind in the listening sky.
This almost silent memorial of clouds, whispering wind, and waving grass, a perennial but fragile legacy, is a rebuke to all the bombastic attempts of those who merely thought they were great to commemorate their achievements: the stone statue of Ozymandias, the marble and gilded monuments of princes, even Longfellow's footprints in the sands of time. The poem ends with "the vivid air signed with their honor." True greatness needs no physical memorial. It is in the poet's thoughts and in the patterns of nature, and it can therefore write its name upon the air without loss or regret.
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