What is the theme of the poem "The Shapes Of Death" by Stephen Spender?

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The key theme of this poem by Stephen Spender is death, particularly the way that "shapes of death haunt life." Spender's concern is that the darker parts of the human character, such as greed and ambition, are actually elements of our own death which dog us through life if we allow them to do so.

Spender describes the act of feeding ambition, like a flame, as an act of contributing to the shadow of one's own death. By trying to build up something that will last after we are gone, we are effectively spending our lives planning for our death—we are trying to do something which will "prevent . . . death's industry," not recognizing that this is impossible. Those who ordered the building of the pyramids did so in order that they would still be remembered after death, but this did not prevent them from dying—it only meant that they spent their lives thinking about their deaths rather than in the act of living.

The themes of this poem, then, might be encompassed in the concepts of ambition, reputation, death, and the idea that putting all of one's life into building up a reputation is to set aside true living in favor of a fruitless attempt to stave off death.

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The central theme of "The Shapes of Death" by the early twentieth century British poet, Stephen Spender, is that unrequited love can warp a character and that ambition serves only to prevent love. This is a theme explored in other poetical works by Spender as well. The idea in "The Shapes of Death" is that life should be the act of living and enjoying oneself. This is an almost Epicurean realization: all we have is the present moment and wasting it in planning for the future (ambition) can erode away at any possibility of joy in the present; similarly lamenting over a past love that could not be serves to do nothing but embitter us in the present. One must, like the swallows he discusses in the third stanza, live a natural, unperturbed life that is consumed neither by anxiety about the future nor sorrow about the past.

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