An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum

by Stephen Spender
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Anthony Martinelli

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1801

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 society and emancipate humanity from the constraints of a social construct founded upon the perpetual struggle between exploited and exploiting classes. This was the goal of The Communist Manifesto and the purpose of Marx's life.

Marx's message in The Communist Manifesto continued to resonate throughout Europe and Russia in the 1920s and 1930s, and it had a great impact on the foundation of Spender's writing, activism, and political ideology. Although Spender agreed with Marx's message and with the proletarian struggle, the way in which he explored Marxism and Communism changed as he aged. By 1964, when Spender wrote "An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum," his political ideology had altered focus. Although he was still opposed to capitalist society, Spender seemed more concerned about human equality than about the forcible emancipation and social revolution for which he had fought in the 1930s. The poem reveals this altered perception.

"An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum" is written in four stanzas. The first stanza looks at the students in the classroom. The first student, a "tall girl with [a] weighed-down head," is both mentally and physically exhausted. The next, a "paper- / seeming boy, with rat's eyes" is mal-nourished and terrified of the world. The third student is an "unlucky heir / Of twisted bones," carrying a genetic disorder, his "father's gnarled disease." The last is an "unnoted, sweet and young" boy with "eyes [that] live in a dream." Spender's description of each student is a comment on the exploitation of the proletariat.

Like the tall girl, the working class is overworked, exhausted, and sapped of any energy that may be used to turn against the ruling class. The bourgeoisie struggle to keep proletarians weak, malnourished, and frightened, again to keep their energy level too low to revolt. The third boy speaks to the lack of adequate health care for proletarians, another means of oppressing uprising. The last boy, however, seems to represent a sign of hope. Spender writes that the boy dreams of a place "other than this," showing that the proletarian class has not lost sight of an end to oppression. If there were no hope for equality, then the last boy would have nothing to fuel his dreams of a place outside the classroom in the slum. Spender uses the first stanza to paint a picture of the proletarians' plight and their hope for social equality.

In the second stanza, Spender brings in the distant, yet invasive role of the bourgeoisie in the proletariat's classroom. He writes of books, maps, a bust of Shakespeare, and other classroom items that are all "donations." These items show the students a world outside the slum, an existence that is "belled, flowery," and beautiful like the "Tyrolese valley." However, this world is as fantastic as an imaginary, alien world. The world the children see is "painted with a fog. / A narrow street sealed in with a lead sky"; this is their existence. Anything beyond this world is pure fantasy.

In the next stanza, Spender writes that the donations are "wicked" and "a bad example" that tempts the students "to steal." Spender suggests that the bourgeois donors of these classroom gifts intend to use the donations to hold the proletarians in place. The donations do not help advance the children's education; they simply show the students in "An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum" a glimpse of a beautiful world outside of what they have come to accept as reality. However, this beautiful outside world is wholly unattainable because of their position as the exploited working class.

Spender seems to be pounding his fist, proclaiming that the donations leave only two options for the students in the classroom: resist the donors' temptation and live moral lives with unfulfilled dreams or give in to temptation and resort to a life of crime with the hope of gaining enough capital to break the chains of exploitation and escape the working class. Neither option is adequate, as one forces the students to remain in the "fog" as proletarians and the other compels them to exchange their proletarian life in the "fog" for one of an "endless night" as bourgeois thieves.

In the final stanza, Spender makes a plea for change. He begs the "governor, inspector, visitor" to help the students. Spender is calling for a change in the way in which donations are given and used and, thus, in the way in which society intervenes in education. He writes, "show the children to green fields, and make their world / Run azure on gold sands, and let their tongues / Run naked into books the white and green leaves open." Spender is asking society to change for the benefit of the children. He is not directly calling for a working-class revolution as Marx did; instead, he is asking that the donations, that is, the money, be used to empower the students to freely explore the books they have been given. His message is that all students, regardless of social class, should be given the opportunity to "Run naked into books" without suffering fear, mal-nourishment, exhaustion, or disease. Spender is asking for a change to benefit all students; although this change might mandate a change in society, his concern is education and children, not necessarily the proletariat revolution.

Marx states in The Communist Manifesto that education is "social, and determined by the social conditions under which you educate, by the intervention of society, direct or indirect, by means of schools." Therefore, neither Marx nor Spender hopes to remove society from education—as both see education as inherently social—but both hope to change the way society intervenes in education. Without a new approach to education, Spender would say not only that there is no hope for proletarian children but also that there is no hope for children in general. Here, too, we see Spender's new emphasis on a fresh vision for bringing about human equality.

Spender does not simply posit a different way of looking at the same struggle. In this poem, he takes us away from the struggle of the proletarians against the bourgeoisie and reminds us that behind this adult struggle are the children of all classes. Suddenly, the political revolution for equality takes a backseat to the general oppression of children. Regardless of social class, adults undeniably have a responsibility for the care of children. Spender uses this position to forward the Communist agenda and, at the same time, to shed light on the inequalities affecting poverty-stricken, underprivileged children. "An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum" seems to demand a social change for the benefit of all children—not only proletarians—and delivers a strong, Marxist message about Communism, education, and the need for social change.

Source: Anthony Martinelli, Critical Essay on "An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum," in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.

David R. Slavitt

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2013

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 quarters. It was an elaborately honed performance. He knew what he was doing, having done it so many times before. Frost, after all, more or less invented the college poetry reading and by then he was making a substantial part of his living from these gigs. The common room was quite full, and le tout New Haven was there—Pearson, Brooks, Spender, faculty members from other residential colleges, and of course members of Pierson College.

Frost's guise was the old codger, hard of hearing, except when he wanted to be, rambling, almost aimlessly, but with a sharpness that this pose made all the more startling. I remember that on two or three visits he read, "Provide, Provide," or, to use the term he preferred, he said that poem to us. And the ending was not quite what he had on the page:

Some have relied on what they knew, 
Others on being simply true.
What worked for them might work for you.
No memory of having starred 
Atones for later disregard,
Or keeps the end from being hard.
Better to go down dignified 
With boughten friendship at your side
Than none at all. Provide, provide!

He paused a moment, and then added, mischievously, "Or somebody else will provide for you," and when that got the small, uncomfortable chuckle it was supposed to get, topped that with the next line. "And how would you like that?"

These must have begun as spontaneous remarks, almost inadvertent filler, a part of the patter a poetry reading requires because no audience can supply for very long that kind of heightened attention poetry requires. It would be exhausting. And Frost was a skillful enough performer to know that he had to let us relax a little, recoup, and re-gather our wits and emotions. But this taunting of conventional liberalism had become a part of the routine, reliable and habitual. The throwaway lines have all but joined the poem itself. They are part of the pose that allows or even demands the "boughten," which is defiantly folksy. The implied claim is that this is hard-won country wisdom. (It may, indeed, have been hard won, but there was nothing of the rube in Frost.)

He did his maundering, offering his familiar remarks about free verse, and then, more generally, about freedom to and freedom from, which are quite different. And then, as if the thought had just that minute occurred to him but hadn't been prompted by anything so vulgar as an actual occasion, something or someone out there in the external world, he threw in a line that wasn't familiar: "You know, there are a lot of fifthrate poets who, without their social conscience, might be third rate."

It ran right by me, and by many of my classmates, I have no doubt. But Spender was smart enough to know that he'd been insulted. Perhaps Pearson and Brooks and some of the others had sneaked glances at him, or maybe not sneaked but looked, candidly, to see how he'd behave now that the afternoon's shoe was on the other foot. Nobody smiled. But that was because nobody had to. It was nice, and deft, and done with. Or it could have been, if Spender had been inclined to tough it out. But he was, as I've suggested, very tall, and he felt conspicuous. And he decided that perhaps the best thing for him to do was to withdraw.

It wasn't an altogether catastrophic plan, but he was also clumsy as some tall Brits are. And he hadn't noticed that if he was going to try to leave through the French doors, it was essential to look down and see where the electrical cord went from the outlet to the lamp beside the grand piano. Not having watched exactly where he was putting his feet, he tripped over the wire, and fell through the glass doors and onto the flagstones outside, with a shattering of glass and, actually, blood from his cut hands.

A painful business, and we were worried. Heads turned toward the door and the fallen figure out there who lay stretched out on the flagstones. And Frost?

He waited until the first moment of excitement had passed, asked, "What was that?" and then answered his own question: "Nothing important, I'm sure."

What was I to make of all this? It is generally known that Frost could be . . . frosty. I can't remember who it was who told me about some editor inviting him to be part of an anthology of America's Hundred Greatest Poets, and his declining with the quip that is probably true—"America hasn't had a hundred great poets." Spender's fall and his bloodied hands weren't Frost's responsibility but the result of the British poet's own clumsiness. Frost's oblique and incidental insult was a kind of twitting that seems perfectly appropriate in the light of Spender's own performance, a few hours earlier. Poetic justice, call it. All I can imagine Frost would have reasonably expected would have been Spender having to sit there in discomfort for a couple of minutes, which was less than what Brooks had had to suffer up on the stage.

All that is true enough, but beside the point, I think, which was something quite different and much more important: Frost thought of himself as a better poet than Spender. And therefore, Spender was an annoyance, even an affront.

We spend our lives at this, working hard, demanding of ourselves a standard of excellence that we can only occasionally meet. We have our moments—and months—of doubt and even despair, and we worry that we will never be able to write another poem again. Or that the poems we have written weren't as good as we'd wanted, and we've been kidding ourselves, wasting our time in a delusional and pathetic enterprise. We learn to be tough with ourselves, even brutal. And that brutality is a part of our aspiration, is allied somewhere to the best that is in us.

Sometimes, it comes out and shows itself, as it did that evening. Frost was being brutal to poor Spender, but nowhere near as brutal as he would habitually be to himself.

"I think continually of those who were truly great"?

Trip him. Throw him through that French door and out onto the patio.

No, maybe not that. But to ride him a little, to make a remark that might cause him an instant's distress? I can see that.

And the remark afterward, the really cruel one, about "Nothing important, I'm sure," isn't just Frost speaking. It's poetry, itself.

It's a phrase that goes through my head a lot, almost half a century later. Sometimes I'm Frost. More often, I'm Spender, out there in the night bleeding, and hearing the line and the laughter of undergraduates, sharper than any glass shards.

Source: David R. Slavitt, "Poetic Justice," in Boulevard, Vol. 18, No. 2 and 3, Spring 2003, pp. 93–97.

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Critical Overview