An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum

by Stephen Spender
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Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 267

There is not much written about Spender's work as a poet and even less about his individual poems. In fact, much of the critical response to Spender's poetry is negative or tepid at best in its praise. DavidR. Slavitt writes in Boulevard of attending a lecture given by Spender at Yale in 1955, stating, "He was also, I thought then and still think, a dismally bad poet." This is the familiar and resounding opinion of but one of Spender's critics. His greatest literary achievement is his autobiography, World within World. No matter how poorly received his poetry may have been by his contemporaries and critics, the bulk of what is written about Spender's life and, in particular, about his autobiography, is heavy with critical praise.

Written in 1951, World within World explores Spender's bisexual lifestyle. It is unusual in its frankness. Spender, who always went to bat for the oppressed and underprivileged, puts his own life and sexuality on the table, examining the civil and human hardships of a nonheterosexual person in the sexually repressed 1950s. Richard Freadman writes in The Ethics in Literature, "World within World is a powerful and nuanced call for renewal,a call which imagines some of the processes of renewal that ethical beings now need to undergo." Spender's autobiography as well as his poem "An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum" show his dedication to equality and understanding among humans. Although Spender may not be seen as one of the greatest English poets of the twentieth century, he is recognized as a humanist and a political activist with a keen eye for social commentary.

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