The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 549

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Stephen Spender’s “The Landscape near an Aerodrome” is a poem of thirty lines arranged into six stanzas of five lines each. The poem is a description of the flight of an airplane and its landing at an urban airport. Such a flight would still have been a somewhat unusual event in the 1930’s, and the speaker meditates upon the meaning and significance of the airplane, the landscape over which it flies, and the airport (“aerodrome” means airfield or airport) at which it arrives. The title suggests that the focus of the poem is the landscape, but in the first stanza the speaker describes the airplane. It is “More beautiful and soft than any moth/ With burring furred antennae feeling its huge/ path/ Through dusk.” In the first line, therefore, Spender announces his perspective: Modern machinery surpasses the traditional beauty of nature. However, nature is not completely lacking in the description of this machine: It has “furred antennae” like the moth to guide it through the air, but it is directed toward its destination by human design rather than by instinct. Significantly, it is gliding with “shut-off engines,” so there is no discordant sound of mechanical engines. Its descent is gentle, and it does not disturb the “charted currents of air.”

The second stanza shifts from an appreciative description of the airplane to the perspective of its passengers, who are “lulled” by its gentle descent. The landscape over which they travel is given human attributes: It is described as “feminine” and “indulging its easy limbs/ In miles of softness.” This is a landscape both natural and suburban, and its softness is attributable to the broad patterns of farms and meadows unbroken by the hard, masculine buildings and monuments of the city. As stanza 2 continues, the passengers’ eyes “penetrate” the beginnings of a town where “industry shows a fraying edge.” The attitude toward the industrial landscape is neutral: “Here they may see what is being done.”

In the next stanza, the passengers look past the “masthead light” of the landing ground and “observe the outposts/ Of work.” The chimneys are “lank black fingers” that appear “frightening and mad.” These negative images are quite different from the descriptions of the airplane and the farmlands. The urban landscape is broken and mournful: The “squat buildings” look “like women’s faces/ Shattered by grief,” and the surrounding houses moan. The airplane then flies over a field where boys are playing. In contrast to the first stanza, Spender now sees positive value in things that are linked to nature: The shouts of joy that accompany the boys’ active play are like the cries of “wild birds.” However, those cries “soon are hid under the loud city.” The urban world is a nightmare of sound and broken visual images, in direct contrast with the airplane that can fly high above it.

In the last stanza, the airplane finally lands. Its passengers are met by a “tolling bell/ Reaching across the landscape of hysteria.” The landscape is one of madness, intensifying the nightmarish images of the previous descriptions of the city. Industry and the military are dwarfed by the mad bells of religion, “the church blocking the sun.” The freedom of the airplane in the sky is now destroyed by the institutions of industry and religion.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 291

The meter of “The Landscape near an Aerodrome” is primarily iambic with some trochaic substitutions, and the line length is hexameter with a few pentameter variations. For example, the first line is iambic pentameter, but the second shifts to iambic hexameter. The poetic purpose of these lines of uneven length is unclear, however, and seems more arbitrary or accidental than designed.

The major poetic device used to describe the airplane and the rural landscape over which it flies is personification. The farmland, for example, is described as a “feminine” landscape with “easy limbs.” Metaphor and simile become the dominant figures of speech in the poem as it develops from the early contrasts between the natural and the mechanical. The airplane is metaphorically seen as a moth with fur and antennae, although it is more beautiful. Similes tend to appear later: The urban houses “remark the unhomely sense of complaint, like a dog/ Shut out and shivering at the foreign moon,” and the chimneys are “like long black fingers/ Or figures, frightening and mad.” The change from the playful “winking” world of the airplane to the grimy city is dramatic. In a more positive simile, the boys at play are described as being “like wild birds.” Their cries, however, are “hid under the loud city.” The sound images are the crucial poetic device that Spender uses to establish the contrast between the natural and the urban landscapes. The gliding airplane makes no noise, but the city is loud. The tolling bell of the oppressive church is even louder, and it is inescapable. This onerous institution is also “blocking the sun” and bringing darkness upon the land, blotting out the promise of new technology and the freedom to pass effortlessly over the seas.