“I think continually of those who were truly great” springs from an era of great enthusiasm for the potential of people to change their world. The Marxist dogmas that many of the idealistic upper-middle-class English people adopted were, in many ways, a well-intentioned effort to improve the state of the poor and underprivileged. Spender gave up his affiliation to Marxist ideologies after seeing the inconsistencies of the communist leaders in the Spanish Civil War. Spender was also to lose some of his naïve optimism about life after he witnessed the protracted suffering and death of his sister Margaret, who died of cancer on Christmas day, 1945. His “Elegy for Margaret” is much more somber than this earlier elegy, yet the sense of triumph is still evident, and the sense that this life is only a phase of one’s total existence is still very strong.
The exact philosophy that undergirds this poem is ambiguous. One can find evidence of strong Christian convictions as well as views that are more Eastern or Hindu in their mystical view of life. As critic Sanford Sternlicht has noted, throughout his life, Spender remained “unsure of, and ambivalent toward, philosophy, aesthetics, religion, politics, and sexuality.” This ambivalence helps explain why this poem does not fit firmly into any given philosophical or religious agenda. Spender is speaking of the universal yearnings of the soul and of the sense that all of humanity is connected to the past in some profound way, whether spiritually, genetically, or psychologically.
Regardless of how one assesses the religious and philosophical dimensions of this poem, Spender has achieved an extraordinary statement of hope about the potential of human beings to live significant, great lives. Such a statement is all the more surprising when one realizes that it came out of the era of the Great Depression and not long before Europeans knew they would soon be engulfed in another world war. Somehow, Spender has been able to take the images that have often been used in elegies and employ them with a...
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