Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 537
“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 fresh turn of phrasing that makes of these images a brilliant statement against death, which often seems to dwarf the value and significance of life. The poet seems to understand that the spiritual dimension of who people are is more significant than the mortal body. This view strongly contrasts with the Marxist view of life as being materialistic and existing exclusively on this side of death.
Compared to Spender’s other poems from this era, “I think continually of those who were truly great” stands out as one of his best works. Some of his early poems, such as “Beethoven’s Death Mask” and “The Express,” also achieve a degree of aptness in phrasing and imagery, but most are very romantic and sometimes sentimental, the product of seeing the trials of life from a distance. These early successes show that Spender was a fine poet in the making who was moving toward the sun of his greatness. In 1971, he was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry; in 1979, he was made an honorary fellow of University College, Oxford; and, in 1982, he was knighted—a fitting crown to his own noble career as a poet and critic.