I think continually of those who were truly great

by Stephen Spender

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Last Updated February 9, 2024.

English poet Stephen Spender wrote this untitled poem (which is commonly referred to by its first line, "I think continually of those who were truly great") as part of the 1932 New Signatures anthology. This collection showcased the work of several young poets during a time of social and political upheaval in Europe. The threat of fascism, the Great Depression, and the looming prospect of war likely influenced Spender's yearning for "essential delight" and its call to resist the forces that "smother" the spirit. Given this context, it is no wonder that the poem reflects on ideals of greatness, spirituality, and the impact of individuals in the face of an uncertain future.

The poem opens with the speaker reflecting on truly remarkable people. The use of the past tense—"were"—indicates that these people were from an earlier time and are now gone. Yet, even though they are physically gone, their presence lingers, as these individuals seem connected to a deeper image of life's essence. That is what made them "truly great." The speaker imagines vibrant "corridors" filled with light like "suns," which symbolize a timeless and joyful existence. These "great" people had a beautiful goal: to use their words, still touched by passion, to express the soul's inner spirit. To the speaker, this is like a song that fills every part of them. Their lives were enriched by gathering their deepest desires like delicate blossoms falling on their bodies, a sensation much the same as that of flowers falling from trees in the springtime.

In the second stanza, the speaker emphasizes the importance of cherishing what makes life truly meaningful. "What is precious," the speaker says, is remembering the deep joy within all people. That joy, the speaker adds, flows through their blood like water from ancient springs. The speaker emphasizes the importance of cherishing the delight in the simple morning light and the earnest need for love in the evening. Doing this requires an active effort to remember, not just passive recollection. The speaker also warns against letting the clamor of everyday life drown out the blossoming of the spirit with its "noise and fog." This "flowering of the spirit," is what gives life to a person's true passions and desires. It is precious and deserves to bloom.

The third and final stanza emphasizes that those who passionately embraced life achieved a lasting significance, symbolized by the natural elements and landscapes that still pay tribute to their memory. The speaker figuratively takes the audience to a field high up in the mountains, which is bathed in sunlight and surrounded by swaying grass. They say that in such a place, one can almost feel the presence of those "truly great" individuals. The wind "whispers" their names, carried by wispy clouds through the air.

These names are of those who fiercely defended life and held onto its core values, symbolized by the "fire's centre" burning within them. Their lives, though short and now over, were like journeys toward the sun and left a lasting mark on the world with their integrity and courage. Ultimately, the poem suggests that living passionately and authentically creates a lasting impact on the world, leaving a legacy that transcends time and inspires generations to come.

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