I think continually of those who were truly great Analysis

Stephen Spender

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“I think continually of those who were truly great” is an untitled poem that first appeared in New Signatures, a collection of poetry selected by Michael Roberts to offer an imaginative and intellectual blend that would deal positively with the problems of the twentieth century. This popular collection also represented the works of emerging poets such as W. H. Auden, C. Day Lewis, William Empson, John Lehmann, and Richard Eberhart, who collectively became known, for a time, as New Signatures poets. Spender contributed more poems than any of the others, and his seven poems promptly became part of his collected canon.

“I think continually of those who were truly great” is written in free verse with three stanzas containing eight, seven, and eight lines, respectively. The meter of the poem is highly varied, containing fine examples of most meters used in English poetry. While this poem settles into no regular meter, line length, or rhyme scheme, it is, nonetheless, highly musical with its syncopated rhythms and sharp images.

The opening line of the poem, which is typically used in place of its omitted title, sets a tone of reminiscing about the great; the verb “were” signals that those the poet admires are already dead. The second line declares that these noteworthy souls were born to greatness, having existed before birth and having had a history of the greatness they would realize in life on earth. The language is...

(The entire section is 503 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“I think continually of those who were truly great” is a fine example of the New Signatures era of poetry. The style of the poem shows the influence of T. S. Eliot (whom Spender respected and admired), especially in its use of a highly imagistic, free-verse form. Those of Spender’s own generation, such as Auden and Lewis, also influenced Spender to hold a very optimistic view of what humanity could accomplish in life. While the New Signatures poets often, in keeping with Marxist ideals, railed against capitalism and championed the common laborer, Spender seems to set aside this agenda for a moment. What remains of this cultural development among the poets is a sense of enthusiasm about the potential of individuals for achieving greatness.

The images in this poem are primarily tied to life and inspiration. In the ancient Greek tradition, inspiration was the product of the gods breathing new life into the writer, performer, or speaker. The phrase “lips, still touched with fire” reminds one of Isaiah 6, in which the prophet’s lips are cleansed by the touch of a coal from the altar, leaving the prophet with inspiration to go forth and speak purely for God. Images of light and singing are also connected with inspiration. For the ancient Greeks, from which this elegiac form is derived, all forms of poetry and most parts of their plays were to be sung. Singing was considered the natural medium of inspiration, especially for the...

(The entire section is 436 words.)