“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 almost Neoplatonic as the poet discusses how these individuals have come from the light and are going back to the light or “Spirit.” Plato’s philosophy of learning maintained that education was a process of remembering what one already knows. Great people, as described in this poem, are those whose recollection of the lofty state from which they have come is fresh and vital like spring blossoms.
The second stanza continues this definition of greatness as a process of remembering not only human ancestry but also the spiritual ancestry dating before the creation of the Earth as humans know it. In one sense, the poem seems to be advocating a kind of reincarnation, but, in another sense, the poem is discussing the power of getting in touch with the ancient roots of culture that form the lifeblood of most great poetry. To continue this tradition introduced by great people, the poet encourages people to never forget these individuals and “Never to allow gradually the traffic to smother/ With noise and fog, the flowering of the Spirit.”
The final stanza declares that creation itself celebrates the names of the great. This creation is alive and well aware of the noteworthy souls. The final four lines of the poem state elegantly how the great are “those who in their lives fought for life.” Such souls who keep the value and purpose of life in their hearts leave their signature across the sky like a vivid sunset that one can never forget. Those who have been true to the best in life are destined to be remembered well.
“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...
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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 poet.
The images in the second stanza contrast with those in the first and third stanzas by being more visceral and earthy. Images such as “blood,” “rocks,” “grave evening,” “noise,” and “fog” are reminders of the frailty and struggle of life against impending death. Great people are those who face great challenges well. The images in the third stanza are also earthy, but they move one’s view upward toward the sun. The elements of these bodily souls dissolve into light as they leave their honorable signature on the very air other people breathe. The phrase “vivid air” in the last line is another reminder that creation itself is vitally alive to the greatness of humanity and can be played like a harp humming with the song of life. The motifs of travel in the closing lines also remind readers that life is a pilgrimage. While this journey through life is terribly brief, it does tell much about one’s basic inclinations and sets an angle of travel into eternity. The great not only aim high, they aim truly at their point of origin, which is also their point of destiny.