Stephen Spender’s poem about greatness was written in the 1930s during wartime, and has become almost his ‘signature’ poem.
The Truly Great by Stephen Spender
I think continually of those who were truly great.
Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history
Through corridors of light, where the hours are suns,
Endless and singing. Whose lovely ambition
Was that their lips, still touched with fire,
Should tell of the Spirit, clothed from head to foot in song.
And who hoarded from the Spring branches
The desires falling across their bodies like blossoms.
What is precious, is never to forget
The essential delight of the blood drawn from ageless springs
Breaking through rocks in worlds before our earth.
Never to deny its pleasure in the morning simple light
Nor its grave evening demand for love.
Never to allow gradually the traffic to smother
With noise and fog, the flowering of the spirit.
Near the snow, near the sun, in the highest fields,
See how these names are fêted by the waving grass
And by the streamers of white cloud
And whispers of wind in the listening sky.
The names of those who in their lives fought for life,
Who wore at their hearts the fire’s centre.
Born of the sun, they travelled a short while toward the sun
And left the vivid air signed with their honour.
The first verse celebrates those who have been passionate enough to do vital things or had the desire to make changes. Materialism has not mattered to these ‘truly great’, but with their awareness of history “from the womb”, they have been able to dwell in a constant light and to enjoy an energy which is like branches blossoming with the spring (a symbol of life itself).
The second stanza focuses on the hard work done by the “truly great”. Their efforts are timeless, they have had to put aside distractions, and even love, in order to reach their goals.
The third verse, rich with imagery, proclaims the message that these great ones will never be forgotten. From mountaintops and their snow, to waving grasslands, and even in the sky, the names of those who have made a difference will be remembered. They were “born of the sun”, and the metaphor stresses the energy, colour, and life-giving forces connected to these great people. Spender is not specific about these great ones – they could be military heroes, they could be poets or artists – but the very air is “signed with their honour”. Now it is up to us to learn from their legacy.
Who would be the ‘truly great’ people that you think of often? Most of mine would be writers, artists and performers – they inspire me, enrich me with their legacies and make me feel grateful that they “travelled a short while toward the sun”.
Sir Stephen Harold Spender (1909 – 1995) was an English poet, novelist and essayist. His work often focuses on class struggle and social injustice. He was also a founding member of the Homosexual Law Reform Society. As a poet, he was ‘discovered’ by T.S. Eliot.