An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum

                                   Stephen Spender


Stanza wise Analysis

The poet deals with the themes of social injustice and class inequalities in this unique poem. The poem is written in free verse and paints a bleak picture of a school in a slum.

Stanza -1

Far far from gusty waves these children’s faces.

Like rootless weeds, the hair torn round their pallor:

The tall girl with her weighed-down head. The paper-

seeming boy, with rat’s eyes. The stunted, unlucky heir

Of twisted bones, reciting a father’s gnarled disease,

His lesson, from his desk. At back of the dim class

One unnoted, sweet and young. His eyes live in a dream

Of squirrel’s game, in tree room, other than this.

In the first stanza, he paints a grim picture of the miserable condition of the children in the slum. There is no energy or vigor on the faces of these children. With their pale faces and unkempt hair, they look like uprooted weeds. Their lifeless faces show that they are uncared for. The poet goes on to describe a few children individually to show how miserable their condition is. Each child seems to be weak, hungry and malnourished. There is a tall girl in the class who sits with her head low because she is mentally and physically exhausted carrying the burden of poverty. The poet mentions ‘the paper seeming’ boy who is extremely thin with hungry eyes like a rat. There is another boy awho suffers from bone deformities, a disease that he inherited from his father. When he stands to recite his lesson he presents his father’s disease of twisted bones. There is one sweet boy sitting at the back of the class who is distracted from his lessons and dreams of squirrel’s games in a tree room outside the class. Though he is physically present he is mentally absent from the room. Thus in the first stanza, the poet paints a sad picture of poverty, starvation, and deprivation in the life of the people living in the slums.

Stanza -2

On sour cream walls, donations. Shakespeare’s head,

Cloudless at dawn, civilized dome riding all cities.

Belled, flowery, Tyrolese valley. Open-handed map

Awarding the world its world. And yet, for these

Children, these windows, not this map, their world,

Where all their future’s painted with a fog,

A narrow street sealed in with a lead sky

Far far from rivers, capes, and stars of words.

In the next stanza, the poet shifts his attention from the children to the condition of the classroom. On the walls of the classroom, a number of donated pictures are seen to be hanging. These have been donated by rich and well-off people. Among these pictures are Shakespeare’s portrait, pictures of famous monuments, beautiful valleys of Tyrol in Austria. There is also a map of the world which is made and reshaped by people. This map tells the children that it is their world. The map stands for progress and prosperity; it is the world of the rich. But, for these children, this map is not their world. Their world is the world that is visible through the classroom window. What they witness outside these windows is the only world that they have ever seen. Here, they see a future that is ‘painted with a fog,’ which symbolizes uncertainty. All they see outside is a filthy street, covered with a sky full of smoke,  which seems heavy like lead sealing their future and hurling them into darkness. This place is far from anything beautiful like rivers, capes and good books.


Surely, Shakespeare is wicked, the map a bad example.

With ships and sun and love tempting them to steal —

For lives that slyly turn in their cramped holes

From fog to endless night? On their slag heap, these children

Wear skins peeped through by bones and spectacles of steel

With mended glass, like bottle bits on stones.

All of their time and space are foggy slums.

So blot their maps with slums as big as doom.

All the hangings on the walls are mere temptations for these children, well beyond their reach. These pictures tempt them to make an escape from their miserable life into the beautiful life represented through the pictures. It tempts them to steal in order to escape from the grey world of the slums. There Shakespeare is said to be wicked and the map a bad example. Life in their cramped houses gradually changes from being uncertain to complete hopelessness. These children living amidst heaps of garbage have bodies with bones peeping through layers of skin. This suggests that even their basic needs like food are not met. Amenities provided to them like their spectacles are heavy and of cheap quality which adds to their woe. They spend their entire life(time) in the foggy slum (space) which is the only world they know. These slums are nothing less than a living hell and hence a blot in the world of the rich. It implies that our so-called civilized world that the map represents is far from perfect.

Stanza- 4

Unless, governor, inspector, visitor,

This map becomes their window and these windows

That shut upon their lives like catacombs,

Break O break open till they break the town

And show the children to green fields, and make their world

Run azure on gold sands, and let their tongues

Run naked into books the white and green leaves open

History theirs whose language is the sun.

Spender brings the poem to an end on a positive note. He shows a ray of hope for improving the condition of these slum children and also shows the way for it. According to him, the people in power (like Governor, inspector, and influential visitors) should take initiative to bring about the required changes. The progressive world should become the world of the slum children as well. And their windows which act as a barrier between them and development should be broken. The slum life should be eradicated and the slum children should be brought out of their narrow lanes into the green fields and golden sands; because surroundings play an important role in shaping one’s personality. They should be given the freedom to acquire knowledge so that they are able to read freely and express themselves freely. The language of the well-read and the well-educated gains the strength of the sun and they gain the power to create history.

Figures of speech in the poem

Figure of speechExample
Simile     Like rootless weeds
Metaphor  The paper-seeming boy
Metaphor  civilized dome riding all cities
transferred epithet             Civilized dome
Metaphortheir future’s painted with a fog 
Metaphor   A narrow street sealed in with a lead sky
 Metaphor               On their slag heap
Metaphor                    lives that slyly turn in their cramped holes
Simile  like bottle bits on stones
Simile                        these windows that shut upon their lives like catacombs
Metaphor                History is theirs whose language is the sun
zeugma                         the verb “reciting” in this line applies to the “gnarled disease” and “his lesson”.
synecdoche                    “His eyes live in a dream” in which the poet refers to the eyes of the boy in place of the boy.
personification                Civilized dome riding all cities      
Metonymy                     awarding the world its world  
Alliteration                   street sealed, far far from  
Polysyndeton / climax    ships and sun and love  
Rhetorical question         from fog to endless night?  
Irony                               the donations hung in the sour walls do not match the actual surroundings  
Symbol                                 Sun is the symbol of power

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