Here is the second of my duo of Stephen Spender poems. I don’t know much about the background – it could have been written any time in the 1930s (“the failure of banks”) or the 1940s (“explode like a shell”). It shares with the last one, “The North”, the repeated reference to extreme cold. The snow here is perhaps only metaphorical though, unlike that in “The North”; it is a metaphor for the natural world – a world in which grief, pain and hunger treat all equally regardless of former privilege. These natural forces will obliterate and cleanse the mistakes of humankind and lead to renewed hope.
This calls to mind much more recent works of an apocalyptic nature, specifically two Jefferson Airplane songs: “Wooden Ships” (written in 1969 by David Crosby, Paul Kantner and Stephen Stills) and even more, Kantner and Marty Balin’s “House at Pooneil Corners” (1968)1 :
Everything someday will be gone except silence,
The Earth will be quiet again;
Seeds from clouds will wash off the ashes of violence
Left as the memory of men;
There will be no survivors, my friend!
The role of the “seeds from clouds” here is to cleanse – (the internet lyrics say “seas from clouds” but I’m sure that’s wrong). The raindrops cleanse the landscape of all trace of man. (In the later song, there are indeed survivors, who revert to a simplified existence, living on berries which have somehow escaped the fallout. This concept of “rebirth” followed by a return to a simpler, more innocent lifestyle, was a common theme during the Cold War. The 1970s serial “Survivors” is another example.)
Tony Harrison read this poem aloud at a public reading at the Royal Institution in 2009 to celebrate the centenary of Spender’s birth. In the third verse he literally spits out the words “works, money, interest, building”, adding emphasis to the last two by banging his fist on the table. (You can download the recording here.) The wording is exactly the same as in the 1965 Faber Book of Modern Verse; the poem didn’t appear at all in the 1985 Collected Poems. Clearly Spender did not feel the need to tinker with this poem as he did with others (see last post); whether he thought it already perfect, or not important enough to tinker with, is not easy to say. Well, I liked it anyway, and in fact it formed an important backdrop to my confused, unsatisfactory late adolescence. So there. (NB The poem does not actually have a title. I made up the title for the blog piece on the basis of the last line of the poem).
After they have tired of the brilliance of cities
And of striving for office where at last they may languish
Hung down with easy chains until
Death and Jerusalem glorify also the crossing-sweeper:
Then those streets the rich built and their easy love
Fade like old cloths, and it is death stalks through life
Grinning white through all faces
Clean and equal like the shine from snow.
In this time when grief pours freezing over us,
When the hard light of pain gleams at every street corner,
When those who were pillars of that day’s gold roof
Shrink in their clothes; surely from hunger
We may strike fire, like fire from flint?
And our strength is now the strength of our bones
Clean and equal like the shine from snow
And the strength of famine and of our enforced idleness
And it is the strength of our love for each other.
Readers of this strange language,
We have come at last to a country
Where light equal, like the shine from snow, strikes all faces,
Here you may wonder
How it was that works, money, interest, building, could ever hide
The palpable and obvious love of man for man.
Oh comrades, let not those who follow after
– The beautiful generation that shall spring from our sides –
Let not them wonder how after the failure of banks
The failure of cathedrals and the declared insanity of our rulers,
We lacked the Spring-like resources of the tiger
Or of plants who strike out new roots to gushing waters.
But through torn-down portions of old fabric let their eyes
Watch the admiring dawn explode like a shell
Around us, dazing us with light like snow.
1 I had often wondered who or what “Pooneil” was so I googled it and found this: “Neil” was folksinger Fred Neil … one of the more strident anti-authoritarian voices from the early 60s. Winnie the Pooh and Neil were the heroes of Paul Kantner … He seemed to consider the two yin-yang opposites – Pooh symbolizing childlike innocence and wonder, and Neil representing adult sophistication and angry attitude.