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The poem An Elementary School Classroom in Slum written by Stephen Spender throws light on the dark reality of poor students of slums. Using ample of symbols and images, the poet describes the the worst condition of poor students and their faded future.
The poem has been divided into four stanzas having 8 stanzas each. We will discuss the poem word by word and also understand the deeper meaning of symbols used by the poet.
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.
The poet says that far far away from the gusty waves, he finds the faces of poor children. Gusty waves (strong waves) refer to cities where rich and influential people live. The phrase “far far” means that these children live in the villages which have no connection with the city life. In addition, they are too poor to live in the cities.
In the next line, the poet describes the condition of those poor children. According to him, they are like rootless weeds i.e. pale and dry like unrooted weeds and grass. The phrase “unrooted weeds” also signify how society perceives those poor children, i.e. they are considered as weeds (useless). Their hair are torn (split) round their pallor (unhealthy face).
There is a tall girl whose body is so weak (because of lack of unhealthy food) that it seems to be incapable of holding her head. This is why, the poet says “weighted-down head”. There is another boy who is as thing as a paper. His eyes look like those of rat probably because of starvation.
Next, the poet describes another boy in the class. According to him, there is a stunted (short-heighted) boy with twisted bones whom the poet calls unlucky heir (son). He seems to have bone disorder inherited from his poor father. He is sitting on his desk and reciting his lesson. The poet throws light on his condition to show why these poor students cannot read or don’t have a bright future.
There is another sweet and young boy sitting at the back of the dim class who is unnoted. The poet calls the class dim which has two meanings, first that there is no light at the back and second, it refers to the darkness of poverty which prevails over the boy. As his mind is not in the class (or what is happening in the class), he is dreaming about squirrel’s game which he saw in a tree room.
Again, here, the poet is explaining what kind of atmosphere the poor students have. They do not have any interest in studies because they can’t read or understand. So their mind remains occupied with other things.
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 this stanza, the poet compares the conditions poor living in slums and rich living in cities. According to the poet, the sour cream walls of school (which is in poor locality) have the inscription of donations and a photo of Shakespeare’s head. This line contains symbols having deep meanings. Sour symbolises bad smell and cream refers to gloomy.
Donations refer to the fact that these schools are on the mercy of rich people and Shakespeare’s head symbolises tough study which these poor students cannot understand. Though Shakespeare’s works are meant to be enjoyed, they are beyond the understanding of poor students.
There is the picture of civilized dome riding all cities. In other words, an ideal place where rich and so called civilized people live. The word “Civilized” has been purposefully added to the sentence. It indirectly suggests that poor are uncivilised and should not be considered to be humans. Rather, they are undesired species which should not live in cities.
Then there is the picture of Tyrolese Valley ( a beautiful valley) which is belled (prosperous) and flowery (heaven-like). But, this valley is inaccessible to the poor children,
There is also open-handed map which introduces a world to the poor children. However this world is different from the world of poor. For them, their world is not what they see in the map but what they see outside the windows i.e. slums, dirty places, huts and dirt. It is the world where all their future is painted with a fog.
Fog refers to lack of light or beauty i.e. hopelessness. Note that, the painting of Tyrolese valley and the future painted with fog (hopelessness) shows the difference between rich and poor and their respective futures.
In the next line, the poet describes the place where poor live. According to him, the children live in narrow street which is sealed in with a lead sky, It is far far away from rivers, capes (cities near sea) and stars which all are shown under the words of book.
Lead is a heavy metal. Sealed with lead sky means that the future of children is locked by the seal of lead (poverty). They cannot go beyond their present condition. So, all those things mentioned in the books are unachievable.
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 slum. So blot their maps with slums as big as doom.
The first stanza described the condition of poor children, the second stanza described their hopeless world. The third stanza is about the bad effect of sweet dreams and imaginations (given by books, maps and pictures) to the poor children who rebel against the “civilized society” by indulging in crimes.
According to the poet, it is evident that Shakespeare is wicked (wrong) and the map (which was in their class wall) with ships, sun and love (something which poor don’t have) a bad example for poor students. Showing these beautiful things to those living in cramped holes (congested huts) tempt (persuade) them to dream and thus indulge in crimes like stealing.
Hence, they go from fog (hopeless life) to endless night (life of criminals). This is why the poet says that study and the things which are shown to students are morally wrong because what they see is unachievable and yet they try to get it by wrong ways. This is a bold statement by the poet and something we have never seen or heard saying so.
The children are so poor and malnutritioned that they appear to wear skins peeped through by (attached) bones on their slag heap (i.e. bodies which look like a heap of waste). They are wearing spectacles of steel with mended glass (broken glasses) which look like bottle bits (small pieces of glass bottles) on stones.
This condition of the poor children signify that they need food, not education. Without proper food and nutrition, they are attacked by all types of diseases. This is why the poet considers education useless for them. He believes that they need to be provided food, shelter and medical facilities first.
Next, the poet says that all of their time and space (i.e. their world) are foggy slums i.e. without hope and gloomy. This is why, the poet asks the book publishers and education authority to blot (paint) their maps (which hang on wall in their schools) with slums (make a map of slums) which are as big as doom (these slum areas are huge because of poverty).
The last two lines show poet’s anger and rage on seeing the worst condition of poor. He knows that, their condition w According to theon’t get better, so instead of showing them big dreams (which they can’t achieve) they should be told about their world i.e. slums. Note that, the poet uses “blot” instead of “paint” here which again is a depiction of harsh conditions of slums.
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
The final stanza depicts the dream of poet (to see the children free). According to the poet, unless, a governor, an inspector or a visitor come (for inspection), the condition of students remain the same. The windows to outside world remain closed and they are confined in their slums like catacombs (cemetery) i.e. they remain in their slums as dead live in cemetery. Both have no way to escape.
The only way to the outside world is map which is hanging on the walls of their school. That is, they see the outside and unachievable world in maps. That means, no one pays attention to these slums. This makes them the neglected ones.
In the next line, the poet asks the authorities to break this barrier and provide cover thier basic needs or else they will break the town i.e. revolt against the current repressive and cruel system. He further asks the authorities to show them green field (which they have seen in the books) and make their world run azure (blue sky) on gold sands.
Green field symbolises hope and blue sky symbolises free. Golden sand refers to the deserted life of children. Combining all these symbols, we get the idea that poet asks authorities to give hope and freedom to these hopeless children.
Finally the poet urges the rich and authoritative people to let their tongues run naked (i.e. let them be free) into books which they read in white i.e. their school with white walls. This way, they will be able to reach green leaves (i.e. the place which they used to see in the books) and then they will be able to write their own history whose language is the sun.
Sun here represents passion, fire and enthusiasm which these children have. They only lack money and freedom. If their fundamental needs are fulfilled, their passion (as hot as sun) will be enough for them to change their condition and write their own history. So, the poem began in hopelessness, despair, continued with anger and finally ended in hope.
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