February is a month of extraordinary birthdays: Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, George Washington (observed today), Thomas Paine, Charles Darwin, Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, Dmitri Mendeleev, Frederick Douglass, Thomas Edison, Babe Ruth, Rosa Parks, and more. In their collective honor, our homeschool poem-of-the-week for the third week of February is Stephen Spender’s encomium on “The Truly Great”:
The Truly Great
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.
This is a beautiful and deeply philosophical poem — great for high school students — built around the ancient Greek concept of metempsychosis or “the transmigration of souls.”
Plato and other Greek philosophers taught that the individual soul was immortal, and that after one’s physical body dies, the soul returns to the spiritual realm where it chooses a new body into which it will be placed. It then drinks from the River of Forgetfulness (Lethe) so as to lose all memory of its previous life, and then returns to the mortal world in a new soul-body combination.
In this poem, Spender imagines that the truly great figures of history were great because they “remembered the soul’s history” — they didn’t partake of the waters of forgetfulness and so had lifetimes of knowledge and understanding to draw upon as they passed through the world. How else could they have accomplished what they did, with the experience of only one lifetime?
What wonderful words and philosophico-literary productions have you been studying in your homeschool this Orion Term? 😊
❡ And left the vivid air signed with their honour: If a special line or turn of phrase happens to strike you in one of our weekly poems, just copy it onto your homeschool bulletin board for a few days and invite your students to speak it aloud — that’s all it takes to begin a new poetical friendship and learn a few lovely words that will stay with you for life. 😊
❡ Literary lives: The website of the Poetry Foundation includes biographical notes and examples of the work of many important poets (including Stephen Spender) that are suitable for high school students and homeschool teachers. 🖋
❡ Comparative literature: If you have advanced high schoolers in your homeschool, one of the best ways to get them to think critically about literature is to have them compare and contrast different works on similar themes. After they’ve talked with you for a while about “The Truly Great,” invite them to take a look at “The Grandeur of Ghosts” by Siegfried Sassoon (1886–1967), an older contemporary of Spender. How do these two authors approach the theme of greatness? (One answer I might give is that Spender focuses on those who are great themselves, while Sassoon focuses on those who are small and who thereby demonstrate, by contrast, the greatness of others.) 🔍
❡ Here, said the year: This post is one of our regular homeschool poems-of-the-week. Add your name to our River Houses mailing list to get posts like these delivered right to your mailbox, and print your own River Houses Poetry Calendar to follow along with us as we visit fifty of our favorite friends over the course of the year. 📖