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February is a month of extraordinary birthdays: Nicholas Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, George Washington, Charles Darwin, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, 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 it returns to the mortal world in a new soul-body combination.
Spender, in this poem, 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 philosophico-literary discoveries have you made in your homeschool this week? 😊
❡ 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. 😊
❡ Explore more: The Poetry Foundation’s website 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.
❡ Here, said the year: This post is one of our regular homeschool poems-of-the-week. Print your own River Houses poetry calendar for the whole school year at riverhouses.org/calendars and follow along with us as we visit forty-eight of our favorite friends.