Friday, 21 February 2014

‘An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum’- a critical analysis for grade Twelve CBSE Course

A background of the Poet
Stephen Spender (1909-1995) was an English poet and essayist who took  keen interest in politics. He took interest in the Socialist school of thought which explains his stance regarding the paradox of teaching elementary school children in a slum. His belief as strongly recorded in the Poem, ‘An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum’ is that it is mere wish fulfillment to think that you can teach children on an empty stomach! Stephen Spender became disillusioned by his tryst with socialism and he wrote about this disillusionment in an essay written by him in a book titled, ‘The God That failed’.
The theme of the poem
The central theme of the poem deals with the paradox of teaching elementary school children in a slum. Spender very strongly believes that you cannot hope to provide education to children who are poor and hungry. A feeling of hopelessness coupled with the actual lack of a bright future (symbolized by the words, ‘fog’, and ‘foggy slum’) suggests that the very purpose of educating these children has been defeated. Poverty, hunger, hopelessness, and the fact that they are cut off from the rest of the world is expressed in the words, ‘A narrow street sealed in with a lead sky,’ and ‘catacombs’. It is the poet’s belief that the only solution is to, ‘break' down the slum and let the children run free on ‘gold sands’ and to, ‘let their tongues run naked into books the white and green leaves’. What Spender means is that it is only after the policy makers have addressed the problem of poverty and its attendant problems like malnourishment and inherited diseases that you can hope to provide an education that is empowering in the true sense!
Important metaphors used by Spender
The poem, ‘An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum’ contains a few very important metaphors that support the poet’s attitude towards the idea of teaching children who are impoverished. The metaphor of ‘Shakespeare's Head,’ represents the teaching of concepts and ideas that the students are not able to relate to because of their impoverished nature. The children are so poor malnourished, tired and hopeless that they don’t have the luxury of leisure to study works by Shakespeare. Moreover, ‘Shakespeare is wicked, the map a bad example’ because their exclusiveness tempts ‘them to steal’. It is ironical that by teaching them about Shakespeare, you are in fact teaching the students to steal. What they can’t hope to achieve in the normal course of time, they will try to achieve through unfair and illegal means, and this is more so because you have taught these children that Shakespeare is good, and the world shown on the map is good. The children will, therefore, try to achieve the good things in life by hook or crook! The metaphor of Nature as a teacher appears in the last stanza and it is represented in the words, ‘gold sands’ and the books with, ‘white and green leaves’. The ‘green leaves’ are pages in the book of Nature. The ‘Open-ended map’ rather paradoxically is a metaphor for slavery or imprisonment because it shuts ‘upon their lives like catacombs’. What Spender suggests is that you can’t hope to teach the impoverished children about the real world by showing them the map because then they are reminded of the world they live in and the hopelessness that shuts upon them like, ‘Catacombs’ a twisted maze from which there is no escape. What they can relate to, therefore is not what is shown on the map, but rather the world of poverty and misery that they can see through the windows of their classroom. The windows of the classroom are the true maps that they can relate to, not the ‘open ended map’!  The Sun incidentally is a metaphor for freedom as opposed to the ‘fog’. Stephen Spender makes it clear that history can be written only by those ‘whose language is the sun.’ It is clear that the message that Spender wants to pass on to the reader is that the fruits of education can be enjoyed only by those who are free from the shackles of poverty. A hard hitting point, but then what Spender seeks to express is the idea that policy makers should target the poverty of the children before attempting to provide them with education!

The tone of the poem
The tone of the poem is rather somber and profound mainly because the poet is trying to express a rather serious problem that affects our society at large. The descriptions of the foggy atmosphere, the ‘narrow street sealed in with a lead sky’, the, ‘slag heap…skins peeped through by bones’, and ‘spectacles of steel with mended glass’ all add to the rather festering and palpable atmosphere of poverty and hopelessness. The poet wants to deliberately shake the reader out of his sense of complacency so that he or she realizes that mere donations or high ideals of providing an education that is supposed to be empowering are useless as long as they don’t target the problem of poverty. Poverty is a glaring problem in today’s world and it needs to be tackled before anything can be done to further the development and empowerment of the society. The image of the ‘slag heap… bottle bits on stones’ creates a rather overwhelming sense of hopelessness that can be linked to the de-humanisation of the society. What comes to mind is the image of society that has devolved into a ‘Wasteland’ as described by T.S. Eliot in his poem with the same name. The overall tone of sadness and gloom is paradoxical in nature as it highlights the irony of life in the twenty-first century in spite of all the technological advancement that is taking place. The gap between the rich and the poor is aptly brought out in this poem.The tone of the poem is a mix of hope (as in the last two lines of the first stanza where the boy at the back of the classroom dreams about a squirrel's game), anger, helplessness and despair (see the last line in the third stanza: "So blot their maps with slums as big as doom." Somehow, this line reminds me of a similar line written by Robert Frost in the poem A Roadside Stand, where he writes, "I can't help owning the great relief it would be to put these people at one stroke out of their pain"). There is and everall feeling of anger, helplessness and extreme feeling of angst in the poet about not being able to make people open their eyes to the fact that you really can't teach underprivileged children on an empty stomach!
Style of writing
Stephen Spender has made use of a lot of sarcasm, and irony to expose the fallacies of a political system that claims to address the problems of underprivileged students. Thus he uses very strong words to describe Shakespeare when calls him "wicked" and the map "a bad example". The violence of Spender's emotions towards the hypocrisy of the system of politics and education is evident in the words, " Break O break open till they break the town"- you need to destroy the decadent old world order in order to introduce a new one! Stephen Spender uses vivid descriptions to create a vivid world of decay and waste that are an ironic comment on the progress we have made post the Industrial revolution era. The children in this poem are living on a veritable wasteland, a "slag heap", a veritable junkyard which is littered with "bottle bits on stones" and piles of steel scrap. In many ways, this is a poem that shares the same theme as that of the prose lesson, Lost Spring by Anees Jung, which is a description of rag-pickers who are living in primeval conditions in Seemapuri, Delhi's largest slum, and Firozabad, the bangle making industry. There is extreme sarcasm in the expression "unlucky heir of twisted bones." You inherit wealth, power, and respect, but then this boy in the classroom has inherited his father's genetically transmitted disease of twisted and deformed bones. The student has inherited poverty, hopelessness, despair, and perhaps the sins of his father!
The philosophy of the Poet
Stephen Spender’s poem, ‘An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum’ very aptly encapsulates his philosophy of life which is based on the themes of social injustice and class inequalities.  The poet constantly highlights his belief in the paradox of poverty, the idea that the more advanced the society, the larger the gap between the poor and the rich. His philosophy of life exposes the sham that exists in the society today and the so-called hollowness in the intentions of the humanitarians of the world who want to do good to the underprivileged by donating gifts which are in effect of no use.
Poetic Devices used by the Poet:
Stephen Spender has made use of poetic devices like similes, metaphors, synecdoche, repetitions and epithets in order to bring out the theme of the poem. The second line in the first stanza contains a simile that compares the hair of the children to 'rootless weeds'. In the third stanza, the poet compares the 'skins peeped through by bones' to 'bottle bits on stones.' In the fourth stanza, Stephen Spender compares the 'windows' in the classroom to 'catacombs' from which there is no escape. All these comparisons are similes that describe the impoverished condition of the children, and their circumstances. Their poverty is like a catacomb within which they are imprisoned.
The poet repetes the word, 'far' in the first line of the first stanza and the last line of the second stanza in order to stress the fact that these children are cut off from the rest of the world. They are living in a self-contained world. Apparently, this is why the poet exhorts people who matter to break down the barriers that separate these children from the rest of the world.
Some of the metaphors that the poet has used to describe the condition of the classroom, the condition of the children and their impoverished circumstances include rat's eyes, sour cream walls (which includes a pun on the word 'cream'), fog, green fields, and green leaves. The expression, 'star of words' is yet another example of the metaphor where 'words' are compared to 'stars', a world denied to the children, the world of literature, a world of free thought.When Stephen compares 'language' to  'the sun', he is using the sun as a metaphor for freedom. Light as opposed to fog and darkness. The children in the slum will never write history because the sun never shines on their world metaphorically. A hidden metaphor in the fourth stanza is nature, nature as a teacher.
One interestinging example of the synecdoche is found in the the words, 'Shakespeare's head'. The expression uses the part to describe the whole. Thus Shakespeare's head represents the whole of Shakespearian literature as being the prerogative of the wealthy rich who have the leisure to study classical literature.
Some interesting epithets include, 'civilized dome, lead sky,  and bottle bits,' which are transferred eptithets because these epithets are not employed in this manner in everyday usage. Other epithets include, 'cramped holes, (which is also a metaphor for the overcrowded lodgings or quarters they live in) slag heap, and  endless night.
The poet makes an extensive use of puns throughout the poem. There is a pun on the word, "cream" in the first line of the second stanza. In the ideal, literary sense, cream referes to the best of the best, the creme de la creme. In An Elemenntary School Classroom however, the word "cream" refers to dregs of the society, the unwanted, the "rootless weeds" of the world, the outcasts and the misfits of the society.
Resource Used:
The Textbook Flamingo-Textbook for class XII (Core Course)

33 comments:

  1. Brilliantly explained. Clap clap clap

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  2. the best explanation I've seen. Thanks a lot!

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  3. "Sour cream walls" is a pun .. Plz xpln

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    1. It suggests decay/decadence.A pun on cream gone bad. Cream is the richest part of milk and in the poem this is a pun on how things have gone bad.

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    2. It suggests decay/decadence.A pun on cream gone bad. Cream is the richest part of milk and in the poem this is a pun on how things have gone bad.

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  4. Sir, Please also include the poetic devices in this poem.

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    1. Jai, I have included a few of the figures of speech used by the poet in the post. Please go through the same!

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  5. Why the boy's eyes are compared with those of rat's??

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  6. Why the boy's eyes are compared with those of rat's??

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    1. Eyes that are hungry. Rat's eyes is a metaphor for poverty!

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    2. Eyes that are hungry. Rat's eyes is a metaphor for poverty!

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  7. Sir, what is meant by "On their slag heap" ?

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    1. Shobhit,"Slag heap" refers to rubbish heap. Slag is the waste product of the smelting industry, thus it refers to industrial waste heap. The children are living in a wasteland made up of industrial waste!

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    2. Thank you sir!!! You are a gem of a person!! :)

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  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  10. What do the words in line 30-31 actually refer to

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  11. What do the words in line 30-31 actually refer to

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  12. What do the words in line 30-31 actually referred to.

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    1. Engela, the words in lines 30-31 refer to children who are taken out of the slum and sent to learn in the lap of nature, they run on gold sands, they learn from the book of nature where the leaves are the pages in the book of nature. They are taken out of the oppressive surroundings of the slum.

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  13. 1.what does squirel game in tree room symbolise?
    2.explain- awarding the world to its world?
    3.why do slum children crave for?
    4.how can hopes and aspirations of these children can be fulfilled?

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    1. 1.Make belief, daydreaming
      2.Trying to define the world according to the lines and legend on the map
      3.Slum Children crave for the good life as depicted by Shakespearian literature, paintings, and painted ships
      4.Hopes and aspirations of the children can be fulfilled only if we address their basic needs.They need freedom, the sun, and most of all opportunities that exist beyond the slum.

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  14. Sir what does Shakespeare's head cloudless at dawn and civilised dome riding all cities mean?

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    1. Shakespeare's head and civilised dome are all symbols of a life of luxury, something that is beyond even the wildest dreams of the students studying in the elementary school classroom.

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    2. That is apart from the literal meanings!

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  15. Why is slag heap a transferred epithet? And cramped holes and lead sky too

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    1. The word 'slag' is not used to define 'heap' in the same way, the word, 'cramped' is not used usually to modify 'holes' and in the same way, 'lead' is hardly used to modify 'sky' . An epithet is an adjective, in poetry it would be a commonly used adjective like 'blue sky' or 'brown earth'. When the adjective is used to modify a noun with which it is not generally associated, in poetry, it becomes a transferred epithet. Take for example, 'copper sky' from Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner. 'Slag' is a by product of iron extraction. Cramped is used more often with quarters, room, or even surroundings, but not with hole! The association between lead and sky is rather tenuous and far fetched, but then if you could use copper sky, then why not lead sky?

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    2. So, 'slag, lead,' and 'cramped' have been transferred from their usual context and meaning to add a distinctness to the noun they are modifying. Thus 'slag' creates an image of an industrial wasteland, 'lead' describes a sky that is dull and dark, and from which there is no escape, i.e, sealed inside a lead casket, and 'cramped' compares their homes to rather small holes!

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  16. Sir absolutely brilliant analysis of all stories.I can't express my gratitude towards u but u are truly amazing

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