“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.”
So opens the poem The Truly Great by Stephen Spender. He was one of the so-called Auden Group or the Auden Generation, a group of British and Irish writers active in the 1930s, spearheaded by W.H. Auden and including the likes of Louis MacNeice, Cecil Day-Lewis and Christopher Isherwood.
An impressive bunch, and while avidly left-wing politically — of course they were; they were creative, alternative-thinking types — they couched their thoughts and ideological leanings in irresistibly beautiful writing to test the political loyalties of anyone. Spender in particular concentrated on themes of social injustice and the class struggle.
The irony now is that in our febrile, confusing identity politics-laden times, the words of The Truly Great, and the type of individual it praises, are needed more than ever to push back against the censorious, illiberal, conformist and guilt-and-shame-laden hammerings of the progressive far left who have “woken” up and apparently can see the correct way the rest of us should be thinking and living.
One of the best-known proponents of Spender’s poetical message is Jordan Peterson
A further irony is that currently one of the best-known proponents of Spender’s poetical message is the unpoetical and polarising figure that is Jordan Peterson, the Canadian clinical psychologist who drives many on the Left absolutely potty — he is often accused of being right-wing, though he argues he is a classic liberal — having emerged as one of the world’s most influential public intellectuals and culture warriors weighing in on the ongoing culture wars.
In his poem, Spender gives a stirring rendition of how he thinks people should live and what they should aim for. He focuses on the traits of heroic exemplars, those who “hoarded from the Spring branches / The desires falling across their bodies like blossoms”, who blazed a trail before us and left a lasting mark in this world.
“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.”
Spender’s contention that these great individuals achieved their great acts through hard work while not letting discouraging words or distractions prevent them from striving toward their goals and ambitions is pure Peterson. As is Spender’s contention that we must never forget what humankind has gone through from the beginning of time, thereby respecting the hard-won truths of ancient wisdom in order to raise ourselves accordingly to meet the challenges of the present day.
“It is in the nature of mankind not to cower and freeze as helpless prey animals, nor to become turncoat and serve evil itself, but to confront the lions in their lairs,” Peterson says in Beyond Order: 12 More Rules to Life, his recently released sequel to his phenomenally popular 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos that since 2018 has sold five million copies worldwide and been published in 50 languages. “That is the nature of our ancestors: immensely courageous hunters, defenders, shepherds, voyagers, inventors, warriors, and founders of cities and states.”
I can see that sentence alone riling many, especially on the Left, with some justification — there isn’t much recognition of women in those types of roles. But Spender also seemed to acknowledge the crucial role played by such individuals — the defenders, the warriors, and typically men — pursuing less creative, liberal-type endeavours, but which still warranted their recognition among the truly great.
“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.”
In referring to the physically high places of the earth as whispering the names of great people so that they are never forgotten — an elaboration of his earlier statement that “what is precious is never to forget” — Spender reveals that these heroes are not just the likes of poets and spirited visionaries, but also soldiers who lost their lives fighting for their country, says Maha Rehman, a writer for Poem Analysis.
“[The poem] also mentioned their efforts as blood drawn from wells so it is very likely that Spender had written this poem about military individuals, especially since The Truly Great was written shortly after World War I,” says Rehman, noting that later in the poem Spender also describes the collective effort of The Truly Great as having “fought for life”.
If so, it’s a recognition in the poem of the need for that opposing force to your own position which makes up that fundamental duality — both liberal and conservative forces — that is all too familiar to Peterson and comprises one of the main themes of his new book.
“We need to bear the paradox that is involved in simultaneously respecting the walls that keep us safe and allowing in enough of what is new and changing so that our institutions remain alive and healthy,” Peterson says. “It is the living interaction between social institutions and creative achievement that keeps the world balanced on the narrow line between too much order and too much chaos.”
Managing this delicate balancing act constitutes a “terrible conundrum”, Peterson says, one that has always been humanity’s lot. It was obvious to our ancestors, but it seems increasingly less so to those denigrating social institutions nowadays simply as the oppressive apparatus of malignant systems ranging from the Patriarchy to white privilege and imperialism.
Hence Peterson’s latest book calls on us to balance the two fundamental principles of reality — order and chaos — in order to find the profound meaning that lies on the path navigating between these opposing states.
Part of the problem for Peterson is the decreasing level of ambition in younger generations today
Finding such meaning also involves another balancing act to tackle what Peterson describes as our “permanent moral conundrum”: “When do we simply follow convention, doing what others request or demand; and when do we rely on our own individual judgement, with all its limitations and biases, and reject the requirements of the collective,” says Peterson, who acknowledges that those on the Left and creative, disruptive types should be respected for engaging with this permanent conundrum, notwithstanding the fact that too many are doing so in a dangerous way that is both self-defeating and a threat to the cohesive qualities of functioning and flourishing societies.
To illustrate how the conundrum might be navigated correctly, Peterson offers the individual regarded by more than one billion humans as the personification of The Truly Great, and refers to the New Testament stories about Jesus navigating the regulations of Judaism and the admonishment of the pharisees who see him as a dangerous transgressor, while preaching a more loving and accepting type of community.
“These stories portray the existential dilemma that eternally characterizes human life: it is necessary to conform, to be disciplined, and to follow the rules — to do humbly what others do; but it is also necessary to use judgement, vision, and the truth that guides conscience to tell what is right, when the rules suggest otherwise,” Peterson says.
It is the “ability to manage this combination” that personifies in Peterson’s eyes the type of truly great person Spender had in mind: the, in Peterson’s words, “dormant adventurers, lovers, leaders, artists and rebels,” we all have the potential to be.
But part of the problem for Peterson, and for many others, is the apparently decreasing level of ambition in people, especially younger generations, today. If you don’t have the time, or inclination, to read Peterson’s arguments, Spender’s poem serves as a far quicker source of inspiring reference by pointing us toward “The names of those who in their lives fought for life / Who wore at their hearts the fire’s centre”, and who from the womb to the grave sacrificed their lives to make a difference.
“Born of the sun, they travelled a short while toward the sun
And left the vivid air signed with their honour.”
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