A critical reading of an epoch-defining poem
Here’s a quiz question for you. How many poems can you name which have spawned the name of a whole poetic movement? A famous movement, too. One poem readily springs to mind: Stephen Spender’s ‘The Pylons’, whose title inspired the name of the ‘Pylon Poets’, 1930s British poets whose work deals with technological modernity. But ‘The Pylons’ is a mysterious poem: its legacy is more famous than the poem itself. What is the meaning of Spender’s poem? Read ‘The Pylons’ here to discover (or rediscover) it; what follows is our attempt to analyse this important poem that came to define an era in British verse.
‘The Pylons’ is written in quatrains, which loosely follow an abba rhyme scheme – but sometimes only very loosely. For instance, in the first stanza we find ‘cottages’ chiming faintly with ‘villages’ and ‘made’ with ‘roads’. Stephen Spender’s poetry often uses such half-rhymes so it may be unwise to pry too much into their specific significance to ‘The Pylons’, though we might at least say that the near-misses of the ‘rhymes’ embody the strangeness of the pylons in the traditional landscape, something new and not yet naturalised among those cottages and villages.
For this is the real meaning of ‘The Pylons’: they are symbols of the future, placed in a landscape that has been largely unchanged for centuries. Whilst cities have been radically transformed in the last few hundred years by a succession of technological innovations – industry, factories, skyscrapers, the advent of the motorcar – the English countryside has largely remained the same, yet this is precisely where the pylons have been situated … or, at least, is the place where they are the most conspicuous.
Spender emphasises the stark exposure of the pylons: in contrast to the ‘villages’ which are ‘hidden’, the pylons are brash and prominent, ‘like nude, giant girls that have no secret’. Here the simile is unsure of itself: ‘girls that have’, not girls who have, as if the girls themselves are dehumanised by the association – as indeed they have already lost any hope of beauty by being ‘giant’, fearsome and imposing.
Yet the pylons are not presented as entirely unnatural: they are likened to girls, albeit unnaturally giant ones, but the power they contain is referred to as ‘lightning’s danger’, suggesting the natural electricity of the earth that man has harnessed and conveyed via the pylons. Similarly, the ‘quick perspective of the future’ which the pylons embody suggests not only the speed with which the pylons pass along their electricity but also that secondary meaning of ‘quick’, meaning ‘living’.
‘The Pylons’ is a fine poem by an underrated English poet. Stephen Spender’s poetry is not as widely known or read as it once was (far less studied), and he has been somewhat eclipsed in the popular consciousness by his fellow ‘poets of the thirties’, W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice. Yet this poem shows Spender’s ability to assimilate the newest technology into his poetry, and to turn modern science into art.