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Stephen Spender

My parents kept me from children who were rough

Easier questions to cut your teeth on!

Keith Tankard
Updated: 3 March 2014
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The poet writes about an incident from his childhood when he was continually confronted with lower class boys whom his parents disliked and warned him to avoid.

Despite their warnings, however, the boy found himself admiring and possibly even envying certain elements of their life although he was also afraid of their rough, bullying ways.


Spender was born in London in 1909. His parents were both literary people, his father being a journalist while his mother was a painter and a poet.

Theirs was middle class society and typically for those days, they tended to despise the ways of the working class. His parents' attitude would naturally influence the poet as a young boy -- hence the theme of this poem.

The poet initially attended Oxford University but did not finish his degree. Indeed, he was very proud of the fact that he had never ever passed an exam in his whole life.

While he was at Oxford, however, he fell under the influence of the poet W. H. Auden with whom he did some major collaboration. Later he would also pal up with both Louis MacNeice and Cecil Day-Lewis, as well has many other rising English poets.

Instead of finishing his degree, Spender spent time in Germany where he studied some of the German poets.

Germany during the 1920s was a hotbed of socialism and Spender became caught up in this political movement -- becoming for a time an ardent admirer of communism itself.

The world in which he lived, however, quickly came to be dominated by a struggle between fascism and communism, and Spender became involved in this clash of ideals. Indeed, he even launched himself into the Spanish Civil War where he opposed the fascist dictator, General Franco.

Despite his lack of a degree, Spender's proven poetic track record allowed him to teach at various American universities. In 1965 he was appointed "Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry" to the United States Library of Congress.

He would eventually return to England, however, where he took up a post as Professor of Rhetoric at Gresham College and, later, Professor of English at the University College in London.

As early as 1962, Spender was awarded a C.B.E. and was knighted in 1983. He died in 1995 at the age of 86.

Have you looked at the questions
in the right column?
Read the left column and then answer
the following questions:

"My parents kept me from children who were rough
and who threw words like stones and who wore torn clothes."
  • What is the meaning of the word "rough" within the context of this poem? (2)

[Need help?]

  • What does the poet mean when he says that his parents "kept" him from children who were rough? (4)

[Need help?]

  • Explain the reference to the children throwing words "like stones". (4)

[Need help?]

  • What figure of speech or language device is the expression "like stones". In what way can words be "like stones"? (3)

[Need help?]

"They ran in the street
And climbed cliffs and stripped by the country streams."
  • Does the poet admire or despise these children? How do you know? (4)

[Need help?]

  • The poet's parents clearly despise these children for their actions. Why would they do so? (4)

[Need help?]

  • What figure of speech or language device is "climbed cliffs"? What is the purpose of using this language devise? (3)

[Need help?]

"I feared more than tigers their muscles like iron
And their jerking hands and their knees tight on my arms."
  • What language device is used in the words, "I feared more than tigers their muscles"? What is being compared to what? (3)

[Need help?]

  • What difference is shown between the boy and the children when he speaks of "their muscles like iron"? (2)

[Need help?]

  • What are the children doing that the poet should speak of "their jerking hands and their knees tight on my arms"? (4)

[Need help?]

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