Stephen Spender was an English poet, essayist and novelist who dealt with the theme of social injustice and class disparities. His parents were literary people too. Stephen Spender had a foot affliction and he lisped while he spoke; this made his parents extra careful about exposing him to rough handling and bullying in school. A reading of this poem however makes us wonder whether he approved of that move entirely. He seems to have been ambivalent about the whole issue. He was not comfortable with the roughness of the street children either.
This poem has strong autobiographical overtones. Stephen Spender had a club foot and he lisped while talking. His parents tried to shelter him from the rough street children. While Spender seems to have been uncomfortable with their coarse speech and rude gestures, he admired the strength of their bodies and the freedom they enjoyed. They could come and go as they liked and they were uninhibited (“stripped by the country streams”). His overtures of friendship were rebuffed by them; perhaps they mistrusted people of his class. The tone is in parts wistful and there is a longing for physical perfection that he could see in the children.
The first two stanzas describe why his parents kept Spender away from the street children. In the last stanza he says, though he was afraid of their ways and feared their strength, he wanted to be friendly but they rebuffed his overtures of friendship. The children were coarse and rude in speech. The speaker says that they flung out words like they would stones. Their clothes were in tatters and their lithe bodies showed through the tears. They spent the day roaming the town and the countryside. The poet seems to have feared their strong bodies more than the words they flung about as they were capable of inflicting pain on him. In spite of that he tried to be friendly with them but they rebuffed him.
The poet’s parents sought to protect him from the street children. They were rude in speech and were dressed in rags. They were uninhibited and stripped off their clothes and swam in the country rivers.
The speaker feared the brute strength of the boys. They were muscular and did not hesitate to use their arms and legs. The poet was also scared of their mocking ways. They laughed behind his back, imitating his lisp.
The boys were like vandals; they threw mud at people and pounced on them. But despite all this, the speaker was forgiving. He wanted to be friendly and smiled at them. But they did not reciprocate the friendly overtures.
The poet is really scared of the boys who live on the streets. They belong to a different world altogether. The parents try to protect him from them. While the speaker fears their superior strength, he also admires it. In some ways, he is superior to them but in other ways, he is inferior. This ambivalence runs through the poem.