Stephen Spender’s poems are noted for their response to the social issues as well as for the element of nostalgia. In My Parents he talks about his own childhood. Born to highly educated parents, Spender had a conventional bringing up. In the first line of this poem, though he says that his
(My) parents kept me from children who were rough
the rest of the poem is a reminiscence of his childhood days in which those boys he was kept away from are in focus. The parents failed in what they planned to do since we see the poet as a young boy painfully aware of the presence of those boys in his world. He knows what they do and hears what they say even behind his back.
Who copied my lisp behind me on the road.
More than eighty percent of the poem is about those boys and is very descriptive of them. Put along with Spender’s controversial fascination for men around him, the apparent apathy of the poet towards them turns into admiration and even envy. Though the poet says ‘children’ the descriptions match boys.
Soon after the poet’s comment on his parents, we read a proper and joyful description of childhood. The children here are very childlike but the poet apparently, though not really, endorses the view of his parents. Not being in contact with the ‘rough’ children, and deprived of the education one gets from such interactions, he has become a weakling.
Their jerking hands and their knees tight on my arms
This is seen in his fear of the boys. In the second stanza in which ‘I feared’ is repeated twice, we get to hear only what he fears and not what actually happened to him. He is scared of mental torture as well as physical abuse since he is not sure he can strike back. The lisp that the poet mentions could also be a result of repressive parenting.
The way the poet talks about the physical attributes of those ‘children’, it an be easily surmised that he must be, deep in his heart, envious of their appearance. It is not possible for young boy no to crave to have muscles of iron or the ferocity of a tiger. This comes from their stature as small people among the grown ups. The children the poet was kept away from,
(they) ran in the street
And climbed cliffs and stripped by the country streams.
These actions are very typical of children and considered childish in the adults. In fact, the poem can be seen as an explanation of childlike qualities and childish behaviour. Irrational parenting makes the parents look childish.
In the third stanza the poet says the boys threw mud at him. There is no other incident of the boys physically hurting him. The poet longed to forgive them but didn’t for the simple reason that they did not smile at him. Had they smiled, forgiving would have been pointless. Longing to forgive is not forgiving. Moreover, the poet himself did not smile; he only pretended so. They threw mud at him while he was looking the other way and this shows lack of warmth in him. He had ignored the children.
The poet uses concrete words from the world of children, with a good number of kinesthetic images in lines like:
They were lithe they sprang out behind hedges
and a lot of dynamic verbs like ‘ran, threw and jerking’ to show the vibrancy of childhood. References to tigers (I feared more than tigers) and dogs (Like dogs to bark .. ) also remind us of the wild days. Short and simple words provide a deceptive simplicity since an unsuspecting reader may see it as a poem that takes no stands. However, close reading tells us that the poet does have an agenda to execute. He is speaking against modern day parenting which shows elitism and deprives the child of everything natural.