I was reading one of the master-pieces by Stephen Spender, "An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum".

Following are the starting lines of the second of four octaves:

Our sour cream walls, donations. Shakespeare's head,
Cloudless at dawn, civilized dome riding all cities.
Belled, flowery Tyrolese valley. Open-handed map ......

What is the meaning of Cloudless at dawn? And I can't get what sense it makes after Shakespeare's portrait: I could see no relationship between the two.

My thoughts..

'Cloudless dawn' and 'civilized dome' might highlight monotonous and dull life in urban slum. The elementary school is squeezed and suppressed under so called concrete structures of the cities, that the children are unaware of the beauty of sky at the dawn.

But according to what I think, it's in a way satire to urban civilisation too, but the whole poem is an altruistic act for welfare of slum children (later, the author appeals to the powers to liberate these children from horrendous and gory slums). So my point doesn't seem veracious.

1 Answer 1


It's flowery description of Shakespeare's head.

For those unfamiliar with his work, the most famous image of Shakespeare is of a bald man with facial hair. Since most men of his era cultivated moustache and beard, it's the baldness that stands out.

William Shakespeare with a bald front of his head, with longer hair towards the back, and a short beard and mustache.

Our sour cream walls, donations.

"Sour cream" sounds like it could be cheap white paint: the word "sour" also conjures the sense both that this is an unpleasant place to be and that the students are unhappy to be there. The pictures and posters on those pale walls of the classroom are donated: the school cannot afford to provide them.

Shakespeare's head,

Among them is an image of Shakespeare, resplendent in his baldness.

Cloudless at dawn,

Dawn: this is an image of the sun. Shakespeare's bald head is shining, like a weak sun in the morning. Of course, it's cloudless because it's not really the sun at all, but a head. "Cloudless" simply fits the image better.

civilized dome riding all cities.

A "dome" is a common description of a bald head. From the Cambridge Dictionary:

a shape like one-half of a ball: Gerald had a long grey beard and a shiny bald dome (= head).

It is civilized not only because Shakespeare was a well-mannered gentleman, unlike the poor unfortunates in the school. But also because Shakespeare's work, and the learning required to comprehend it is seen as a civilizing influence across the country. Hence it "rides" all cities. The word "dome" is also an architectural feature which is commonly seen on buildings seen as the apex of classical civilization, such as cathedrals.

Belled, flowery Tyrolese valley. Open-handed map

These are additional classroom decorations. A photograph of an alpine valley, such as you might see in a travel brochure and also a map.

It is worth noting that by focussing on the image of Shakespeare, instead of his work, the poet is emphasising how it is likely only the picture the pupils are familiar with. It's all they know of his work and fame.

  • 2
    Only bald at the front (aka high forehead), right? Or is that a wig on the back of his head?
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Jan 10, 2020 at 15:10
  • @Randal'Thor No, you're quite right - it's a receding hairline. But, just as the poet knows, he's still always percieved as bald :)
    – Matt Thrower
    Commented Jan 10, 2020 at 15:45
  • 1
    I could've never imagined this way. It was too good! Ty
    – Zenix
    Commented Jan 10, 2020 at 15:46
  • 1
    ‘Cloudless’ also alluding to the absence of ‘clouds’ of hair?
    – Spagirl
    Commented Jan 11, 2020 at 22:22
  • @Spagirl I did wonder about that, but then I looked at the image and his head does in fact have hair around the big bald spot - so I wasn't sure if it fitted or not.
    – Matt Thrower
    Commented Jan 13, 2020 at 8:59

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