Lightning’s Danger

Lightning’s Danger

This week’s poem is “The Pylons” by Stephen Spender, which I have chosen for my brother-in-law Colin, whose birthday falls this week.

But far above and far as sight endures
Like whips of anger
With lightning’s danger
There runs the quick perspective of the future.

Stephen Spender (1909—1995)

Poem 288. The Pylons

The secret of these hills was stone, and cottages
Of that stone made,
And crumbling roads
That turned on sudden hidden villages

Now over these small hills, they have built the concrete
That trails black wire
Pylons, those pillars
Bare like nude giant girls that have no secret.

The valley with its gilt and evening look
And the green chestnut
Of customary root,
Are mocked dry like the parched bed of a brook.

But far above and far as sight endures
Like whips of anger
With lightning’s danger
There runs the quick perspective of the future.

This dwarfs our emerald country by its trek
So tall with prophecy
Dreaming of cities
Where often clouds shall lean their swan-white neck.

This poem contrasts two worlds: the rural with its stone cottages and “crumbling roads” and the modern with its electricity pylons trailing cables.

The poem starts with a striking image: “The secret of these hills was stone”—wherever he is talking about, it’s an area that has been quarried for rock (the secret of the hills) to build things: “cottages of that stone made,/and crumbling roads” and it’s riddled with little country roads—no dual carriageways or major roads here, just the rambling roads that Chesterton wrote about (“The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road”) that lead to tiny hamlets concealed in the folds of the land. It makes me think of Derbyshire, or the Northumbrian landscape I visited last week.

In the second stanza, we see the modern world impinging on this ancient landscape as the pylons are built, oblivious to its history and natural beauty: built of concrete—probably the least romantic of building materials—and black wires that trail languidly and contrast starkly with the natural colours. Spender emphasises their incongruous appearance: they stand with their framework exposed for all to see with their legs spread as if to display those parts that should be private “like nude giant girls that have no secret”.

The third stanza speaks of the beauty and timeless nature of the countryside and the rude mockery that these concrete interlopers make of it. We see the valley gilded by the light of the evening sun and the deep green of the ancient chestnut trees “of customary root” that are “mocked dry”—the pylons forming an uncompromising and rude reminder that the needs of the modern world override those of nature and custom.

The fourth stanza describes the way the pylons march across the land—they continue as far as the eye can see, diminishing into the distance as the “quick perspective of the future” makes each farther pylon smaller, though they are joined by the cables, drooping like coiled “whips of anger” but holding the power and danger of the lightning within. This sounds like the whips of the Erinyes—the deities of vengeance in Greek mythology that punished insolence by hounding the perpetrators relentlessly with their brass-studded whips; the young were scourged for impudence to their elders, and this is the reference I think is made here—the young pylons should be punished for their brazen and uncaring abuse of the timeworn landscape.

The electricity network reaches every corner of “our emerald country”, dwarfing the land with its extent and the great height of the pylons that promise cities in places where the clouds presently hold sway.

I chose the poem because my brother-in-law Colin’s birthday is this weekend and because he was, for a long time, employed in painting the pylons across the country from Cornwall to Cumbria. When she first discovered his occupation, Nicola was highly amused but she was always very fond of him, as we all are. I wish him every success in his search for a new job.


  • Watch a 1966 Pathé film about the construction of electricity pylons on YouTube.
  • Watch The Funky Farmer’s video of pylon painting on YouTube.
  • Watch Marc Sidwell’s performance on YouTube (part of a longer video).