Stephen Spender

1909–1995
Stephen Spender
Stephen Spender was a member of the generation of British poets who came to prominence in the 1930s, a group—sometimes referred to as the Oxford Poets—that included W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, C. Day Lewis, and Louis MacNeice. In World within World: The Autobiography of Stephen Spender the author speculated that the names of the members of the group became irreversibly linked in the minds of critics for no other reason other than having their poems included in the same important poetic anthologies of the early thirties. However, in The Angry Young Men of the Thirties Elton Edward Smith found that the poets had much more in common and stated that they shared a "similarity of theme, image, and diction." According to Smith, the poets also all rejected the writing of the immediately preceding generation. Gerald Nicosia reached the same conclusion in his Chicago Tribune Book World essay on Spender's work. "While preserving a reverence for traditional values and a high standard of craftsmanship," Nicosia wrote, "they turned away from the esotericism of T. S. Eliot, insisting that the writer stay in touch with the urgent political issues of the day and that he speak in a voice whose clarity can be understood by all." Comparing the older and younger generations of writers, Smith noted that while the poets of the 1920s focused on themes removed from reality, "the poets of the 1930s represented a return to the objective world outside and the recognition of the importance of the things men do together in groups: political action, social structure, cultural development."

Spender's name was most frequently associated with that of W. H. Auden, perhaps the most famous poet of the thirties; yet some critics, including Alfred Kazin and Helen Vendler, found the two poets dissimilar in many ways. In the New Yorker, for example, Vendler observed that "at first [Spender] imitated Auden's self-possessed ironies, his determined use of technological objects. . . . But no two poets can have been more different. Auden's rigid, brilliant, peremptory, categorizing, allegorical mind demanded forms altogether different from Spender's dreamy, liquid, guilty, hovering sensibility. Auden is a poet of firmly historical time, Spender of timeless nostalgic space." In the New York Times Book Review Kazin similarly concluded that Spender "was mistakenly identified with Auden. Although they were virtual opposites in personality and in the direction of their talents, they became famous at the same time as 'pylon poets'—among the first to put England's gritty industrial landscape of the 1930's into poetry."

The term "pylon poets" refers to "The Pylons," a poem by Spender which many critics described as typical of the Auden generation. The much-anthologized work, included in one of Spender's earliest collections, Poems, as well as in his compilation of a lifetime's accomplishments, Collected Poems, 1928-1985, is characteristic of the group's imagery and also reflects the political and social concerns of its members. Smith recognized that in such a poem "the poet, instead of closing his eyes to the hideous steel towers of a rural electrification system and concentrating on the soft green fields, glorifies the pylons and grants to them the future. And the nonhuman structure proves to be of the very highest social value, for rural electrification programs help create a new world of human equality."

The decade of the thirties was marked by turbulent events that would shape the course of history: the world-wide economic depression, the Spanish Civil War, and the beginnings of the Second World War. Seeing the established world crumbling around them, the writers of the period sought to create a new reality to replace the old, which in their minds had become obsolete. According to D. E. S. Maxwell, commenting in his Poets of the Thirties, "the imaginative writing of the thirties created an unusual milieu of urban squalor and political intrigue. This kind of statement—a suggestion of decay producing violence and leading to change—as much as any absolute and unanimous political partisanship gave this poetry its marxist reputation. Communism and 'the communist' (a poster-type stock figure) were frequently invoked." For a time Spender, like many young intellectuals of the era, was a member of the Communist party. "Spender believed," Smith noted, "that communism offered the only workable analysis and solution of complex world problems, that it was sure eventually to win, and that for significance and relevance the artist must somehow link his art to the Communist diagnosis." Smith described Spender's poem, "The Funeral" (included in Collected Poems: 1928-1953 but omitted from the 1985 revision of the same work), as "a Communist elegy" and observes that much of Spender's other works from the same early period as "The Funeral," including his play, Trial of a Judge: A Tragedy in Five Acts, his poems from Vienna, and his essays in The Destructive Element: A Study of Modern Writers and Beliefs and Forward from Liberalism deal with the Communist question.

Washington Post Book World contributor Monroe K. Spears considered "The Funeral," one of Spender's least successful poems, but nevertheless acknowledged that it reveals some of the same characteristics of the poet as his better work: "an ardent idealism, an earnest dedication that leaves him vulnerable in his sympathy for the deprived and exploited, his hopes for a better world, [and] his reverence for greatness and heroism, especially in art." Critics noted that Spender's attitudes, developed in the thirties, continued to influence the poet throughout his life. As Peter Stansky pointed out in the New Republic: "The 1930s were a shaping time for Spender, casting a long shadow over all that came after. . . . It would seem that the rest of his life, even more than he may realize, has been a matter of coming to terms with the 1930s, and the conflicting claims of literature and politics as he knew them in that decade of achievement, fame, and disillusion."

Spender continued to write poetry throughout his life, but it came to consume less of his literary output in later years than it did in the 1930s and 1940s. The last collection of poems published before his death was Dolphins. "To find him still reaching out at 85—the same age as [English novelist and poet Thomas] Hardy was when he published his last poems—is confirmation of the old truism that feeling is not an optional extra of humans but bred in the bone," commented William Scammell in the Spectator. In the title piece, Spender turns his attention to those creatures of the sea which have captivated poets for centuries. "For him, their movements constitute a kind of scripture, communicating at an ontological level beyond merely human speech," observed Peter Firchow in World Literature Today. "Their message is utterly simple, the simplest and most basic of all: 'I AM.'" For several critics, these two words spoke volumes about Spender's poetry. In a Times Literary Supplement review, Julian Symons explained, "If Stephen Spender ever intended to create a poetry of 'direct social function,' the idea was long ago abandoned in favour of a concern to express in verse his own true beliefs and attitudes, about which he remains permanently uncertain."

Firchow found that most of the poems in Dolphins did not live up to the high standards that Spender had set in his previous work, but the reviewer did admit that "two long autobiographical poems, 'A First War Childhood' and 'Wordsworth,' come close." Symons praised Spender's long poem about the life of Arthur Rimbaud. "The sequence is successful in part because Spender can have found no difficulty in imagining himself both Rimbaud and [Paul] Verlaine, in part because of his strong dramatic sense," wrote the reviewer. "Yet the most striking poem here records not the insight of the witness, but the anguish of the absentee," observed Boyd Tonkin in the New Statesman and Society. "'History and Reality' pays homage to the Jewish, Catholic and quasi-Marxist thinker Simone Weil, who starved herself in solidarity with Hitler's victims."

Despite Spender's status as one of the leading poets of the twentieth century, a number of critics have noted his value beyond his poetry. Symons maintained, "As one looks back, Spender's principal achievement seems to have been less his poems or any particular piece of prose than the candor of the ceaseless critical self-examination he has conducted for more than half a century in autobiography, journals, criticism, poems." Peter Stansky also observed that Spender was at his best when he was writing autobiography. The poet himself seemed to have pointed out this fact when he wrote in the postscript to Thirties and After: Poetry, Politics, People, 1933-1970: "I myself am, it is only too clear, an autobiographer. Autobiography provides the line of continuity in my work. I am not someone who can shed or disclaim his past."

The past often became the subject of Spender's writing in the eighties. Particularly The Journals of Stephen Spender, 1939-1983, Collected Poems, 1928-1985, and Letters to Christopher: Stephen Spender's Letters to Christopher Isherwood, 1929-1939, with "The Line of the Branch"—Two Thirties Journals placed a special emphasis on autobiographical material that reviewers found revealed Spender as both an admirable personality and a notable writer. In a New York Times Book Review commentary by Samuel Hynes on the collection of Spender's letters, for instance, the critic expressed his belief that "the person who emerges from these letters is neither a madman nor a fool, but an honest, intelligent, troubled young man, groping toward maturity in a troubled time. And the author of the journals is something more; he is a writer of sensitivity and power." Discussing the same volume in the Times Literary Supplement Philip Gardener noted, "If, since the war, Spender's creative engine has run at less than full power, one remains grateful for his best work, the context of which is fascinatingly provided by these letters and journals."

One of Spender's earliest published works of autobiography, World within World, came to be emblematic of the author's candor, commitment to honesty, and longevity. First published in 1951, the book created a stir for Spender's frank disclosure of a homosexual relationship he had had at around the time of the Spanish Civil War. The relationship ended when Spender married. Spender's ex-lover then ran off to fight in Spain; Spender ended up going after him to try to get him out of the country. The book earned a second life when it became the subject of another controversy in the 1990s. In 1993, American writer David Leavitt published his novel While England Sleeps, in which a writer has a homosexual affair that follows many of the events of Spender's life but adds more explicit sexual detail. Feeling his integrity and his literary license threatened, Spender accused Leavitt of plagiarism. He also filed a lawsuit in British courts to stop the British publication of the book, charging the American novelist with copyright infringement and violation of a British law that assures authors the right to control adaptations of their work. In 1994, Leavitt and his publisher, Viking Penguin, agreed to a settlement that would withdraw the book from publication; Leavitt made changes to While England Sleeps for a revised edition.

During this period of intense attention focused on World within World, St. Martin's reprinted the autobiography with a new introduction by Spender. As a result, many readers were afforded the opportunity to discover or rediscover Spender's work. "With the passage of time," commented Eric Pace in a New York Times obituary, "'World within World' has proved to be in many ways Sir Stephen's most enduring prose work because it gives the reader revealing glimpses of its author, Auden and Mr. Isherwood and of what it was like to be a British poet in the 1930's."

In the final analysis, "Some of Spender's poems, criticism, memoirs, translations have contributed to the formation of a period, which to some extent, they now represent . . . ," Robert Craft observed in his New York Review of Books critique of The Journals of Stephen Spender, 1939-1983. "Yet Spender himself stands taller than his work. The least insular writer of his generation and the most generous, he is a kinder man—hypocrite lecteur!—than most of us deserve."

What People are Saying

"Even people who don't particularly enjoy most forms of poetry can still find a poem that they enjoy AND be very good at reciting if they set their minds to it. What makes poetry so appealing is its ability to describe all sorts of different aspects of the human experience in a new and unique light. There is a poem out there for everyone. Even my dad...maybe."
Danielle Corbett
2016 NH POL Champion