Sunday, April 19, 2020

In Auden's Shadow: Stephen Spender

Stephen Spender (1909-1995)

At one of their first meetings, Auden asked Spender how often he wrote poetry.
Without reflecting, I replied that I wrote about four poems a day. He was astonished and exclaimed: 'What energy!' I asked him how often he wrote a poem. He replied: 'I write about one in three weeks.' After this I started writing only one poem in three weeks.
- Stephen Spender, World within World (1951): p.44.
That gives you some sense of the character of their relationship. It was a long time before Spender managed to climb out from under the older poet's shadow, and one might even argue that he never did.

Stephen Spender: World within World (1951)

His story is a complex one, however. There were times when his poetry was almost as highly regarded as Auden's, and anthology pieces such as 'My Parents' continue to resonate to this day:
My parents kept me from children who were rough
Who threw words like stones and wore torn clothes
Their thighs showed through rags they ran in the street
And climbed cliffs and stripped by the country streams.

I feared more than tigers their muscles like iron
Their jerking hands and their knees tight on my arms
I feared the salt coarse pointing of those boys
Who copied my lisp behind me on the road.

They were lithe they sprang out behind hedges
Like dogs to bark at my world. They threw mud
While I looked the other way, pretending to smile.
I longed to forgive them but they never smiled.
Some of the others, though - 'The Truly Great,' for instance - however highly regarded they may have been at the time, sound rather embarrassing now:
I think continually of those who were truly great.
Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history
Through corridors of light, where the hours are suns,
Endless and singing. Whose lovely ambition
Was that their lips, still touched with fire,
Should tell of the Spirit, clothed from head to foot in song.
And who hoarded from the Spring branches
The desires falling across their bodies like blossoms.
They 'left the vivid air signed with their honour,' eh? No wonder they nicknamed him 'Young Shelley.'

Stephen Spender: World within World (1951)

World within World, his autobiography, published in his early forties - though he lived to the age of 86 he never supplemented or continued it - remains, however, a strange, subtle piece of writing.

He records there how, after a brief indoctrination by Auden in the characteristics and requirements of modern poetry ('The poet is far more like Mr. Everyman than Kelley and Sheats. He cuts his hair short, wears spats, a bowler hat, and a pin-stripe city suit. He goes to the job in the bank by the suburban train' - World within World, p.53), Spender reluctantly concluded that there was no place for him there.
After I had known him six weeks he must have approved of as many of my lines. Therefore it was rather surprising to discover that he considered me a member of 'the Gang'. Once I told him I wondered whether I ought to write prose, and he answered: 'You must write nothing but poetry, we do not want to lose you for poetry.' This remark produced in me a choking moment of hope mingled with despair, in which I cried: 'But do you really think I am any good?' 'Of course,' he replied frigidly. 'But why?' 'Because you are so infinitely capable of being humiliated. Art is born of humiliation,' he added in his icy voice - and left me wondering when he could feel humiliated.
- World within World: pp.44-45.
It wasn't that Spender was insensitive to embarrassment. On the contrary, it's hard to imagine a man with a thinner skin, more naturally vain and self-regarding. It's just that he was willing to put all that on the record: to write down the whole of himself, silliness and all. Not even Auden could do that.

Stephen Spender: Journals, 1939-1983 (1985)

I never actually met the man, but I did ask him to sign his latest book - Journals 1939-1983 - for me on one occasion. It was at the Edinburgh Book Festival (one of the many sideshows to the Official Festival which take place in that city every year). I see from the ticket stub, which I still have, that it was in mid-1989, so he must have just turned 80.

He gave a brief poetry reading, then answered a few questions. The one I remember came from a woman with an exceptionally unctuous voice who asked why one particular early poem had been left out of the latest, 1985, edition of his Collected Poems, since it was (she claimed) such a wonderful piece of work.

'Oh, I don't know,' he replied, 'It just seemed a bit sentimental, I suppose.' The put-down of the woman and her level of taste was complete, and yet it seemed (almost) entirely offhand - as if it had never occurred to him that it might hurt her feelings.

She asked. He answered, as accurately as he could. That was that.

Stephen Spender: Collected Poems 1929-1985 (1985)

Then the line formed.

It turned out that almost nobody was there to hear one more reading by the eminent poet. On the contrary, they were all there to get him to sign their copies of his books. The line was snaking all the way round the tent before I could get anywhere near it, and I could dimly see, off in the distance, the old grey head rising and falling as he scribbled industriously in each tome.

I'd provided myself with his latest, in token of good faith - at least some small royalties might be going to him from the sale - but others were not so scrupulous. The man in front of me, for instance, presumably some kind of dealer, had an armful of Spenderiana from all periods of his career. And when, after half an hour or so, the line eventually got to us, the great man duly signed them, one by one.

I felt bad about adding one more tiny jot of effort to his day, but by then I'd waited so long that I simply couldn't face failure. I handed him my one book; he scribbled in it; I said 'thank you' in as unassuming a manner as possible; and that was all. There was no meeting of the eyes, no miraculous conveyance of sympathy from aspiring poet to master ... just an old man plying his pen as he'd clearly had to do so many times before.

After that, I think, he was dragged off to safety by one of his children, and the baying masses were forced to subside. I've always felt a little ashamed of the incident, as if I were guilty of contributing a little to his discomfiture that day, but perhaps it were 'to consider too curiously, to consider so.'

I'd felt terribly anxious to see the grand old man, last survivor of all those thirties poets I idolised, but the occasion seemed tainted somehow by the thronging of all those importunate bookhounds.

Stephen Spender: Journals, 1939-1983 (signed)

The defining moment for the Auden group undoubtedly came at the very end of the thirties, that 'low, dishonest decade,' as he called it in his classic poem 'September 1, 1939.' Whatever his original intentions for the poem, it became a kind of 'Goodbye to All That' for both him and his friend Isherwood. Instead of returning to soon-to-be-war-beleaguered Britain, they decided to stay in the United States.

The other members of the group remained in the UK. All took part in the war effort in their various ways - not as combatants, but as active participants on the Home Front, as well as acting as war propagandists at various points. The Spanish war had united and - some would say - defined them as a group, however various their responses to it turn out, in retrospect, to have been.

It was the Second World War that divided them, turned Spender into a kind of suave literary politician, Day Lewis into a Hardy-esque pastoralist, MacNeice into a drunken BBC producer, and linked them definitively to the Old World rather than the New.

Whether Auden could be said to have ever written as well in his newly adopted country as he did in the old is debatable. He certainly wrote differently, though. His explorations of inner worlds and the inner life may have been less lyrically effective than the gnarled, gnomic verse he composed in the thirties, but they were certainly no less ambitious in scope.

Isherwood, too, gave up the chance to be a kind of novelistic cross between Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene to become a narcissistic Californian navel-gazer. It would be many years before either of them would be forgiven back home for this perceived treachery in time of war.

Spender, too, became less poet than prose-writer and editor - though he never stopped writing poetry right up to the end, it's his earlier work that resonates, still, with most readers.

Should he have gone with them? Almost certainly not. For him the essential thing was simply to see less of Auden, define his own life choices, both professionally and sexually. His fiction from this period is exceptionally interesting in this regard - especially The Temple, an autobiographical novel about his experiences in the Weimar republic begun in the thirties but not finally completed and published until half a century later, in 1988.

It's often seemed anomalous - to some readers, at least - that the defining note of the Auden group, the so-called 'Pylon poets,' was initially struck by Spender, not their putative leader. The poem is certainly not the anthemic call to arms it must once have seemed, but that doesn't leave it without interest. The lapidary clarity of Spender's early style seems unlikely to date in this particular case, at least:

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.

Stephen Spender: Collected Poems, 1928–1953 (1955)

Stephen Harold Spender (1909-1995)

[titles I own are marked in bold]:


  1. Poems. London: Faber, 1933.
  2. Poems. 1933. Second Edition. 1934. London: Faber, 1935.
  3. Vienna (1934)
  4. The Still Centre. 1939. London: Faber, 1941.
  5. Ruins and Visions. 1942. London: Faber, 1942.
  6. Spiritual Exercises (1943)
  7. Poems of Dedication. 1947. London: Faber, 1947.
  8. Selected Poems. 1940. London: Faber, 1947.
  9. The Edge of Being (1949)
  10. Collected Poems, 1928–1953 (1955)
  11. Selected Poems (1965)
  12. The Express (1966)
  13. The Generous Days (1971)
  14. Penguin Modern Poets 20: John Heath-Stubbs / F. T. Prince / Stephen Spender. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972.
  15. Selected Poems (1974)
  16. Recent Poems (1978)
  17. Collected Poems 1928-1985. London: Faber, 1985.
  18. Dolphins. London: Faber, 1994.
  19. New Collected Poems. Ed. Michael Brett. London: Faber, 2004.

  20. Plays:

  21. Trial of a Judge: A Tragic Statement in Five Acts. 1938. London: Faber, 1945.
  22. Rasputin's End: Libretto (1958)

  23. Translation:

  24. Georg Büchner. Danton's Death: A Play in Four Acts. Trans. Stephen Spender & Goronwy Rees. London: Faber, 1939.
  25. Rainer Maria Rilke. Duino Elegies: The German Text, with an English Translation, Introduction and Commentary. Trans. J. B. Leishman & Stephen Spender. 1939. London: Chatto & Windus, 1981.
  26. Schiller. Mary Stuart. Trans. Stephen Spender. Preface by Peter Wood. London: Faber, 1959.
  27. Sophocles. Oedipus Trilogy: King Oedipus; Oedipus at Colonos; Antigone: A Version. Trans. Stephen Spender. 1985. New York: Random House Inc., 1985.

  28. Fiction:

  29. The Burning Cactus (1936)
  30. The Backward Son (1940)
  31. Engaged in Writing & The Fool and the Princess. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1958.
  32. The Temple. 1988. London: Faber, 1989.

  33. Non-fiction:

  34. The Destructive Element. 1935. The Life and Letters Series, 87. London: Jonathan Cape, 1938.
  35. Forward from Liberalism (1937)
  36. Life and the Poet (1942)
  37. Citizens in War – and After (1945)
  38. European Witness (1946)
  39. Poetry since 1939. The Arts in Britain, 1. 1946. London: The British Council, 1949.
  40. André Gide, Richard Wright, Ignazio Silone, Stephen Spender, Arthur Koestler, & Louis Fischer. The God That Failed. Ed. Richard Crossman. 1950. New York: Bantam Books, 1959.
  41. World within World: The Autobiography of Stephen Spender. 1951. London: Readers Union, 1953.
  42. Learning Laughter (1952)
  43. The Creative Element (1953)
  44. The Making of a Poem (1957)
  45. The Struggle of the Modern. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1963.
  46. The Year of the Young Rebels (1969)
  47. Love-Hate Relations: A Study of Anglo-American Sensibilities. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1974.
  48. Eliot (1975)
  49. The Thirties and After: Poetry, Politics, People (1933-75). London: Fontana / Collins, 1978.
  50. [with David Hockney]: China Diary. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1982.

  51. Edited:

  52. Horizon (1939-41)
  53. Encounter (1953-66)
  54. Great Writings of Goethe. Ed. Stephen Spender. A Mentor Book. New York: New American Library, 1958.
  55. Penguin Modern Poets 23: Geoffrey Grigson / Edwin Muir / Adrian Stokes. Guest Ed. Stephen Spender. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973.
  56. W. H. Auden: A Tribute. New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1975.

  57. Letters & Journals:

  58. Letters to Christopher: Stephen Spender’s Letters to Christopher Isherwood, 1929-1939, with “The Line of the Branch” – Two Thirties Journals. Ed. Lee Bartlett. Santa Barbara, CA: Black Sparrow, 1980.
  59. Journals 1939-1983. London: Faber, 1985.
  60. New Selected Journals, 1939–1995 (2012)

  61. Secondary:

  62. Sutherland, John. Stephen Spender: The Authorised Biography. 2004. Harmondsworth, Penguin, 2005.

Stephen Spender & George Orwell: Lansdowne Terrace

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