Stephen Harold Spender was born in London on February 28, 1909. His father was Harold Spender, a noted journalist and lecturer, and his mother was Violet Hilda Schuster Spender, a painter and poet. The death of Spender’s mother when he was fifteen and of his father two years later, in 1926, brought the four children, of whom he was the second-oldest, under the care of his maternal grandmother, a pair of spinster great-aunts, and an uncle.
After attending University College School in London, Spender went to University College, Oxford, in 1928, leaving in 1930 without a degree. Having begun to write poetry in childhood and having determined to be a poet, he sought out the somewhat older W. H. Auden even before beginning at Oxford. Their friendship, marked by a mutual awareness of their differences in temperament and outlook, apparently developed rapidly; Spender himself published Auden’s first book of poems in 1928 on the same handpress he used to bring out his own first book. He spent the summer vacation of 1929 in Germany, meeting many young Germans and observing social and political developments that would set the stage for the next decade.
The 1930’s were a time of tremendous literary activity for the young Spender, periodically punctuated by travels throughout Europe. He achieved prominence as a leading member of the group of rising young writers clustered around Auden. Although Spender has claimed a singular position among the Auden group, during that time he behaved in a fashion broadly similar to that adopted by the others, briefly joining the Communist Party in 1936, traveling to Spain in 1937 to observe the Civil War from the Republican side, and publishing poems and essays supporting a radical viewpoint and warning of the growing Nazi menace. By late 1939, he had joined Cyril Connolly as coeditor of Horizon, a post he held until 1941. The war years also saw Spender in the National Fire Service and later in the Foreign Service. In 1941, he married Natasha Litwin, his 1936 marriage to Agnes Marie Pearn having ended in divorce.
After World War II, Spender focused on numerous writing, editing, and translating projects, on extensive travel and university lecturing—particularly in the United States—and on his family life. From 1953 to 1966, he served as coeditor of Encounter, resigning when he learned of the Central Intelligence Agency’s financing of that magazine. He died in London on July 16, 1995.