Stephen Spender seems always to have struck his readers as halting. Even in the relatively confident writing of his youth, he was the most likely of the Auden Group to avoid the extreme pronouncements to which his seemingly more self-assured contemporaries—especially Auden himself—were prone. Taken as a whole, his poetry appears to reflect a perpetual debate, an unresolved tension over what can be known, over what is worth knowing, and over how he ought to respond as a poet and as a citizen of a modern society. Taken separately, his poems—particularly the best and most representative ones—exhibit an attraction or a movement sometimes toward one side of an issue, and sometimes toward the other. Almost always, however, such commitment at least implies its opposite.
This tension itself may account for the continuing appeal of so many Spender lyrics, decades after they were written and after their historical context has passed. Obviously they conform to the demand for irony and ambiguity begun in the late 1920’s by I. A. Richards and William Empson and prolonged until recently by their American counterparts, the New Critics. In this respect, if not in others, Spender established a link with the seventeenth century Metaphysical wits so admired by T. S. Eliot. The qualifying tendency of Spender’s poetry connects him also with the postwar movement among a younger generation of British poets—notably Philip Larkin, Donald Davie, and Kingsley Amis—who have taken issue with Eliot’s modernist ambitions and with Dylan Thomas’s romantic gesturing.
The tentativeness of Spender’s writing connects with so many diverse and often opposing tendencies in modern literature because it has its roots in the Romanticism underlying all modern literature. Like Romanticism, Spender’s verse embraces a variety of conflicting impulses. Whether to write about private subjects or to take on more public concerns, and whether to adopt a personal or an impersonal stance toward the selected subjects, become central problems for Spender. He finds himself at some times, and in some poems, drawn to life’s simple, civilian joys; at other times he is moved toward the grand actions of politics. Stylistically, he can be seen vacillating between directness and obliqueness, literalness and figurativeness, and realism and imagism. The conflicting pulls of pragmatism and idealism so evident throughout his career suggest a sympathy with virtually all strains of Western philosophy, especially since René Descartes. Underlying this inability, or unwillingness, to project a set posture is the drive toward inwardness seen in nineteenth century literature, a drive at once hastened and opposed by the great Romantics. The legacy of this drive and its attendant struggle constitute much of the drama played out in Spender’s poems.
His writing in the 1930’s suggests the same sort of shift evident in the other Auden poets and in many prose writers, such as George Orwell. It suggests, too, a process more of accretion than of drastic change, since the seeds of Spender’s discontent with the posture of his earlier political poems lay in the poems themselves. Auden’s poetry probably encouraged the young Spender to move from the unfocused idealism of his teens and to write more about the real world. Spender’s poetry thus became noticeably contemporary in reference, with urban scenes and crowds, to the point that he could devote entire poems to a speedy train (“The Express”) or an airship (“The Landscape near an Aerodrome”).
Just as Auden found Spender too romantic, Spender found Auden too cool and detached from the often grim world that Auden had induced him to consider in his poems. Even at his most topical, even when most under Auden’s influence, Spender refused to indulge in Audenesque wit or satiric bite. The characteristic feeling of the Poems of 1933 is one of commitment and seriousness. Where Auden might concentrate on the ridiculousness of society, Spender concentrates on society’s victims and their suffering.
“Moving Through the Silent Crowd”
“Moving Through the Silent Crowd” illustrates well the understated poignancy of which Spender was capable at this time in his career. Nearly empty of metaphor, it gains its effect through Spender’s emphasis on emblematic detail and through the development of saddening irony. He frames the poem with his own vantage point, from which he observes the idle poor. The first stanza turns on his intimation of “falling light,” which represents for him the composite disillusionment and wasted potential of the men silent in the road. In the second, he notices the cynicism implicit in such gestures as shrugging shoulders and emptying pockets. Such a scene leads him, in the final two stanzas, to develop the irony of the situation and to hint at a radical political stance. He notes how the unemployed resemble the wealthy in doing no work and sleeping late. Confessing jealousy of their leisure, he nevertheless feels “haunted” by the meaninglessness of their lives.
An equally strong element of social conscience colors many other Spender poems written before 1933. Generally they exhibit more eloquence and metaphorical sweep than the rather terse “Moving Through the Silent Crowd.” For example, in “Not palaces, an era’s crown,” he catalogs those purely intellectual or aesthetic considerations that he must dismiss in favor of social action. Such action he significantly compares to an energized battery and illustrates in a bold program of opposition to social and political tyranny. The short, forceful sentences of the poem’s second section, where this program is described, contrast with the longer, more ornate syntax of the beginning. The hunger that Spender hopes to eradicate is of a more pressing order than that addressed by aesthetics or vague idealism, which he characterizes as sheer indolence. Only in the poem’s final line, once his moral and political ambitions have been fully expressed, can he permit himself a Platonic image, as light is said to be brought to life.
Such insistence on social reform, shading into radical political action, probably peaked in the period of 1935 to 1938, when Vienna and Trial of a Judge were appearing. Perhaps more notable than Spender’s eventual repudiation of the unsuccessful Vienna is the fact that in so many of the shorter poems written during these years, especially those concerned with Spain, he turned increasingly from the public subjects, the outwardly directed statements, and the didactic organization marking the earlier poems. Where his critique of life in England might be construed as supportive of Communism, the picture he draws of Spain during the Civil War largely ignores the political dimension of the struggle and focuses instead on the suffering experienced by civilians in all regions and of all political persuasions. Although a strain of political idealism continues, the enemy is no longer simply capitalism or even Adolf Hitler; rather, for Spender it has become war and those persons responsible for inflicting a state of war on the helpless and innocent.
“Ultima Ratio Regum”
One of his most effective poems from Spain, “Ultima Ratio Regum,” exhibits a didactic form, even ending with a rhetorical question; but it carefully avoids condemnation or praise of either side. Read without consideration for Spender’s original reasons for going to Spain, his angry and moving account of a young Spaniard’s senseless death by machine-gun fire condemns the Republicans no less than the Insurgents and ultimately centers on the impersonality of modern war, which reduces to statistical insignificance a formerly alive and sensitive young man. Similarly, “Thoughts During an Air Raid” deals with Spender’s own feelings while taking cover and with the temptation to regard oneself as somehow special and therefore immune from the fate threatening all other people in time of war. If Spender here argues for a more collective consciousness, it is but a vague and largely psychological brotherhood. As in “Ultima Ratio Regum,” the viewpoint here is wholly civilian and pacifist. Even “Fall of a City,” which clearly and sadly alludes to a Republican defeat, suggests more the spirit of freedom that Spender sees surviving the fall than any political particulars or doctrine attending that spirit. There Spender derives his residual hope not from a party or concerted action, but from the simple handing down of memories and values from an old man to a child. If anything, this poem reflects a distrust of large-scale political ideologies and action and of the dishonesty, impersonality, and brutality that they necessarily breed.
In his autobiography, Spender writes of having been puzzled by...
(The entire section is 3611 words.)