Stephen Spender Essay - Spender, Stephen (Vol. 5)

Spender, Stephen (Vol. 5)

Spender, Stephen 1909–

A major British poet, playwright, novelist, critic, and former editor of Encounter, Spender, along with Auden, MacNeice, and C. Day Lewis, formed the important Oxford group of the Thirties, influencing poetry and politics. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

"Redeeming the world by introspection": Louis MacNeice's phrase (from his autobiographical sketch, The Strings Are False) about Stephen Spender in the late 1920s could serve as an epigraph to the whole body of Spender's poetic work as well. Indeed, it makes much better sense to look at the poems in this way, as attempts at redemptive and quasi-religious self-searching, than it ever did to see them as coming primarily from social or political concerns. Express trains, pylons, the unemployed at street corners, the burning of the Reichstag or the Spanish Civil War—all were merely grit for Spender's insatiably self-regarding oyster. But for some years the question has been about the quality of the pearls produced….

Admiration for the force and achievement of the perfected will, and for the hero figure who personifies that will, is tempered by equally romantic notions of the inevitability of failure, death, darkness: "And all those other 'I's' who long for 'We dying'." The first-person of [the] early poems—and they are very much poems of the first-person—seems to be an amalgam of the majestic arch-creator Beethoven ("What else is iron but he?") and the slobbering scapegoat. Van Der Lubbe ("I laugh because my laughter/Is like justice, twisted by a howitzer"). The frequent images of the imprisoned self, painfully trying to communicate through vulnerable senses its need to love and be loved, suggests something almost autistic, certainly solipsist. They seem the last gasp of the stricken deer, the wounded romantic artist….

The poems Spender wrote as a result of his experiences during the Spanish Civil War are almost the last in which he managed, perhaps almost unknowingly, to fuse his own "passive sufferings" successfully with those of others: his own emotional involvement at a thoroughly personal level (gone into with naked frankness in World Within World), together with his recoil from the waste of the only war he had seen at first-hand, combined to give the impetus to many of the poems in The Still Centre (1939)…. In all these poems the objective correlative was utterly unsatisfactory from any partisan political point of view—they must, indeed, have been an embarrassment to any loyal Communist—yet they create their own authentic world, verify it, and add to the sum of experience rather than simply notating or qualifying it….

Apart from the handful of new work towards the end of the Collected Poems, Spender's most recent book of verse until the other day was The Edge of Being (1949). The Generous Days therefore draws, potentially, on the products of more than twenty years. But it is a slim offering for such a time span.

Some of the poems look like reworkings of old ones, perhaps products of a wartime notebook; others are marginal notes, either variations on someone else's themes (such as the "Four Sketches for Herbert Read") or—like "Bagatelles"—half-hearted epigrams or memorabilia; and there is the persistent feeling of poems being grubbed up from "occasions", such as "Central Heating System", which, with an uneasy mixture of imagism and expressionism, attempts to memorialize what was evidently a long night of the soul spent in Storrs, Connecticut. The most direct is a hasty character-sketch called "Art Student", clumsily and rawly done, but the clumsiness and rawness might be justified by arguing that, after all, they embody what the poem is about. For the rest, there are some wan and rather abstract love poems, and a title-poem which speaks with a formal rhetoric unfamiliar in Spender…. (p. 1629)

"A Self-Revealing Poet," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1971; reproduced by permission), December 31, 1971, pp. 1629-30.

Though Spender has constructed [Love-Hate Relations] historically, he has not written it neutrally, or even objectively. I don't say this as a criticism—neutrality is a pale virtue in issues that matter to a man—but simply descriptively. He is a poet, a man of letters, and perhaps most of all he is a European, and he has a stake in the future of his language, and the tradition that he values. For him, the words England and Europe are heavy with accreted meaning: they stand for a present in touch with the past. America represents the opposite of this, a society without a past, eclectic, restless, energetic, commercial, living in the present and endlessly exporting itself. In this opposition, Spender's commitment is clear: "The past is—or ought to be—the door opening onto freedom from today which is a time-prison." And to be American, "to see the whole of human life on this planet from the standpoint of the contemporary 'continuous present' is to abdicate ninety-nine hundredths of consciousness as a whole experience of living in the world…"….

Love-Hate Relations is not, strictly speaking, a work of literary criticism, though it contains many acute critical passages. It is rather a meditation on literature and nationality, by an English writer who knows and understands America, but writes always as an Englishman. Like most meditations, it is deeply personal, turning and returning upon certain preoccupations. To English readers it will no doubt be a book about the survival of Englishness, but for us, it is a book about how to be an American, but not those Americans—how to find the moral resources outside the present bankrupt moment, how to open the door of the time-prison and recreate a moral culture. Spender is pessimistic about the chances of our doing that, and so am I. But perhaps the chances are a bit better for the existence of this fine, personal testament to the importance of the task.

Samuel Hynes, "The Yankee Peril," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), June 16, 1974, p. 1.

In ["Love-Hate Relations"] taste is doing the work of thought, snobbery stands in for understanding…. The claim is always to be speaking on behalf of literary culture, but the voice behind the claim is usually one speaking on behalf of class culture. It is precisely such views that make it possible to be elegantly left wing and simultaneously contemptuous of all that is working class or prole in style.

"Love-Hate Relations" closes on a threnody of sorts for English literary life, with Spender still holding out a thread of hope. He hopes, specifically, that the literary situation in England at present and in the years ahead might be roughly analogous to that of Ireland in relation to England at the turn of the century. He hopes that perhaps the English can avoid the extremes of American experience and "maintain distance and sanity."…

"Love-Hate Relations" prompts the question of why it is that a man such as Stephen Spender, soaked in literary culture, seems all wet on everything outside literature. His book, while insisting on the importance of literature, simultaneously casts doubt on literary study as a method of social analysis. It makes one ache for Orwell, bearer of a literary culture firmly anchored in social realities. Of Orwell, Spender notes that he "had a moral grudge against the literary who held views which, in the abstract, were variations of his own." Yet it was not in the abstract but in the concrete that Orwell found the truth about culture and where Spender loses it. If the literary man as a type is to go under, Spender's book points up the fact that a certain class of literary man will not be entirely blameless. (p. 30)

Joseph Epstein, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 23, 1974.

Love-Hate Relations: English and American Sensibilities is a curious potpourri of criticism, literary speculation, cultural history, autobiography, testament of faith. Yet Spender's ostensible purpose is more fastidious: to explore the constantly altering area of Anglo-American literary relationships that has obsessed, infuriated and confounded writers on both sides of the Atlantic for almost two centuries….

The trouble with Love-Hate Relations is not a matter of attitude and opinion, but of structure and organization, a bungling of priorities. The discussion is unfocused and monotonously rambling; the pace is shuffling and indecisive, marred by a strangely viscous indolence. Both Spender's exposition and his argument are too casually discursive, digressive, ragged. He hops erratically from one writer to another, one era to another; for 50 pages at a throw he loses sight entirely of the subject stated in his title. Love-Hate Relations reads like a tape-recording of some rather maundering lectures that was rushed, unedited, into print. (And the book itself is riddled with typographical howlers.) In sum, what might have been a major critical investigation is an eccentric grab-bag filled with unequal parts of treasure and junk. (p. 15)

At the age of 65, with the trendy battles of radicalism and modernity firmly consigned to memory, Spender has come to feel unexpectedly at home in the conservative, nostalgic world of the Georgian poets (Housman, Bridges, Hardy, Edward Thomas) and the prewar British novelists of "poetic sensibility" (Forster, Woolf, Lawrence, Joyce) who despised the thumping social realism of Bennett, Wells and Galsworthy. In his romantic tribute to the Georgian poets, Spender shrewdly remarks that although Pound and Eliot, the expatriate American firecrackers, "woke the English poets out of their complacent dream," the British were unable to assent to Eliot's extreme view that all of Western civilization was in ruins. Instead, Spender notes admiringly, they "returned to their tradition, but had become able to question they way in which they were making use of it."

To one's immense surprise, Spender concludes with an elegiac lament for the vanished Britain preserved by Forster in Howards End and by Virginia Woolf in Between the Acts. And only in this last section of the book—"English Threnody and American Tragedy"—does Spender come strongly to grips with his real theme, one that has little to do with the love-hate relations of England and America, except as a means of emphasis. Against the objectivity imposed by modern society, which captivated the "novelists of saturation" like Bennett and Wells, Spender invokes the rich subjectivity of the poetic novelists, with their intensely self-conscious devotion to English tradition, their lyrical feeling for the English countryside, their fertile involvement in the English past, their incorruptible commitment to privacy and individual values, their concern for the survival not of modern society but of "the smaller civility of personal relations."

In his very English way, Spender now affirms the indispensability of the civilized past in the life of the present, and thus rejects the apocalyptic obsessions of the "orgasmic culture," with its antinomian contempt for the solacing continuity of tradition and its mind-blowing absorption in the intensities of nowness. Spender identifies this nowness as peculiarly American, yet here he is being somewhat unjust. The national label seems in any case less important and relevant than his humanistic creed: Moral energy must be measured not by its ability to explode (and destroy) but by its capacity to sustain, preserve, endure.

Had Spender concentrated on his beautiful and moving defense of civility and tradition, what a fine book this might have been! Unfortunately, he consistently undercuts the strength of his mature judgment with a messy web of ill-fitting rhetoric, specious Anglo-American generalization, and the obligatory glib sniping at America's "bubble-gum" culture. Lacking a crucial lucidity of structure, Love-Hate Relations is an anomaly—an elegiac tribute to continuity and order that is itself a model of their opposite. (p. 16)

Pearl K. Bell, "Anglophiles and Americaphobes," in The New Leader (© 1974 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), July 8, 1974, pp. 15-16.