Most of the major collections of Spender’s work—Poems (1933, 1934), Selected Poems (1940), Ruins and Visions (1942), The Still Centre (1939), Selected Poems (1964), and The Generous Days (1969, 1971)—contain many of the same poems, but in subsequent editions Spender revised numerous poems. Critics quarrel with many of these revisions, contending that Spender was at his poetic best in the first decade of his productive life—1930 to 1940—and that his revisions of many of the earlier poems have robbed them of their vitality and poetic integrity.
Such considerations aside, it is clear that Spender, seventy-six years old when Collected Poems, 1928-1985 was published, intended it to represent his poetic career. He personally selected the poems in this collection to give his readers and posterity an overview of more than half a century of his work.
In addition to heavily revising many of the poems for both the 1955 and 1985 editions of his collected verse, Spender omitted some of his best poetry written during the most critical period of his intellectual and artistic development and published in Ruins and Visions. In that book, he is a young artist dealing with global and personal problems—political upheaval that led to war, an economic depression, the dissolution of his marriage—and writing about them compellingly.
Rather than arranging his work chronologically for the 1985 edition, Spender chose to present the poems in thematic groups such as “Preludes,” “Exiles,” “Ambition,” and “War Poems.” The collection also includes some so-called diary poems, focusing on personal matters, that he produced after 1955.
Not all of Spender’s revisions did damage to the original poem. An example is “The Uncreating Chaos,” which first appeared in The Still Centre. It was revised extensively for the 1955 edition and again for the 1985 edition. Both revisions add a vitality and dynamism that the original lacks and a directness and clarity that are missing in the earliest versions of the poem.
On the other hand, in his “Elegy for Margaret,” a paean commemorating the death of his beloved sister-in-law, Spender’s revision misses the mark by destroying the metaphor he attempted to build. Early in the poem, Margaret is the boat charging through turbulent seas; in the revision, the metaphor changes in midverse. This revision vitiates the image Spender worked earlier in the poem to establish. Despite its faults, the 1985 edition of Spender’s poems is important in suggesting the poet’s evaluation of his own work.