Journals 1939-1983 Critical Essays

Stephen Spender


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

“Collector” is probably the best word one could use to describe Spender and his life in letters. He has dedicated a substantial portion of his career to writing about his association with numerous literary figures, among them T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, and Christopher Isherwood. Even his ficton draws heavily upon autobiography and the people who have influenced him. World Within World describes his relationship with Muriel Gardiner (Elizabeth in the novel); their friendship blossomed in Vienna, Austria, in the 1930’s, immediately before its annexation to Germany by Adolf Hitler. It was she who, while doing work in psychoanalysis with Anna Freud, was deeply involved in the Austrian underground. The Temple, a novel written much earlier, during Spender’s student years, describes his first acquaintance with Auden, Isherwood, and German photographer Herbert List in the sensual atmosphere of Hamburg, Germany, during the interval between the wars. Even Spender’s poems draw from his friendships and his friends’ work: “Icarus” is Spender’s answer to Auden’s famous “Musee des Beaux Arts,” and the most critically acclaimed poem of Spender’s maturity is his “Auden’s Funeral.”

Given this background, it is not surprising that the prevailing tone of much of Spender’s Journals, 1939-1983 is one of self-reproach for not having devoted complete energy to the writing of verse. In one of its final sections, Spender, on the morning of the day he is to receive his knighthood, is rummaging through his London attic, sorting through his collection of papers and memorabilia and considering how it feels to be considered “a minor poet.” Thinking of his impending knighthood, he wonders whether it would have been truer to the ideals of his youth to have declined the honor.

Such self-doubt and self-deprecation notwithstanding, one can hardly deny Spender’s impressive contributions, almost offhandedly cited in the pages of his journals. Even if one were to disregard his works of criticism, most notably The Destructive Element: A Study of Modern Writers and Beliefs (1935) and The Creative Element: A Study of Vision, Despair, and Orthodoxy Among Some Modern Writers (1953), which are standard volumes in many college libraries, certain of his poems strike a responsive note for many readers. “What I Expected,” for example, which sets the unbounded expectations of youth against actual achievements of maturity, is a work of first rank, and “Rough” as well as “The Funeral” are similarly excellent poems. Spender’s gifts as a translator and literary commentator would have satisfied many. His 1939 edition of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duineser Elegien (1923; Duino Elegies, 1930), prepared with J.B. Leishman, is an achievement of his youth which coincides with the Berlin entries of the journals; yet he never mentions it.

It was Spender’s fate to live among those whose fame tended to overshadow his own, almost from the start of his career. At that time, England was in the process of evolving from its Edwardian inhibitions, and Germany attracted many of Europe’s most creative young people, Spender and Isherwood among them. The first entries of Journals, 1939-1983 record Spender’s realization that history would not allow this group of young artists to redirect literature in the way that they had hoped. If...

(The entire section is 1395 words.)