Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1395
“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 anything, their code of absolute freedom unwittingly fed the reactionary, repressive spirit which grew in intensity with the rise of Nazism. Spender’s allegorical play Trial of a Judge (1938), his first attempt at writing drama, sprang from this realization.
The entries dated 1945 mark Spender’s return to Germany after the war. He observes cynical librarians calmly replacing Nazi literature with volumes of Judaica they had hidden away ten years earlier. Though Spender had come to Germany in an official capacity, to gather information on the state of German intellectual life after the war for a census sponsored by the British War Office, he found the individuals he interviews either reticent or entirely uncooperative. That was the case even among those who had always been opposed to Nazism. One entry describes his former mentor Ernst Robert Curtius receiving him politely but with considerable reserve. As they sit down to their lunch of cabbage and boiled potatoes, the only foods available, Spender can see that Curtius is concerned about whether his neighbors will consider him a collaborator fraternizing with a member of the occupying forces.
The 1948-1953 entries reveal that Spender’s life, like those of many artists and intellectuals, was affected by the highly charged political atmosphere of the Cold War and by widespread fears of Communism. Spender worries that his American visa will be denied and that he will be unable to accept a guest lectureship at the University of Cincinnati. The hearings of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, then under way, disclosed almost daily the names of individuals it believed to have leftist affiliations, and Spender, as a young man in Germany in the 1930’s, had briefly held a membership in the Communist Party. Spender no sooner arrives in Cincinnati and begins his teaching when, in an interview he grants to the student newspaper, he admits his prewar affiliations. His appointment at the University of Cincinnati continues, despite a local scandal and strained relations with the chairman of the English department for the remainder of the term. It is only in the 1980’s that Spender learns, upon reentering the United States, that his visa had been coded during the 1950’s to indicate that he was a Socialist. The 1980’s customs officer needs to ask his superior the meaning of the code—perhaps a sign of changed times.
Spender travels widely throughout the mid-1950’s, and some of these trips are rather bold considering the political atmosphere of the times. He attends, for example, the European Cultural Association conference of Soviet and Western intellectuals held in Venice, Italy, during March, 1956. Surprisingly, this supposedly apolitical meeting reflects the same East-West political antagonisms then prevalent in the outside world. Liberal Western representatives have become disillusioned with Communism in the wake of Stalinism, and the Italian Socialist writer Ignazio Silone publicly accuses one of the Soviet representatives of being a secret agent for the Soviet Union. French Existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre declares that dialogue with Communist intellectuals is impossible given the irreconcilable nature of Western and Soviet ideologies. Rather than respond to this barrage of invective, the Soviets remain passive, occasionally murmuring about how glad they are to be in Venice. Spender notes the absurdity of the situation in the journals, and he describes it in delightful detail in his satiric novella Engaged in Writing (1958).
Tours to India and Japan in 1957 for the International Association of Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists, and Novelists (PEN) are more satisfying, but long periods away from home (and his second wife, Natasha, and his two children) cause Spender great loneliness and exacerbate the feeling that he should be writing more poetry. Understandable as these feelings are, Spender’s 1960 visit to Moscow provides some of the most compelling material in his journals. It is there that Spender meets an old acquaintance, the Communist spy Guy Burgess, after the latter’s defection.
Spender arrives in Moscow (with his old friend Muriel Gardiner) to find Burgess comfortably settled by Soviet standards. The apartment is a strange combination of East and West: a drab building in an equally nondescript block, but a Marc Chagall reproduction on the wall and Bach and Mozart sonatas standing open on an upright piano. The main room is filled with books, among them Burgess’ own inscribed copy of Winston Churchill’s memoirs. Though Burgess appears content, he confesses his homesickness and confides to Spender that he would like to see his aging mother. Spender returns to London resolved to explore the possibility of Burgess’ return to England, though he encounters only indifference and equivocation from British authorities.
Entries for the mid-1960’s and 1970’s deal at length with major contemporary artists Spender met, originally for interviews published in Encounter and Horizon. English sculptor Henry Moore discusses what he calls the six varieties of drawing; he groups these in order from the most basic drawing to drawing he calls “metaphoric” (in which the realistic becomes the abstract) and “imaginative” (which verges on fantasy and dream). Painter David Hockney describes to Spender, himself a dilettante painter and photographer, how he superimposes film images to create what Spender calls neo-Cubist, or Expressionist, photographic portraits. (Spender’s paintings recall those of Paul Cezanne.)
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