Journals, 1939-1983

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

By his own admission, Stephen Spender is a collector. Indeed, one of the final entries of his journals records his rummaging through his London attic. He sifts with a certain melancholy through mementos and outlines, and drafts of uncompleted and unpublished works, private memorials to a career in literature. When he receives the word that he has been proposed for a knighthood, he accepts gratefully despite his brief, early fling with Communism, recalling that the seventeen-year-old Spender had said that a poet with a title could never be trusted. Even as he accepts, he believes that it would have been a greater honor to have refused the honor. Like it or not, the always politically involved Spender has suddenly found himself in the inner circle of the British establishment and is somewhat disconcerted that he rather enjoys being there.

Still, what haunts Spender even more, so much so that it ironically emerges as a theme throughout these journal entries, is the fear that he has wasted his career in what he calls “journalism.” By this, he means everything except poetry. He wishes that he could revise even the poems he has already published, and he regularly slips into moods of depression and frustration at what he perceives to be his inability to find words which measure up to his ideas. Even in his lighter moods, he analyzes how it feels to be “a minor poet” and reviews with agreement as well as amused masochism Virginia Woolf’s mordant observations of himself as a young poet.

To some extent, it is understandable that Spender has these concerns. It was his curse as well as his good fortune to have been the contemporary and close friend of poets such as T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden, to have been the disciple of intellects such as Ernst Robert Curtius and Isaiah Berlin; more tellingly, Spender witnessed the decline of promising individuals such as Christopher Isherwood and Robert Lowell. Then too, he realizes that he lacks the zeal of a missionary (like Eliot) or the personality of a hierophant (like Auden). One wonders if he realizes that it is precisely this sense of inadequacy which makes several of his poems, such as “What I Expected,” “The Funeral,” “Rough,” or even “Icarus” (his answer to Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts”), immortal. Fortunately, a new edition of Spender’s Collected Poems, 1928-1985 (1986) has been issued side by side with these journals, and readers will now have the opportunity to judge Spender’s poetry on its own, revised and apart from the shadows of others.

The hundreds of names resoundingly dropped in these diaries and the anecdotes which fill their pages are often of more than passing interest. The entries written in Germany just before and just after World War II, for example, contrast impressions of a young man ten years down from Oxford and enjoying his first success as a poet with those of a still young but now seasoned member of the Civilian Military Forces doing a survey of German intellectuals in occupied Germany for the British Foreign Office. While the 1939 journal reads like passages from Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus insofar as it analyzes German patriotism, racial theories, and conceptions of Freundschaft, the 1945 journal contains vivid pictures of a dispirited, conquered people. Cynical librarians calmly remove and store Nazi approved materials, replacing them with the Jewish literature they had saved ten years earlier from Nazi book burnings. There are anti-Nazi intellectuals such as Ernst Robert Curtius, who invites Spender to a lunch of cabbage and boiled potatoes, the only foods available, yet worries about appearing to be a collaborator by fraternizing with a member of the occupying forces. Curiously, but logically, there is not a word about the often recorded war years in England. This is but one example of the extent to which Spender has controlled the content of the published volume.

The postwar years are also the period of Spender’s greatest involvement as an editor of the literary and political magazines Horizon and Encounter, the latter discredited when it was revealed that its funding came through the American Central Intelligence Agency. Spender was...

(The entire section is 1728 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Isherwood, Christopher. Berlin Stories, 1946.

Kazin, Alfred. Review in The New York Times Book Review. XCI (January 26, 1986), p. 1.

The New Yorker. Review. LVII (November 10, 1986), pp. 138-142.

Sheppard, R.Z. “Confessions of a Public Son,” in Time. CXXVII (January 20, 1986), p. 68.

Spender, Stephen. Auden: A Tribute, 1975.

Spender, Stephen. Letters to Christopher: Stephen Spender’s Letters to Christopher Isherwood, 1929-1939, 1980.

Stanford, Derek. Stephen Spender, Louis MacNeice, Cecil Day Lewis: A Critical Essay, 1969.

Weatherhead, A. Kingsley. Stephen Spender and the Thirties, 1975.