Stephen Spender has had a long, varied, and rewarding life. Ironically, the recognitions of Spender’s later years have made the radical poet of the 1930’s suddenly acceptable in the mainstream of British letters. Spender, always given to introspection, worries throughout the latter pages of his journals that he may have compromised his ideals.
Spender’s poetry has long been compared with that of Auden, his senior contemporary at the University of Oxford, and during Auden’s life Spender willingly, or perhaps with resignation, accepted the comparison; at times he appeared almost to have been flattered by it. The first chapters of Spender’s autobiographical novel The Temple show how he quite literally worshiped Auden’s critical opinions. Almost as much, Spender revered Isherwood’s views on his verse, and during the 1930’s in Berlin (when Auden, who never made the artists’ pilgrimage to Germany, was not available), Spender showed almost all of his work in progress to Isherwood, a writer whose opinion Auden himself respected. It is hardly surprising, then, that critics of the period saw the Isherwood “camera eye” in Spender’s fiction.
Nevertheless, Spender has outlived both Auden and Isherwood, and the 1983 commentaries interpolated in his journals show more than once his efforts to escape these literary ghosts. It requires no great psychological insight to see the reason Spender lavishes such care on the best poem of his old age, “Auden’s Funeral.” It is also easy to see why Spender worries about his decision to accept a knighthood. Auden, Isherwood, and Spender had resolved as young men that they would overturn the standards then prevailing in British literature. In large part, this meant the Bloomsbury Group of Virginia and Leonard Woolf as much as the earlier works of Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad, and Rudyard Kipling. A change certainly came, and Germany contributed to it, but it was not the change that the youthful iconoclasts had foreseen.