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Stephen Spender notes repeatedly in Journals, 1939-1983 that he would prefer posterity remember him primarily as a poet, which he views as the noblest of literary callings; nevertheless, the contents of this book reveal that he is comfortable in many roles. His longevity, literary gifts, and willingness to live his life openly have allowed him a wide variety of experiences and acquaintances with many famous literary figures.

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In their published form, Spender’s journals are segmented into logical episodes of his life, each section prefaced by a commentary written in 1983, the year he received his knighthood. This technique allows the writer to reexamine earlier convictions and events from a position of public acceptance as an older man of letters. This position is remarkable, since the circle of writers with whom Spender associated, W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood most notably, considered themselves literary (and social) iconoclasts. Even so, Spender’s commentaries do not interrupt the chronological flow of events. The only chronological gaps occur within the journals themselves, and these in two places readers would hardly expect to find them: during World War II (1940-1945) and during the first years of the Cold War (1946-1948). The gaps are surprising considering Spender’s residence in Germany during the rise of Nazism and his youthful flirtation with Communism.

There is also a noticeable omission of sensitive personal material. Margaret “Lolly” Spender, the author’s first wife, simply disappears from the work with no discussion of the failure of their marriage, and Spender never reflects on his own homosexuality, though he is often remarkably candid about experiences related to it. Spender characteristically limits gossip and lurid details in his journals, just as he maintained firm control throughout World Within World: The Autobiography of Spender (1951) and another autobiographical work, The Temple (1988). The Temple was denied publication in 1930 because of the British censorship and libel laws then in effect, but it was published in the wake of the success enjoyed by Spender’s Journals, 1939-1983 and Collected Poems 1928-1985 (1985).

Still, what Spender’s journals include is staggering in its variety. The first entries, written in Germany just before World War II, starkly contrast with those immediately following, written in devastated Berlin when Spender was a member of the British Civilian Military Forces. His uneasy meetings with prewar friends replace his uninhibited behavior in Berlin before the war, and Spender sees the destroyed city as an indication of his lost youth. That he turns to editing Horizon, a distinguished British literary magazine, further shows how he had to modify his youthful resolution to earn his living solely as a poet. The London years thus mark a new realism, and perhaps diminished expectations as well.

The middle sections of the journals, dealing with the 1950’s, present a no less idealistic Spender. He has firmly committed himself to what he calls “journalism,” referring to his editing, and accepts, in addition to his work on Horizon, the editorship of a journal of contemporary thought and politics known as Encounter. The scandal that erupted when it was discovered that funding for this journal came from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency threatened, for a time, to destroy Spender’s credibility with intellectuals and longstanding friends. His immediate resignation only partly calmed the indignation of those who believed Spender had known where the money for its publication originated. Characteristically, Spender appears at this period as he does for much of his life, an odd combination of political innocent and shrewd literary entrepreneur.

Spender’s ability to market his experiences as well as his talents leads to his writing several works of criticism and to a series of visiting professorships during the 1950’s and 1960’s. His teaching takes him to the United States and to several prestigious institutions, most notably to the University of California at Berkeley in 1959 as a professor of literature, but it also leads him to accept, solely for the income it would provide, a series of one-term positions at several much less distinguished institutions. Again, he feels dissatisfaction, believing he has not developed his potential as a poet.

By the 1970’s, Spender works more consistently at his verse, though he continues to have multiple involvements which all too frequently lead him in other directions. The most time-consuming of these are his teaching (now at University College, London), his travels to various literary conferences (some of these in exotic and unlikely locations in Asia), and his work on the final issues of Horizon (the publication ended with the death of his longtime friend Cyril Connolly). The deaths of friends such as Connolly and Auden seem to draw Spender back to the writing of verse, and so the journals end on a hopeful note: Spender, aware of his own mortality, of time’s importance, wiser and perhaps a better poet for even the most trivial of his experiences. Spender’s friends, family, and scenes of Berlin in the 1930’s appear in two enlightening sequences of photographs.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 76

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.

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