Stephen Spender explains in a brief introduction to his COLLECTED POEMS that the volume does not contain his entire poetic output over a period of twenty-five years, but rather a selection of those poems which he wished to gather together from earlier volumes with an aim “to retrieve as many past mistakes, and to make as many improvements, as possible, without ’cheating.’” He admits that he has altered a few readings here and there in the interest of clarity or aesthetics, but adds that he has retained, in the interest of honesty and truth, certain passages in which he now recognizes youthful imperfections and a few poems which reflect views he no longer holds. As printed, the poems have been grouped to represent roughly his development as a poet, as well as his interest in contemporary history—chiefly the Spanish Civil War and World War II—and in such eternal themes as love and separation. He views his book as “a weeded, though not a tidied up or altered garden.”
The volume gives an opportunity for a studied reappraisal of one of a group of English poets who first achieved fame between the two world wars. The members of the Oxford Group, as they have sometimes been called, included W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, Cecil Day Lewis, and Louis MacNeice. Spender dedicates three of his groups of poems to the first three of these poets. Though Spender has written elsewhere of the “teacher-to-pupil” relationship between Auden and himself at Oxford, his later development as a poet has been largely an independent one.
This is not to say, however, that he has followed poetic paths never traveled before. Some of his critics have compared him to Shelley, for the young Spender was also a rebel against the society of his time; and in both poets criticism of their own eras is combined with a vision of a future, better time. Both saw themselves somewhat as prophets of their respective ages. Shelley addressed the West Wind:
Be through my lips to unawakenedearthThe trumpet of a prophecy! O, Wind,If Winter comes, can Spring be farbehind?
More than a century later Spender exhorted, in “Exiles from Their Land, History Their Domicile”:
Speak with your tongues,O angels, fire your gunsAnd let my words appearA heaven-printed world!
Though some similarities of attitude and theme are to be found in poems of Shelley and Spender, their poetic techniques are as different as the times in which they lived. Spender is as romantically emotional as Shelley: he believes in the unmistakable love of man for his fellow man; he often opposes the darkness of man’s life with the bright sun which brings light and warmth into it. But Spender’s poems echo twentieth-century phrasing, though some lines might be described as Shelleyan, as in the beautiful lyric which begins, “I think continually of those who were truly great.”
At times Spender reminds one of T. S. Eliot (and Auden too), as in “The Uncreating Chaos”:
Shall I never reachThe fields guarded by stonesRare in the stone mountainsWhere the scytheless windFlushes the swayed grasses. . . .
Spender himself has said, however, that he was more influenced by Wilfred Owen than by Eliot. Like Owen, Spender often employs subtle combinations of sound effects, as in the lines quoted above: “Where the scytheless wind/Flushes the swayed grasses.” Owen’s poetry was principally inspired by World War I, which brought early death to the poet whose pity had been stirred by...
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