Stephen February Spender Essay - Critical Essays

Spender, Stephen February


Stephen Spender February 28, 1909–July 16, 1995

(Full name Stephen Harold Spender) English poet, critic, autobiographer, playwright, short story writer, novelist, translator, editor, travel writer, and nonfiction writer.

For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 5, 10, and 41.

Admired for the lyricism and powerful images of his verse, Spender is often associated with "The Auden Generation"—an informal grouping of writers, including W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, C. Day Lewis, and Louis MacNeice, who met at Oxford University during the late 1920s. Among the most influential writers of the 1930s, they were joined by their social and political beliefs rather than a common aesthetic criteria, and their writings display a Marxist stance toward such turbulent events as the Depression and the Spanish Civil War as well as the economics, unemployment, and politics of England on the brink of World War II. After leaving Oxford without a degree in 1930, Spender traveled to Berlin, having been attracted by the sexual freedom and the literary communities that thrived there during the Weimar Republic. While in Germany, he witnessed the rise of fascism, which culminated in Hitler's election to the chancellorship in 1933. Spender's poetry during this period includes Twenty Poems (1930), published while he was at Oxford, Poems (1933), and Vienna (1934), a four-part poem that blends details of the fascist suppression of socialist insurgency in Austria with Spender's personal conflicts. While these early works exemplify Auden Generation social and political concerns, they also evince Spender's more lyrical, personal approach and the tension between his attraction to Romantic lyricism and his desire to comment directly on the times. The Still Centre (1939), based on his experiences in the Spanish Civil War, records Spender's growing disillusionment with communism and resembles the World War I poetry of Wilfred Owen in its rejection of the heroic idea of war and emphasis on the inhumanity combat inflicts on the individual. Other pieces in The Still Centre display the more private reflections—his concern with the nature of existence and his search for a rational system of belief—that exemplify much of Spender's later verse. His later poetry is written primarily in free verse—Spender became progressively liberated from meter and rhyme—and although he uses common language, his poems often create abstract, surreal images that verge on obscurity. Poems from Spender's early and subsequent volumes were published in Collected Poems, 1928–1985 (1985), a collection which led critics to assert that Spender's poetry of the 1930s, his most prodigious period, will be his most enduring. After World War II, Spender produced less poetry and directed his energies toward critical and autobiographical writing, editing such journals as Horizon and Encounter, and extensive lecturing at various universities in the United States and England. His most renowned works of nonfiction include his autobiography, World within World (1951), which has been extensively praised as a valuable document of literary and cultural history, as well as The Thirties and After (1978), Letters to Christopher (1981), and Journals, 1939–1983 (1985), all of which offer insights into some of the most influential writers, public figures, and events of the twentieth century. His most recent works include The Temple (1988), a novel he wrote during the early 1930s, and Dolphins (1994), a collection of poems. Described as a political allegory, The Temple is set primarily in Germany during the Weimar period and centers on the sexual experiences of a young Englishman as it investigates the relationship between homosexuality and politics. Summing up Spender's career, Julian Symons stated that "Spender's principal achievement seems to have been less his poems or any particular piece of prose than the candour of the ceaseless critical self-examination he has conducted for more than half a century in autobiography, journals, criticism, poems."

Principal Works

Nine Experiments: Being Poems Written at the Age of Eighteen (poems) 1928
Twenty Poems (poems) 1930
Poems (poems) 1933; revised and enlarged edition, 1934
Vienna (poem) 1934
The Destructive Element: A Study of Modern Writers and Beliefs (criticism) 1935
The Burning Cactus (short stories) 1936
Forward from Liberalism (nonfiction) 1937
Trial of a Judge: A Tragedy in Five Acts (play) 1938
The Still Centre (poems) 1939
The Backward Son (novel) 1940
Selected Poems (poems) 1940
Life and the Poet (criticism) 1942
Ruins and Visions: Poems, 1934–1942 (poems) 1942
European Witness (nonfiction) 1946
Poems of Dedication (poems) 1947
The Edge of Being (poems) 1949
World Within World: The Autobiography of Stephen Spender (autobiography) 1951
Learning Laughter (nonfiction) 1952
The Creative Element: A Study of Vision, Despair, and Orthodoxy among Some Modern Writers (criticism) 1953
Collected Poems, 1928–1953 (poems) 1955, also published as Collected Poems, 1928–1985 [revised and enlarged edition], 1985
The Making of a Poem (criticism) 1955
Engaged in Writing, and The Fool and the Princess (sketches) 1958
The Imagination in the Modern World: Three Lectures (lectures) 1962
The Struggle of the Modern (lectures) 1963
Chaos and Control in Poetry (criticism) 1966
The Generous Days: Ten Poems (poems) 1969; enlarged edition, 1971
The Year of the Young Rebels (nonfiction) 1969
Love-Hate Relations: A Study of Anglo-American Sensibilities (nonfiction) 1974
Eliot (criticism) 1975, also published as T. S. Eliot, 1976
The Thirties and After: Poetry, Politics, People, 1933–1970 (nonfiction) 1978
Henry Moore: Sculptures in Landscape (nonfiction) 1979
Letters to Christopher: Stephen Spender's Letters to Christopher Isherwood, 1929–1939, with "The Line of the Branch"—Two Thirties Journals (letters and journals) 1980
Journals, 1939–1983 (journals) 1985
In Irina's Garden with Henry Moore's Sculpture (nonfiction) 1986
The Temple (novel) 1988
Dolphins (poems) 1994

∗The original draft of this novel was written during a period from 1929 to 1931. Spender revised it before publication.


Stephen Spender with Peter Marchant and Stan Sanvel Rubin (interview date 14 February 1978)

SOURCE: An interview in Partisan Review, Vol. LV, No. 1, 1988, pp. 45-54.

[In the following interview, which was conducted on February 14, 1978 and later edited for inclusion in Partisan Review, Spender discusses his relationship with W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, and other literary figures, and remarks on his career as a poet, critic, and teacher.]

[Rubin]: You published an autobiography, World Within World, in 1951. Are you working on another to bring that one up to date?

[Spender]: I don't quite want to bring it up to date, because I think that people's lives get very boring in autobiographies at the point of their becoming famous figures; the latter half of that sort of "life" tends to be a list of your accomplishments and the places you've been to—a kind of travelogue, almost. I might avoid that by cutting up the original autobiography and putting in new material. But I'll have to read World Within World again to decide whether I can do that. I haven't read it since I wrote it in 1950.

[Marchant]: You've had many lives—prep school, adolescence, Oxford, Germany, England in the thirties and its literary life, Spain, the Auxiliary Fire Service. Which has been the worst?

I always think that prep school was, far and away, the worst. I was very unhappy at the boarding school I was sent to when I was nine. I was totally unsuited to go to a boarding school, and I felt as if I'd been sent to prison. I always used to think, well, I'll never be as unhappy again as I am here. As a matter of fact, a master once said that to me. He noticed that I was very unhappy and said, "Anyhow you can have this consolation, that you'll never be so unhappy again." And it turned out to be quite true. When I was twenty-one, I wrote to him and thanked him very much for having made that remark and said that it had got me through being at school. I felt like a prisoner really, imprisoned with all these other awful little boys.

Which has been the best period of your life?

I was probably happiest after I had left Oxford and was away from any kind of institution. Oxford in a way I liked because I made friends there, but I didn't make anything of Oxford. My ambition always was to be independent—and to have a typewriter and a room of my own—and to start doing my own work.

I joined forces with Christopher Isherwood, who was living in Berlin and was rather lonely there—he wanted someone to talk to about literature and things. We lived very close to each other, and we met for every meal. That really was my life then—seeing Christopher Isherwood and getting on with my writing.

Had your relationship with Isherwood remained the same as it had been when you were an undergraduate?

Yes, I think my relationships with nearly all my friends have stayed the same. We're very fond of one another, and we meet whenever we can.

[Rubin]: There is a popular image of the poet as always a youthful figure and yet, in fact, you are writing poetry well into old age, just as Frost and Eliot and Stevens did.

In a way it's a phenomenon of living in the twentieth century. Poets tend to get terribly preoccupied in middle life. In early life one is neglected and, therefore, free from being called on the whole time, so one can get on with one's work. Then in old age one is also suddenly free again, and things are falling away from one. One interesting thing about being old is that one is invisible: if I get into an elevator, say, and it's full of young people, they don't look at me; they're looking at one another. That sense of being invisible is rather nice.

[Marchant]: Has your view of yourself changed? In World Within World, the sense I had of you as an undergraduate was somebody very sensitive and shy, easily humiliated. Someone made the remark to you that artists thrive on humiliation.

Yes, Auden said, "You will always be a poet because you will always be humiliated." I'm rather beyond being humiliated. But otherwise I think I am very much as I was.

[Rubin]: You talk about not changing, but I wonder if your time in America has had any direct impact on your writing.

I never felt very "English" as a writer. In fact, in my generation, to be young and a member of the English upper-middle class, the kind of person who goes to an English public school and to Oxford or Cambridge, meant that if you were not English—and by origin I am a quarter-German and a quarter-Jewish—one was made very conscious of being a bit of an outsider. Also I belonged to a time when people of my generation resented England very much—the public school system, the Conservative Party, all the governments of England between the two wars, the British Empire, the whole English upper-class code. Not feeling myself very English anyway, I always felt happier abroad than in England. During the war, as a matter of fact, if one was in England, one recovered a great feeling of England. I can think of Englishness as something almost sacred, but I always feel a bit of an outsider and not really English myself; therefore, wherever I am, I feel pretty well at home. If I go to Asia, for instance, I don't feel that I have a white face in contrast to these peoples of different colors; I really feel as if I'm almost one of them. I've never found it very difficult to bridge those gulfs, which are supposed to exist. I've always felt myself rather international, I think.

[Marchant]: You've been extraordinarily prolific—you've written seventy-five books—yet you describe yourself as being very social, finding it difficult to say "no" to invitations. What exactly is your work routine? How do you manage to write so much?

If one has lived a fairly long time, there have been a great many days in one's life. I've probably written on the average an hour or two a day, every day of my life, and if you worked it out, one could have written seventy-five books, I think. On the whole, when I am working on something that I care about, I really am working at it, or thinking about it, the whole time. A friend of mine always says, "I think of you as having a certain expression on your face when you're pretending to listen to me." When I'm pretending to listen to people, I'm usually getting on with whatever I happen to be writing.

[Rubin]: You've written and spoken about what you term the need for "pressure" in writing, which I understand to mean the tension between the content and the form. Do you perceive a difference in your own approach to fiction (which you've not written for some time) versus poetry or journalism? How do you handle these diverse forms of "pressure"?

Journalism I do simply to make money, although one needn't necessarily. It could be like writing a letter, for instance, which I do. In fact, I really prefer writing things I'm not paid for, and what I like very much is writing letters to people. Writing for one person seems to me the ideal situation.

Actually I think one has to keep on more or less writing in a genre like fiction, and if one doesn't, one forgets how to write in that genre. I would like to write stories, but I have the feeling that fiction has developed a great deal since the time when I did write stories, and I don't really know how to start again. I have kept on writing poetry just about enough to feel that I don't have to ask myself, "How does one write a poem?"

[Marchant]: You've also written a play [Trial of a Judge], about Germany in the thirties. Did you find it a struggle to write a play, that you didn't know how?

I see a great many plays and feel very critical of them, in the sense that I know they are not written as they should be written.

You've said that you didn't much like Cabaret, which is the Hollywood version of you and Isherwood in Berlin. Was your play any sort of reaction to that film?

I always say to Christopher that I often have a good mind to call my play My Berlin, in contrast to his. I noticed in his last book that he really wanted me to leave Berlin, because he was afraid that I would use his material. In the middle of the play, which is entirely political, there is a sort of cabaret scene which impinges on Christopher Isherwood's kind of Berlin.

Was Isherwood pleased with Cabaret?

No, we both felt the same: nothing happens in Cabaret that Christopher and I could have possibly afforded to do. Hollywood seems quite incapable of really doing anything about the lives of people like students who are comparatively poor. Cabaret is quite ridiculous. Jean Ross, the model for Sally Bowles, was a very unsuccessful performer in a cabaret, and really, I suppose one would have to say, a sort of whore, although I hate to say that because she was a person I adored. But that really is the way she made her money. In this movie she's the toast of Berlin and at the same time she's always asking for cigarettes because she's so poor. That kind of unreality I find depressing and painful. It seems a pity that Hollywood couldn't make something much more interesting out of what was real—the kind of life we did live.

[Rubin]: What do you think now of the work that Isherwood, Auden, MacNeice, and you did in the thirties?

On the whole, politics didn't help us at all in our writing. Isherwood and MacNeice kept very clear of politics, in fact. Auden wrote a great deal about politics, all of which he suppressed. I went over all the journalism and everything Auden had written in the thirties the other day, and I was amazed how much he'd done and how serious he was about politics. He was always trying to reconcile socialism with Christianity and...

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Obituaries And Tributes

Eric Pace (obituary date 18 July 1995)

SOURCE: An obituary in The New York Times, July 18, 1995, p. B11.

[Pace is an American journalist. In the obituary below, he surveys Spender's life and career.]

Sir Stephen Spender, the British poet, critic and novelist, died Sunday at St. Mary's Hospital in London. He was 86.

He had been taken to the hospital after collapsing at his home in north London, a spokesman for the hospital said.

In the 1930's, Stephen Spender was one of a small number of young poets who gave a new direction to English letters by insisting that poetry be linked to political and social concerns...

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Reviews Of Spender's Recent Works

Edward Timms (review date 17 March 1988)

SOURCE: "Wonderland," in London Review of Books, March 17, 1988, pp. 8-9.

[Timms is an English educator and critic. In the following review, he discusses Spender's novel The Temple, and suggests that there exists a "dialectic between cultural decorum and artistic innovation."]

'Mayn't your politics simply be the result of sexual maladjustment?' This question, unobtrusively formulated in Stephen Spender's Forward from Liberalism (1937), lurks as a sub-text in some of the most significant writings of his generation. For authors like Auden, Isherwood and Spender, the struggle for sexual...

(The entire section is 5188 words.)