Stephen February Spender Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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."