Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 832
Stephen Harold Spender, one of the best lyrical poets and most ardent political writers of the 1930’s, later became an important literary critic, essayist, and journalist. He was born in London on February 28, 1909, the second of four children. Because both of his parents, Edward Harold Spender and Violet Hilda Schuster Spender, died when he was a teenager, his maternal grandmother, Hilda Schuster, played a significant role in his upbringing. In his perceptive autobiography, World Within World, Spender characterized his unhappy youth as a “humorless adolescence.” In 1928, Spender published his first volume of poetry, Nine Experiments, by S. H. S., and entered University College, Oxford. There he felt like an outsider, cut off from the “hearties and aesthetes” who populated his college. He fell in love with one of the “hearties,” I. A. R. Hyndman. Perhaps because of Spender’s unhappy youth, his work is characterized by its onlooker’s viewpoint and its sympathy for the underdog.
The verses that Spender wrote between 1928 and 1930 (published under the title Twenty Poems in 1930) show the influence of his Oxford environment, especially that of his friend W. H. Auden and the members of his literary circle, which included Cecil Day Lewis, Louis MacNeice, Christopher Isherwood, and Edward Upward. Because Spender had an inherited income of three hundred pounds a year, he was financially independent and, therefore, able to travel and write without the awkward necessity of earning a living. In the summer of 1930, he left Oxford without a degree in order to join Isherwood in Germany. Spender’s talent blossomed in the politically explosive, Sturmfrei (permissive) atmosphere of Berlin, where he wrote some of his best verse, collected in the 1933 volume Poems. He then moved to Austria, where he attempted to blend poetry with political ideology in Vienna, a long poem about the savage suppression of the February, 1934, socialist insurrection by the right-wing Dollfuss government. In 1936, after publishing The Burning Cactus, a volume of carefully crafted short stories, and ending long affairs with Hyndman and an Austrian woman, Spender met and married Agnes (Inez) Pearn, an Oxford student.
Like many of his generation, Spender thought that Marxism was the only viable alternative to fascism. Because the Communists were aiding the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, Spender joined the Communist Party in order to take a personal stand against fascism. The Spenders went to Spain in 1937, an odyssey Spender described in his autobiography and in an important volume of his poetry, The Still Centre. In Spain, he broke with the Communists over the question of the atrocities committed by both sides. The same year that The Still Centre was published, Spender’s childless marriage to Pearn was dissolved. In April, 1941, he married the well-known pianist Natasha Litvin, with whom he would have a son and a daughter. During World War II, from 1941 to 1944, Spender served with the London Auxiliary Fire Service.
In the postwar era, Spender had almost abandoned poetry to concentrate on prose. In 1953, he published The Creative Element, a work of criticism which, along with The Destructive Element and The Struggle of the Modern, represents his finest critical work. From 1953 to 1967, he coedited Encounter magazine, but when he learned that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was helping to fund it, he immediately resigned his position. Although Spender wrote in a variety of literary forms, several themes permeate his literary canon. The most important of these is the proper relationship of the individual to society and its corollary concept, the merger of the public self with the private soul. Other topics emphasized by Spender include the nature of sexuality, the role of belief in the modern world, and the relationship of poetry and the poet to politics. In Trial of a Judge, Spender’s struggle to merge poetry and politics is expressed through the moral and legal dilemmas faced by a liberal judge (representing Spender’s authorial voice) who realizes that both Communism and fascism, though ideologically antithetical, will ultimately strangle individual freedom. Much of Spender’s poetry and some of his most important prose (for example, The Destructive Element) are concerned with the nature of faith in the modern world. In The Creative Element, he argued that poetry was the proper vehicle to provide a connection between people’s private and public lives by using it to transform the realities of the external world into symbols representing the individual’s inner experience.
Spender’s many public and literary honors included being named a Companion in The Order of the British Empire (C.B.E.) in 1962, receiving the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1971, and being given an honorary fellowship to University College, Oxford, in 1973. While his works have a remarkable lyrical quality, Spender cannot be considered either a great poet or a great prose writer. He is, nevertheless, an important figure in both genres. His works express the concerns of a self-critical and compassionate man, uncompromisingly honest and dedicated to truth, attempting to reconcile his natural inclination for individualism with his social concerns.