Stephen Harold Spender was born in London on February 28, 1909. His father was Harold Spender, a noted journalist and lecturer, and his mother was Violet Hilda Schuster Spender, a painter and poet. The death of Spender’s mother when he was fifteen and of his father two years later, in 1926, brought the four children, of whom he was the second-oldest, under the care of his maternal grandmother, a pair of spinster great-aunts, and an uncle.
After attending University College School in London, Spender went to University College, Oxford, in 1928, leaving in 1930 without a degree. Having begun to write poetry in childhood and having determined to be a poet, he sought out the somewhat older W. H. Auden even before beginning at Oxford. Their friendship, marked by a mutual awareness of their differences in temperament and outlook, apparently developed rapidly; Spender himself published Auden’s first book of poems in 1928 on the same handpress he used to bring out his own first book. He spent the summer vacation of 1929 in Germany, meeting many young Germans and observing social and political developments that would set the stage for the next decade.
The 1930’s were a time of tremendous literary activity for the young Spender, periodically punctuated by travels throughout Europe. He achieved prominence as a leading member of the group of rising young writers clustered around Auden. Although Spender has claimed a singular position among the Auden group, during that time he behaved in a fashion broadly similar to that adopted by the others, briefly joining the Communist Party in 1936, traveling to Spain in 1937 to observe the Civil War from the Republican side, and publishing poems and essays supporting a radical viewpoint and warning of the growing Nazi menace. By late 1939, he had joined Cyril Connolly as coeditor of Horizon, a post he held until 1941. The war years also saw Spender in the National Fire Service and later in the Foreign Service. In 1941, he married Natasha Litwin, his 1936 marriage to Agnes Marie Pearn having ended in divorce.
After World War II, Spender focused on numerous writing, editing, and translating projects, on extensive travel and university lecturing—particularly in the United States—and on his family life. From 1953 to 1966, he served as coeditor of Encounter, resigning when he learned of the Central Intelligence Agency’s financing of that magazine. He died in London on July 16, 1995.
Stephen Howard Spender was the second of Edward Harold and Violet Hilda Schuster Spender’s four children. His father, who died when Spender was seventeen, was a journalist and public speaker. His mother suffered from nervous ailments, most likely manic depression. She died before her husband; the children were left to the care of two great-aunts and an uncle.
Before his father’s death, Spender earned money by printing medicinal labels on his own press. He collected his poems when he was eighteen and printed them on his press as Nine Experiments, by S.H.S.: Being Poems Written at the Age of Eighteen (1928). Two years later, he printed W. H. Auden’s first collection, Poems (1930).
From 1928 until 1930, Spender attended Oxford University, where he formed a close bond with Auden. He left a year short of completing his baccalaureate. The group of poets with whom Spender is most often associated was referred to as the Auden group, although this was a loose fraternity of writers who held no meetings, did not necessarily know one another, and were dissimilar in many respects. Others prominent in the group were C. Day Lewis, Louis MacNeice, and Christopher Isherwood.
Isherwood wooed Spender away from Oxford short of a degree, urging him to come to Germany, at that time bristling with intellectual excitement overshadowed only slightly by the specter of Fascism. Spender mingled happily in the homosexual society of...
(The entire section is 524 words.)
Stephen Spender was a worthy but not a great talent. He was right for his time. With the amelioration of the political conditions about which he wrote most fluently in the 1930’s, he found his circle of topics narrowing. Spender overcame this problem by plunging into a broad range of literary activities. As an anthologist, editor, translator, and literary and social critic, he made a continuing contribution to literature. That he is likely to be remembered primarily as a poet is somewhat ironic, because it is in areas other than poetry that he made his most lasting contributions.
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...
(The entire section is 832 words.)