Stephen Spender World Literature Analysis
Stephen Spender held few illusions about his poetic stature. While acknowledging that he had a considerable stock of compelling ideas to write about, he realized he did not have the sense of form that results in first-rate poetry. Few scholars challenge this insightful self-criticism.
This is not to say that Spender is a weak poet. In terms of ideas, he is in a class with Britain’s great triumvirate of Romantic poets of the early nineteenth century. He has frequently been compared to Percy Bysshe Shelley. He never, however, achieved the technical perfection of his Romantic predecessors. He revised his poems endlessly, but he usually failed to give them the magic that would substantially improve them.
His later poetry does not suggest a significant advance in his ability as a poet. Indeed, some of his best verse was produced before he was twenty-five. After World War II, Spender published less poetry, devoting himself instead to translation, critical essays, and books about travel, politics, social problems, and intellectual history.
Spender and his generation of British poets grew up in the shadow of T. S. Eliot, who, with the publication of The Waste Land (1922), was catapulted into an Olympian literary prominence. Spender, having matured in the period between two wars, was fully aware of the economic strife caused by the Great Depression of the 1930’s and the political strife that led to World War II. He spent considerable time in Germany and Austria. In the mid-1930’s, having joined the Communist Party, Spender was sent to Spain, where the Spanish Civil War was raging.
The social dislocations of Spender’s formative years significantly affected all of his writing, most of which railed against the inequities he observed and much of which was antiwar. He considered Wilfred Owen, who died in World War I, the most outstanding poet of that war.
Owen’s writing, rather than that of Eliot, reflected the kinds of pacifist sentiments Spender was most comfortable expressing. In “Two Armies” (1937), for example, he captures the daylight drama of fierce battle, then retreats behind the lines at night and writes about those involved in the battle and its effect upon them. Owen was also much affected by the writing of Rainer Maria Rilke, Ernst Toller, and Federico García Lorca.
Whereas Eliot was concerned centrally with abstract ideas, Spender was concerned with social and economic realities. In “Pylons,” published in Poems (1933, 1934), Spender celebrates the great steel structures of Britain’s rural electrification program rather than bemoaning the loss of a more rustic past.
During the 1930’s, Spender, like many intellectuals of the period, was reaching for beliefs that might serve as a framework for his understanding. In Forward from Liberalism (1937), he writes of the disappointment of liberalism in an age of economic disintegration and international turmoil. He considered liberalism incapable of dealing with the growing fascism he saw engulfing much of Europe. Spender considered communism the only reasonable antidote to the cancer sweeping across much of the Continent, so he joined the Communist Party.
His involvement with communism, however, was little more than a brief flirtation. He announced his membership in the Communist Party in an article in The Daily Worker, but at the same time criticized the party harshly. He went to Spain at the party’s behest, but there is no record of his having attended even a single party meeting. Soon his membership lapsed, but not before he had developed his enthusiasm for García Lorca’s poetry, which affected his later writing.
Having lived through international chaos during his formative years, Spender was able to write with exceptional compassion, insight, and understanding about the social upheavals of the 1960’s, which he chronicled in what, in many respects, was his most successful book, The Year of the Young Rebels (1969), a collection of essays about the unrest and violence of young people in the United States, Czechoslovakia, and elsewhere in the 1960’s.
Nearly fifty years separate the publication of Spender’s two novels, The Backward Son (1940) and The Temple (1988). The first is set in a British school for boys similar to the one Spender attended shortly after the death of his mother. His memories of this experience were not happy. The Temple, first written in 1929, is about a youth who leaves Oxford in 1929 and goes to Germany, where he falls in with literary and artistic homosexuals, much as Spender did. The last chapter, added years later, deals with the protagonist’s return visit in 1932 and with the rise of Adolf Hitler. The book is of considerable historical significance.
Spender admitted early in his life to being fundamentally autobiographical in all of his writing. He is an unfailingly forthright author. Besides his autobiography covering his life to 1939, World Within World: The Autobiography of Stephen Spender (1951), he published Letters to Christopher: Stephen Spender’s Letters to Christopher Isherwood, 1929-1939, with “The Line of the Branch”—Two Thirties Journals (1980) and Journals, 1939-1983 (1986), both strongly autobiographical works.
His much-read book about writing poetry, The Making of a Poem (1955), is deeply personal, essentially describing Spender’s own mode of writing poetry. Even his more detached books of literary and social criticism—The Destructive Element: A Study of Modern Writers and Beliefs (1935), European Witness (1946), The Struggle of the Modern (1963), Love-Hate Relations: A Study of Anglo-American Sensibilities (1974), and The Thirties and After: Poetry,...
(The entire section is 2396 words.)