Stephen Spender Spender, Stephen (Vol. 2) - Essay

Spender, Stephen (Vol. 2)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Spender, Stephen 1909–

An English poet and novelist, Spender is the former editor of Encounter. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Where the young Auden was primarily satirical, Day Lewis hortatory, and MacNeice wryly diffident, Spender expressed the romantic attitude. The locus of his vision of felicity was what seemed to him, as it had to Shelley, a compassable future. His romanticism was fed, and occasionally poisoned, by German sources as well, and his later work was to show other influences, including that of Edith Sitwell, but from the outset his work differed clearly from that of his confrères. He might stand unhappily staring at the unemployed, walk through streets where "road-drills explore new areas of pain," might ask what, living under so heavy a shadow, he could do that mattered. But the grief, the fatigue, the despair, bred by a war remembered and war foreseen, by the boom and the slump, and the insanity of those in power, yielded to another mood. The vagueness of his references, the religious joy that characterizes much of this socially-biased verse, anticipates poetry of another order and points toward the baroque work of a later decade.

If his early lyrics reflected the industrial age, he was less fearful than his companions of imagery depending on nature. The sun pours through his pages, the actual sun, as well as the Shelleyan symbol of Promenthean triumph.

Babette Deutsch, in her Poetry in Our Time (copyright by Babette Deutsch), New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1952, pp. 362-63.

The Generous Days is the first volume of new poems which Stephen Spender has published since 1949, and only contains 43 pieces, one of which belongs to an earlier period. The pressure, as with many poets as they grow older, is clearly operating less frequently and strongly. Even so, there are some half dozen pieces so right, or true, or personally authentic (the criterion of being well-written is not one we think of as applying to Spender) that the book is justified by their existence….

Mr Spender, in the past, has been accused by certain neo-classical critics (who take granite chippings for the marble of the Parthenon) of writing sloppily and loosely; but in a number of passages in this volume he shows himself capable of writing with economy and aphoristic terseness….

What the volume evinces as a whole is the uncompleted protean quality of Mr Spender's style. Most people, by middle-age, have patented a personal language-pattern which may easily become their shroud of certainties. Mr Spender has somehow contrived not to weave himself a personal verbal tunic over the years as Auden, MacNeice and Day Lewis did. It has sometimes seemed—and this is an impression which the present volume supports—that each new poem posits a new start, a new style created from every new situation. The relevance of this to a poet seeking not external beauty or truth but the inner wisdom of self-identity will be obvious to the reader. It accounts, very likely, for Spender's many failures but also for the 'open feeling', the undecided issues which the poems present. A poet of this order is often valuable in helping to remind us that craft is not the whole of poetry and can, at times, be the enemy of a conscientious sensibility.

Derek Stanford, in Books and Bookmen, January, 1972, pp. 64-5.

One's first reaction to this book [The Generous Days] must be in relation to the author's reputation. 'Stephen Spender's last collection of poems, The Edge of Being, was published in 1949 and its successor has been eagerly awaited for more than twenty years', says the blurb, but this is making more melodramatic than need be a situation which is critical enough….

Nevertheless, the present collection and its delay does suggest a breakdown of inspiration or industry, and few will agree when the blurb goes on to say that 'The Generous Days will more than fulfil the hopes of Mr Spender's admirers'. There are only thirty or so pages of verse here and a few pieces date back as far as the war….

The tenderness of feeling for family life, the eye for nature and the rooting out of the precise word to express it, the poetic explosion—all these are to be found and sustain the book's interest. But its spareness—the brevity and fragmentation of the poems as well as the short measure—scarcely give the poet a chance to remake his mark.

Roy Fuller, "Ungenerous Measure," in London Magazine, February-March, 1972, pp. 145-46.

If Stephen Spender had not once written so well, his new volume, The Generous Days, would not seem so disappointing. The craftsmanship, the compression, the ear for rhythm are all there, and a few of the book's poems—notably the title poem—rise toward the brilliance we once expected from Spender almost as a matter of course. But something is missing.

For one thing, The Generous Days is a slight book both in length and in matter. It runs to a mere forty-four pages despite an almost heroic effort to maximize white-space on the part of the typesetters. The thirty-eight poems it contains do not all seem to be new, either, some of them containing topical references which suggest they may have been written in the 'forties, dusted off, and mixed with newer work.

But even taking what is offered, it seems to be less than meets the eye. Many of these poems are whimsical or petulant, mere versified comments or opinions.

Patrick J. Callahan, in Sewanee Review (© 1972 by The University of the South), Autumn, 1972, p. 644.