Spender, Stephen 1909–
Spender is a British poet, playwright, novelist, critic, short story writer, editor, translator, essayist, travel writer, and autobiographer. As a young man he was linked to the Oxford Marxist group which included Auden, Isherwood, MacNeice, and Day Lewis. Although he may on occasion use political and social issues as the fabric of his work, Spender is thematically concerned with self-knowledge and depth of personal feeling. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
In his poem "Judas Iscariot," Stephen Spender depicts Judas's betrayal of Christ as an act of defiant individualism, and he further proposes that perhaps Christ betrayed Judas. These unusual arguments, however, are not without precedent in twentieth-century literature, and there exists considerable evidence to suggest that Spender adapted to his own poetic purposes ideas that had already been given wide currency by Oscar Wilde, William Butler Yeats, and D. H. Lawrence. (p. 126)
"Judas Iscariot" expresses the same militant individualism, the same inadequacy in Christ that characterizes Wilde's, Yeats's, and Lawrence's use of this motif. Spender's poem affords an excellent study in literary inter-relationships, and it further reveals the unorthodox use of Christian myth in twentieth-century literature. (p. 130)
Leslie M. Thompson, "Spender's 'Judas Iscariot'," in English Language Notes (© copyright 1970, Regents of the University of Colorado), December, 1970, pp. 126-30.
It was Spender's Poems, 1933, which first made the general public aware that there was a new poetic generation born, and we can tell this from the fact that the popular press, borrowing a word from one of his poems, attached to the group the soubriquet 'The Pylon Poets'…. [It] was important, and particularly important (and deleterious) to Spender himself. He could have handled easily enough, with his habit of laughing at himself, the more vulgar role of spokesman for the group in popular interviews and such like. But he now became the chief pawn in the battle between the full-scale idealogues and the poets….
Spender was politically far the most knowledgeable of the group. He was certainly naive, in an admirable sense, as the poems show: but politically he was comparatively sophisticated. He was the son of an important Liberal journalist, an Asquithian high-up, and so knew what the others, and we rabid outsiders refused still to believe, that Stalin was as deeply dyed a barbarian as Hitler or Mussolini, even if less obviously so at the moment.
Enormous pressure was put on Spender to declare himself openly for the Communists, a pressure that only increased as the decade advanced. His sympathies were certainly with the Popular Front and he recognized that the Communist Party was the most effective and disciplined force in politics at the time. But he was not going to support Stalin's form of Communism, and he suffered much anguish in the struggle….
He was also, it must be remembered, fighting this battle on another front. It was his fixed and unshaken belief that poetry and art should never degenerate into propaganda. Auden (who drew alongside Spender the following year with his new volume, Look, Stranger which left the riddles of the last two books behind) was not troubled by these problems: he was … not involved in politics on this level. But Spender was and was anguished by the decisions involved and in my view lost hereabouts some of that simplicity and 'naivety' which graced Poems 1933….
Some of this special Spender quality was, in fact, to reappear in the peculiarly touching and generous-hearted Spanish War poems. (p. 102)
I leave it to posterity to judge between us whether or not these poems are exceptionally fine. But, of course, they...
(The entire section contains 5727 words.)
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