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...
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'From 1931 onwards,' Stephen Spender wrote, 'in common with many other people, I felt hounded by external events.' The date is not an arbitrary one: 1931 was the watershed between the post-war years and the pre-war years, the point at which the mood of the 'thirties first became generally apparent. (p. 65)
[By] 1931 many people in England certainly had begun to see the crisis in which they lived as more than a temporary economic reverse—to see it rather as the collapse of an inherited system of values, and the end of a secure life. (p. 66)
External events, if they are dire enough—a war, or the collapse of a society—challenge the value of private acts, and put the personal life to the test. For a young man (Spender was twenty-two in 1931) such a crisis, coming at a time when he was trying to define himself and his place in the world, must have been profoundly disorienting and disturbing.
When the young man is a poet, and the private act that he values is the writing of a poem, then a crisis in society becomes a literary problem. Is the role of a poet a defensible one in such a time? And if it is, what sort of poem should he write? Is the traditionally private content of lyric poetry, for example, appropriate to a time of public distress? In a situation that seems to demand action, can any poem be a sufficient act? These are all questions that imaginative writers faced throughout the 'thirties, and answered in various ways; they are the subjects of the best of 'thirties literary criticism, too, and they enter, colour, and sometimes distort many of the decade's best and most characteristic poems.
Spender wrote two poems in 1931 that show how these questions entered and disturbed his life: 'What I expected' …, and 'I think continually of those who were truly great'…. The general subject of both poems is heroism—not brave deeds performed, but the young man's dream of valuable personal behaviour…. How exactly is one to act heroically in a time that is a 'chaos of values'? This is what the two poems are really about—the problem of heroic action; and in this they belong to their time.
'What I expected' is the more personal of the two, and the more negative. It deals with the disparity between the young man's dream of an heroic adult self, and his discovery of unheroic adult reality; this is, of course, a traditional subject—the disillusionment of growing up. (p. 67)
['I think continually of those who were truly great'] is one of Spender's best known [poems]…. It is also a young man's poem, a vision of heroism in traditional, romantic images. The vision is a noble and affirmative one, and the poem is very moving, and very youthful. Still, one must note that the vision is retrospective: the verbs are in the past tense, the truly great are gone…. So here again, though less directly, the separation of the present from the heroic past, and of the Self from the Hero, is made. (p. 69)
Neither of these poems could be called polemical or political or topical: neither urges a cause or proposes an action, or links its subject explicitly to immediate history. Language and imagery are entirely timeless, with none of the contemporary urban-industrial content that came to be the mark of the generation…. If they are nevertheless poems of their time, it is because they record a generation's state of mind…. (p. 70)
Spender's 'Poetry and Revolution' [an essay published in 1933] … is important because it is thoughtful, lucid, and honest (the qualities that his best poems also have). The problem that Spender deals with is one that every artist in the 'thirties had to face: what is the right relation between art and action?… Spender was the first of the young writers to address the question at length, and with critical and moral intelligence.
Spender's essay is an act of self-defence against an invisible but easily imagined antagonist—a hard-line communist, with a set of accusations and demands that are new to literary discourse. This new opponent argues that the bourgeois artist is an idealist and an individualist, and that what he writes is necessarily bourgeois propaganda, whereas it is the duty of the revolutionary artist to produce revolutionary propaganda and proletarian art. Spender opens his defence with a defiant sentence: 'Of human activities, writing poetry is one of the least revolutionary,' and goes on to argue the case for a traditional view of the artist, even in a revolutionary time. There is, he says, an inevitable relation between an artist and his culture: a bourgeois cannot choose to join the proletariat as an artist, because his imagination and his creative sources are formed, and will remain bourgeois; and in any case there is no proletarian tradition for him to attach himself to. But what he writes need not be propaganda for his own class; if he is truly an artist, his work will perform art's historic role of revealing to men the reality of the present and the past. So art will serve the revolution by telling revolutionaries the truth.
Spender argued that artists should not let themselves be 'led astray into practical politics'. He based his argument on the conviction—which he held throughout the 'thirties—that there is a deeper sense of political, beyond party politics, which is simply the truth about historic public issues, and which it is the artist's responsibility to reveal. This is a romantic notion of the artist, as a man with a superior morality and a higher responsibility …, but it is a strong defence against the demand for submersion of self in party. (pp. 104-05)
One can see [in the essay that there] is essentially an argument between language-as-art and language-as-propaganda, and that Spender, in urging the function of poetry as a preserver of pure meanings, was being conservative and counter-revolutionary, in spite of his expressed political sympathies. (p. 106)
Vienna is a poem not so much about the history of [the Austrian February Uprising] as about the mythology. It is not a narrative, though it includes narrative passages: it does not tell the whole story, it ignores chronology, and it does not explain. What Spender seems to have aimed at was the expression of his own personal sense of Vienna: the poem includes, but is not limited to, the public events of the uprising, and it deals with even those events in a private way.
Formally, Vienna is rather like [Auden's] The Orators: the same division into dissimilar parts, the same mixture of modes, local obscurities, jokes, sudden shifts of tone, the same overlapping of political and sexual problems. Like The Orators it is concerned with a sick society and the need for action, and for a 'healer'. But there is one essential difference: by the time that Vienna was written, violent political events had occurred, a failed revolution had become history, and hence susceptible to re-telling and mythologizing. Vienna has the quality that Ezra Pound said all epics have: it is a poem containing history.
There is another difference, too: Vienna includes an 'I' who is not an invented persona (like Auden's Airman) but an experiencing self. Spender had gone to Vienna shortly after the uprising, and he had witnessed the public consequences of failed heroic action. He was young, and he was politically in sympathy with the workers' action, and one gets from his account his spectator's excitement at the drama of events. But he was also a young man living a troubled and emotional private life, and elements of that life are also part of the poem. This gives it, along with its epic side, something of the character of a long lyric poem, in which all events are filtered through a private sensibility.
A confused city, apparently shortly after the violent suppression of the uprising, and a confused young man—a stranger to the city and its people, troubled in his own life, desiring love, uncertain of his sexual identity: these are the constituents of the poem. The young man observes, records, and feels the public themes—the authoritarian rulers, the brooding unemployed workers, the political antagonisms—but he also feels his private troubles, and weaves his introspection through the poem. Between the public themes and the private ones there is no necessary connection, except the identity of the poet-observer, but the implication is … that history, this history of violence and betrayal, alters and inhibits love. The point is imperfectly made, and the poem remains in some ways fundamentally incoherent, but this assumption, which is so recurrent through the 'thirties, seems clear enough—that in a time of public catastrophe, private lives will be catastrophic, too. (pp. 145-46)
The problem is set entirely in psycho-sexual terms; sexual crisis seems to have been a crucial part of the Vienna experience.
But the solution that the poem offers is not set in sexual terms, but in vaguely revolutionary terms that seem to offer an alternative mode of action that will also be a cure for the 'desert' that the speaker feels in his breast. He imagines a stranger, another of those healing heroes who are central to the 'thirties myth, whose coming will drive out the sicknesses of the past, and all the introspective, self-regarding forms of love, the 'liars and buggers under the dark lid of centuries', and will integrate the creative, revolutionary forces that are already gathering, into a new life…. [The end of the poem is] visionary and positive, but without being very clear. Revolution apparently cures not only social sickness, but also private psychological sickness; the imagined stranger is at once a Leader and a Healer, and it is hard to say which the young man in the poem desires more.
Vienna is an unsuccessful poem, and one can see at once why it was likely to fail. Spender was attempting to mythologize immediate political events, to create an instant myth rather than allowing it to emerge; and at the same time he was trying to reproduce honestly his own feelings of the moment. So there is an uncertain mixture in the poem of politics and self, public and private, working in opposite directions, and obscuring each other. The problems of writing personally about public events in which one has played no part are very considerable (I can think of only one modern poet—Yeats—who has managed to do so successfully); there is an obvious temptation to make the self the subject and Spender did, so that, as one critic wrote of Vienna, 'we are led, on the whole, not only to pity for these Socialists, but also to a view of the poet himself in the act of being pitiful'. Beyond those problems, there was another that has to do with dramatic form: the February Uprising was a disastrous defeat, of the kind only appropriate to tragedy. But tragedy and revolution are surely not compatible. In Marxist terms, historical reversals are not tragic but simply inevitable parts of the dialectical process, to be acknowledged and incorporated into a 'correct' understanding of historical change. So Spender settled for defeat, with a bit of revolutionary hope at the end.
Spender is an acute critic, of his own works as well as of those of others, and his comments on Vienna, and the feelings behind it, are helpful to an understanding both of the poem and of the time…. [He wrote] that the effect of public violence was to undermine private feelings, that political emotions may overpower and mask private ones. So that the very failure of his poem has a political meaning. (pp. 147-50)
Both the sense of historical process and the critical defensiveness [of important critical writings of 1935] can be seen very clearly in Spender's The Destructive Element, published in [that year]. Spender had set out to write a study of Henry James, an enterprise that seems on the face of it more Bloomsburyish than revolutionary; but his idea of the book changed, as he thought about it, 'into that of a book about modern writers and beliefs, or unbeliefs; which turned again into a picture of writers grouped round the "destructive element", wondering whether or not to...
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