Although best known for his poetry, Stephen Spender wrote a considerable body of drama, fiction, criticism, and journalism. The first of his six plays, Trial of a Judge (pr. 1938), was his contribution to the Group Theatre effort, in which his friend W. H. Auden was so heavily involved, and reflected the young Spender’s socialist outlook. Most of the others—notably Danton’s Death (pr. 1939), which he wrote with Goronwy Rees; Mary Stuart (pr. 1957), taken from the J. C. F. Schiller play; and Rasputin’s End (pb. 1963), a libretto to music by Nicholas Nabokov—likewise dealt with broadly political situations and problems. Spender’s published fiction consists of a collection of stories, The Burning Cactus (1936); a novel, The Backward Son (1940); and two novellas, Engaged in Writing and The Fool and the Princess (published together in 1958).
Spender’s nonfiction prose comprises more than a dozen books, as well as hundreds of essays contributed to periodicals. The critical works have dealt mostly with the issues and problems of modern literature, beginning with essays written for The Criterion in the 1930’s and The Destructive Element: A Study of Modern Writers and Beliefs (1935), and continuing through his study of T. S. Eliot (1975) and the selection of essays from various periods of Spender’s career titled The Thirties and After: Poetry, Politics, People, 1933-1970 (1978). Especially notable among his other critical books are The Struggle of the Modern (1963), a study of modernism’s complicated relationship to twentieth century literature in general, and Love-Hate Relations: A Study of Anglo-American Sensibilities (1974), which examines the connections between American and English literary sensibilities. Spender’s journalistic writings include Citizens in War and After (1945) and European Witness (1946). He also published World Within World: The Autobiography of Stephen Spender (1951).
Several of Stephen Spender’s poems stand among the most poignant of the twentieth century. Those anthology pieces with which his name is most often associated—“Not Palaces, an Era’s Crown,” “Beethoven’s Death Mask,” “I think continually of those who were truly great,” “The Express,” “The Landscape near an Aerodome,” and “Ultima Ratio Regum”—have helped achieve for Spender greater recognition than for any of the other British poets who came into prominence in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, with the notable exception of W. H. Auden. Spender’s many public and literary honors include being named a Companion in the Order of the British Empire (C.B.E.) in 1962, receiving the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1971, and being given an honorary fellowship to University College, Oxford, in 1973. He served as consultant in poetry (poet laureate) to the Library of Congress from 1965 to 1966. In 1970, he was appointed to the chair of English literature in University College, London.
Spender’s stature rests also on his peculiar position among poets writing through the Great Depression and after World War II. More than the others, he emerged as an authentic voice bridging the modernist and postwar periods. Even during the 1930’s—when Auden was the leader of the loose confederation of young writers to which he and Spender belonged—it was Spender who in poem after poem voiced most honestly and movingly the tensions informing the writing of poetry in that troubled time. When Auden and Christopher Isherwood departed for the United States in 1939, Spender remained as the foremost representative of the liberal values and lyric intensity that had marked the best poetry of the prewar years. Later—especially with the death of the other figures making up the so-called Auden Group—Spender’s verse, as well as his prose, took on special interest, as a last link between...
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- Critical Essays