Stephen Spender Analysis

Other literary forms

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

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).


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

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...

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Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Did Stephen Spender write most effectively when his subject was himself?

What poems of Spender best justify his long and patient dedication to an art that he recognized he could not master?

Spender had a long writing life. What might explain why so much of his success was based on his experiences while in his twenties?

What writers did Spender portray most shrewdly in his essays?

What qualifications prepared Spender for his work on Love-Hate Relations: A Study of Anglo-American Sensibilities?


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Blamires, Harry. Twentieth Century English Literature. Rev. ed. New York: Schocken Books, 1985. This standard account of the development of English literature devotes only four pages to Spender, but it represents the judgment of the last quarter of the century and places the poet well in his generation and cultural context. Includes an index, a list for further reading, and a chronology.

Hamilton, Ian. Against Oblivion: Some Lives of the Twentieth-Century Poets. London: Viking, 2002. This collection of biographies of twentieth century poets that Hamilton considers important contains a chapter on Spender.

Leeming, David Adams. Stephen Spender: A Life in Modernism. New York: Henry Holt, 1999. Leeming’s friendship with his subject began in 1970 and lasted until Spender’s death; it is a relationship that, coupled with Spender’s eloquent self-disclosure in his journals, autobiography, critical writings, and poetry, makes for a fluent narrative. Leeming sees Spender as a key witness to and participant in the rise of modernism.

Sternlicht, Sanford V. Stephen Spender. New York: Twayne, 1992. A study of the entire Spender canon that discusses all genres of the author’s work. Sternlicht begins by providing the reader with a well-researched, biographical sketch of the poet’s development over several decades. He also includes a discussion of Spender’s influential role as literary and political critic.

Sutherland, John. Stephen Spender: The Authorized Biography. New York: Viking, 2004. An engaging, readable, and substantial authorized biography. Produced with access to Spender’s personal papers, and illustrated.

Thurley, Geoffrey. “A Kind of Scapegoat: A Retrospect on Stephen Spender.” In The Ironic Harvest: English Poetry in the Twentieth Century. London: Edward Arnold, 1974. Provides a good synthesis of the changing estimate of the enduring value of Spender’s poetry. This account places Spender in the context of the 1930’s.

Weatherhead, A. Kingsley. Stephen Spender and the Thirties. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1975. Covers most aspects of interest in Spender’s work and life and is a comprehensive source. Weatherhead’s bibliography is still useful.