B. 1909 D. 1995
Great poetry is always written by somebody straining to go beyond what he can do. - Stephen Spender
About Stephen Spender
Stephen Spender (1909-1995) is most closely associated with the 1930s: much of his best poetry was written during this decade and other important works such as his autobiography, World Within World (1951), his novel The Temple (1988) and some volumes of criticism returned to the central questions it raised about the use of poetry in an age of propaganda and war. Spender was born in London to a journalist father and went to the same public school in Norfolk as W. H. Auden who was two years his senior. The two met again at Oxford, part of a left-wing group of poets that also included Louis MacNeice and Cecil Day-Lewis, an association that gave rise to the collective nickname ‘McSpaunday’, though they were never a movement in any formal sense. Despite not finishing his degree, Spender’s years at Oxford were formative, not least in the lifelong friendship he developed with Auden. In 1929 Spender visited Germany with Christopher Isherwood. In the early 30s Spender, like many left-wing idealists of the period, went to Spain to join the International Brigade in the fight against Franco. At that time Spender was, briefly, a member of the Communist Party which asked him to observe and report on the conflict, an experience that affected him profoundly. His early volumes of poetry reflect his commitment to the socialist cause, particularly Poems (1933) and Vienna (1934). However, Spender’s poems of social protest were personal and humanistic in tone, rather than didactic, and informed by a deeply self-questioning mind unsure how “to match poetry to either external events or his own feelings” (Alan Brownjohn) The other main strand in his work at the time were poems in praise of technological progress such as ‘The Pylons’, written as a deliberate challenge to the prevailing rural themes of English poetry. Spender quickly became disenchanted with Communism during the Second World War. In 1949 he was one of a group of intellectuals, formerly sympathetic to Communism, who contributed essays of disillusionment to The God that Failed. Due to various physical problems, Spender was not able to fight in the war, but served instead in the London Auxiliary Fire Service. He also co-founded, with Cyril Connolly and Peter Watson, Horizon magazine and acted as its editor from 1939-1941. Spender’s personal life also shifted: at Oxford and afterwards Spender had had relationships with men but following an affair with a woman, he seems to have gravitated towards heterosexuality. In 1936 he married Inez Maria Pearn, though the union only lasted three years. However, he got married again in 1941 to the concert pianist, Natasha Litvin, a relationship which lasted to the end of his life and produced a son and a daughter. His post-war life became that of an international man of letters. He attended intellectual symposia to discuss issues such as free speech, he became a Counsellor for UNESCO and in 1953 was invited by the Congress for Cultural Freedom in the USA to edit its magazine Encounter. However when it was revealed that the CIA was part-funding the magazine a shocked Spender resigned in protest. He taught English at many institutions, both in the United States and the UK, eventually becoming Professor of English at University College London from 1971-1977. His commitment to artistic freedom remained strong: in 1972 he founded Index on Censorship an organisation campaigning on behalf of oppressed writers. Official recognition came in his later years: he was made a CBE in 1962 and knighted in 1983. Though Spender said of himself that he lacked “the stillness of attention necessary for creative work” he continued to produce a huge amount of material whilst maintaining his globe-trotting life. His last book of poems, Dolphins, appeared in 1994 the year before his death.
That he was close to some of the giants of 20th Century literature – including Auden, T. S. Eliot, MacNeice and Virginia Woolf – should not overshadow his own contribution to English poetry. His unashamedly Romantic exploration of his turbulent century fell out of fashion in the 1950s when a more detached “neutral tone” (Donald Davie) was favoured, but may prove to be his most lasting legacy. This lyrical, vulnerable voice can be heard in his recording of ‘The Truly Great’ which has become something of a signature poem for Spender. Written early in his career it shows his painful and exulted awareness of the power a genuine artist is capable of. His much anthologized poem ‘The Pylons’, from one of his earlier collections, Poems, was seized on by critics at the time as a label for Spender’s generation whom they termed the ‘pylon poets’. This powerful evocation of a changing English countryside is poised between regret for a lost rural innocence and a thrilled recognition of the “quick perspective of the future” which the pylons represent. By contrast ‘Ultima Ratio Regum’ (1939), his famous poem of the Spanish Civil War, is a poem of loss and futility, mourning the anonymous young boy “lying dead under the olive trees”. It is moving to hear the elderly Spender reading this tender evocation of a wasted life, given, perhaps, his awareness that his own life had never quite fulfilled its early promise.