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Sirspender, the Last Romantic Poet

ISSUE:  Autumn 1986
Collected Poems, 1928—1985. By Stephen Spender. Random House. page=$1995
Journals, 1939—1983. By Stephen Spender. Random House. $19. 95.

When I opened Stephen Spender’s Collected Poems last winter, one of the first that caught my eye was an adaptation from Garcia Lorca. It opened the section dealing with Spain at the time of the Civil War. This was new to me as were many of the poems at the end of the book. Here, the dominant note is valedictory: Spender saying farewell to his friends—Cyril Connolly, Igor Stravinsky, and Auden.

Throughout these poems runs a slightly incoherent wish to celebrate, to remember to do for his own generation what Yeats had so magisterially accomplished; but the great organ music would not come. As Verlaine said of “In Memoriam”: there were too many memories.

Far more moving and spirited recollections of Spender’s friends appear in the Journals, 1939—1983 issued at the same time as the Collected Poems. Spender, for the most part, remains true to his conviction that it is immoral to destroy one’s acquaintances in a few flip phrases, and there are many affectionate portraits. Toward the end of the book, Spender is often moved to tears by the fate of people he has loved and is capable of haunting descriptions as, for instance, of Madame Stravinsky, too far gone in years to recognize that the beautiful girl in the snapshot was herself a lifetime before.

It soon becomes clear, all the same, as one moves from one sporadic entry to another that running through the eyewitness accounts of the great and the not-so-great is Spender’s own quarrel with himself in his relation to his work and to his public. It is this quarrel and ruthless self-examination that makes the Journals a real contribution to the poetic memoirs of this period.

A question of scale is important: Spender’s Journals cannot bear a hint of comparison with, say, Nadezhda Mandelstam’s account of the persecution and death of her husband in Hope against Hope: the poet as victim in a carniverous society. As a record of personal difficulties, the Journals cannot compare with Ian Hamilton’s documentation of the sickness and madness of Robert Lowell. Even as a chronicle of wasted life, Spender has none of the feverish anxiety to walk toward the firing squad of Dylan Thomas in his terminal debauches, as described by John Malcolm Brinnin. The ordeal which Spender offers us is much more subtle: failure of talent and imagination and half-ashamed immolation by official patronage and support. It might be possible to express this in harsher terms: how a minor poet with a leaning toward left-wing politics became a knight and a member of the British literary establishment—a tediously English story, in the eyes of many people.

What the Journals do not make clear is the moment when Spender realized that his poetic daemon was not so powerful as his love of the festive, social side of being a poet; and it is clear that the less he wrote the more he traveled as visiting lecturer or official delegate. As an apparatchik, Spender’s life has been as full as can be, and few men have indulged more the sheer pleasure of being there (“Spender is a great witness”). In addition to the official occasions, the stages as lecturer at one distinguished institution after another, he made a successful marriage (in the introduction he thanks his wife for her great assistance and forbearance) and became the father of two large-spirited children whom he loves with a shining affection. Spender enjoys travel, music, painting, and other people’s work. He likes to think he has had the capacity to count his blessings, and if he has aroused the enmity of many critics, mostly English, he seems incapable of bearing grudges. To many people he appears a happy person and yet and yet; the story-line in the Journals is really quite complex and shadowed.

I suppose that Spender fell in love with the idea of poetry and being a poet at a time when he might have believed that poets derived their inspiration from heavenly sources. To wish to be the last Romantic poet is not a criminal activity even though it might create derision among one’s contemporaries. To be sure, the kind of poet Spender originally wanted to be was based on modern European models: someone engagé in social and political matters, shoulder to shoulder with the toiling masses and underprivileged, forever making impassioned pleas from rally platforms or chanting slogans at a public demonstration. In aspiring to this role, Spender probably hoped to enlarge the poet’s room for maneuver in a society that had almost forgotten what poetry was about.

In the Journals the relationship with the public is crucial, whether the students in creative writing classes or the high-minded public at his readings or even the hostile people who asked belligerently what poetry had ever done. There is much self-consciousness, some self-doubt, but the essential emptiness of the relationship between literary lion and his audience only emerges over a long passage of time.

As anyone who has read Love-Hate Relations knows, Spender has long been fascinated by the different emphases in British and American cultural life. One such entry from October 1965 illustrates this well. Spender and Lowell were discussing the tragic death of Randall Jarrell, and Spender comments: “I think that American poets, far more than English ones, cling to the idea that the poet is the “unacknowledged legislator”. . . . They have a public concept about the efficacy of poetry: and usually they accept that the poet is quite inefficacious. The fact that they have readers, and audiences who listen to them reading their poems, does not at all console them. Indeed, the more readers and listeners they have the more it is demonstrable that the values of American life are not affected by poetic values.”

Spender goes on to say that the American poet is conducting a war “through the values which he creates in his poetry, against the debauched values of modern society. And this, of course, is a tragic conflict. English poets do not, like their American colleagues, reflect bitterly that all they are doing is writing poetry for other poets. It is exactly this which they want to do.”

Spender does not say whether he includes himself among the English poets referred to. I should imagine not. Why, otherwise, would he have spent so much time in public or semi-public positions, killing his secret life, the secret, working life, by too much limelight? He craved the public; it was his form of addiction. He demands attention even while being destructively honest about his own credentials: “I do not think that I have a very energetic imagination—if I had I would have used it ruthlessly, allowing no one to stand in my way. At the same time I have confidence that by endless working and reworking I can arrive at good results.”

Sometimes this craving for the rights and spaces of celebrity produces unconsciously droll effects. Not too long ago he was invited to Nashville, and Vanderbilt University installed him in a Holiday Inn—and appeared to have forgotten about him. According to his journal, he remained in the hotel for ten days, and nobody so much as invited him for a drink. He turned to his diary for solace:

“It seems to me quite ridiculous I should spend so much of my life in such desultory circumstances, at my age when I ought to be surrounded by family, troops of friends, and a little honour. One can fill a blank time like this with some self-realisation, but I think I have learned my lesson already: that I simply have to try, in the little time left to me, to do work that will make up for the waste of so many years.”

So far so good, but a few pages later, still in the hotel, he reflected: “I rather hope that no one will ever invite me—and that people will say, ten years hence, “They had SS for three months and no one took the slightest notice of him.”“

This is one of the many entries where Spender appears to be confirming the worst opinions of his detractors but worse is to come. While still being ostracized by Vanderbilt, he remembered an incident in London. On his way home from the Royal Opera House and, as he thought, alone, “I farted.”

Spender goes on: “It was much louder, after five hours of Wagner, than I had dreamed it could possibly be! Some boys and girls, rather charming, whom I had scarcely noticed, overheard me, or it, and started cheering. In the darkness I was more amused than embarrassed. Then a self-important thought came into my mind. Supposing they knew that this old man walking along Long Acre and farting was Stephen Spender? What would they think? Anyway, for some reason a bit difficult for me to analyse, it would be embarrassing.”

There are many entries where Spender seems to take pleasure in showing himself as a sort of holy fool although these moments when he shows us his blemishes can be taken to be endearingly frank. This honesty only makes sense if it is seen as contributing to the larger picture of a great and seminal figure. What are we to say when Spender undermines his own credibility as a poet or craftsman?

In October 1979, Spender goes into detail about an attempt to write a poem about Derwentwater (in the English Lake District). He felt at the time that this was one of his best, but as it does not appear to be in the Collected Poems he apparently has had second thoughts. Anyway, he muses: “Why do I have such resistance to writing poetry? Since when I am writing it I can become very absorbed, happy, fascinated. The resistance comes first from the sense not so much of failure as of non-recognition. I can’t really convince myself my poetry gives pleasure to anyone. I feel apologetic sending it to a friend, humiliated sending it to an editor, as though asking a favour. . . . Being a minor poet is like being minor royalty, and no one, as a former lady-in-waiting to Princess Margaret once explained to me, is happy at that.”

A few months later, after an unpleasant accident, Spender was taken to a hospital, and there he had what he called “a flash of my whole life’s achievement and it seemed to me to be a succession of botched beginnings, of tasks inadequately done, few real achievements. A dozen jewels perhaps in a refuse dump of failures.”

Out of the hospital, physically restored, Spender returned to the theme of his life’s work: “Everything I had done—or nearly everything—seemed a failure, not that of a person who does not use his talents, but worse, does not use them enough even to discover how much talent he has.”

The entry continues: “I blame myself for not having pressed ideas to the point of proof. So often I put aside the things I most deeply wanted to do—the things that came from inside myself—and did things which were proposed from the outside. . . . Distracted, lazy, pleasure-seeking, frivolous, ever ready to fall in with other people’s wishes, desiring to please them, fearful of losing their good will. Years wasted, slipping by hour by hour by hour, day by day in a routine of undertakings external to my own inner tasks—reviewing, editing, party-going, travelling, attending conferences, UNESCO, Encounter (the magazine he helped edit), teaching, Thriftlessness, extravagance, folly.”

Yet even here, when the reader ought to be moved, the effect is slightly hammy. What was the great work that Spender had to do? What was there more pressing than seeing his name in print or looking down at a crowd from a platform? Much of this breast-beating is self-deception. Spender had known for years that he was washed up as a poet as an entry from the early sixties makes clear. He was in Berlin and decided to write a sonnet about the Berlin Wall.

“June 22: Continued sonnet on Berlin Wall. Thought of doing a second one, sealed at both ends AA BB BA BA BA BB (sic: 12 lines only) and tried a few lines—very bad. Usual torments of writing poetry (a) neglecting my prose book, (b) my utter incompetence technically and lack of certainty about form I want, (c) lack of ability to invent anything of pure imagination—dependence on event, (d) divorce between the life I live and the poetic life I conceive of, a life identical with the subjects of my poems, (e) have I the right to write a sonnet about Berlin—do I really care? Answer: this is my existence even if I am bad at it, I am committed to finding out how bad I am in performance and sensibility. Also I do believe I have an existence and it is poetry.”

So is this the secret drive that urged Spender on: to find out just how inadequate he was as creative writer and lecturer and, let it be added, as teacher? This kind of confession undermines the work of a lifetime. It can be claimed that Spender has only said what many had believed for years. He was aware of hostile criticism, was made unhappy by it, especially when eager as always to see his name in print he would read some damning remark a short time before appearing before a packed hall. He tries to squirm out of the implications of what Virginia Woolf said about him and quotes Isaiah Berlin as agreeing that it is a great honor merely to have been mentioned by her (with honors like that, who needs the thumbscrew?). Why this urge to be mentioned? Why this urge to be approved if your work is no longer real or valid in your own eyes?

We return, finally, to the matter of the modern poet and his public or, in the case of performers, his audience. When crowds turned out to hear Dylan Thomas, they went because they felt that there, in debased form, wrecked by self-indulgence and too much publicity, was a throwback to the Bard, the poet as half-brother to the shamam or high priest, drawing on some unwritten authority and, to paraphrase Whitman, convincing by his presence. Thomas, at his best, touched the tone and power of a man with the talent to bless, exalt, and redeem; and this is why he impressed those who might have been repelled by the willful obscurities of his poems.

Spender has never been able to create any authority in his poetry, and the nearest he comes to this is in his autobiography World within World, which still remains a powerful work of confession. What shook his faith in himself? Was it the public life he plunged into with such relish—as he so powerfully suggests—? Was it the more powerful genius of Auden (who patronized Spender and, he suspects, laughed at him behind his back)? Or was it simply that Spender attempted the impossible in trying to be the last Romantic?

Certainly the Auden connection is more constricting than one had thought, and Spender devotes many pages in his journals to recalling him and meditating on his work and personality. The final portrait is unappetizing. According to Spender, Auden told him that the London Times wanted him to write Spender’s obituary. He asked Spender for some basic biographical details. Spender commented: “Later I thought I would like him to say somewhere that my life was in some way ambiguous, like one of those arranged photographs, which if you look at it from one direction has a different face from that which you see from another.”

Spender’s ambiguity may mean that it is, in effect, his primary quality. It is part of the ambiguity that a man who did not, on his own confession, know how to write poetry, should teach it; it is part of the ambiguity that Spender hands over all the arms to attack him. His detractors have to invent nothing. Auberon Waugh, son of Evelyn, reviewing the Journals in the London Daily Mail, chose not to see ambiguity so much as a superior kind of confidence trick, maintained over a lifetime.

“What is interesting about Spender’s situation, as a human being, is the illustration it affords of how membership of the official literary establishment in Britain has nothing to do with literary achievement or wit or originality, or talent, or anything else except wanting to belong to it.”

There’s a certain truth in this and yet it only tells half the story. Such a blanket dismissal ignores so much in the journals that prove that Spender has had an extraordinary life—as a witness—and he has brought an unusual capacity for friendship and tender sympathy to his relationships with many people, many of them exceptionally distinguished, some possessed of genius. Behind all this there is an enormous disappointment: that poetry, his first and greatest love, failed him. The very last entry shows the obsession has not passed: “I kept on thinking of writing poems about time. One would be about past, present, and future. . . .the future moves across the page from left to right, the past from right to left as in looking glass writing. I see the past as in a looking-glass.”

By this time, alas, the reader knows that the poem will never be written, and so we leave our hero still dreaming his impossible dream. While marveling at the triumph of hope over experience, it might also strike some as an odd note on which to end the book. Surely, for a man who has so much, who enjoyed the gregarious, public life, and who had known so many successful people, we should have started applauding as the curtain comes down on the newly knighted Establishment figure, the day Mr. Spender knew he was to be “Sirspender” for the rest of his life.

Going back to the appropriate entry I realized that it did not have quite the major chord effect I had imagined. Even this honor was not an unalloyed pleasure since Spender understood that the poet he ought to have been would not have accepted an official honor—and from a Tory prime minister—at any cost.

“10 May (1983): A letter from the PM’s office saying she was recommending me to the Queen for a knighthood. Although I’ve all too often said I would never accept this, when I got the letter I realized at once that I would do so, both for myself and for Natasha [his wife]. There are those I respect for despising such things—they are the best. . . . Also there conies a time when one craves for recognition—not to be always at the mercy of the spite, malice, contempt—and perhaps even the just dismissal—of one’s rivals. . . . Many of those I most respect have refused honours, and that they have done so is their supreme honour.”

Fatal ambiguity: just what is Spender trying to tell us about himself?


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