Over a 65-year career, Stephen Spender wrote scores of poems, hundreds of reviews and essays, and arguably one of the finer memoirs of the 20th century. And yet he may end up better remembered for a cab ride. In 1980, Spender battled a lost wallet, an octogenarian driver, and 287 miles of dismal weather to taxi from a lecture in Oneonta, N.Y., to a dinner date with Jacqueline Onassis in Manhattan. (“I simply had to get there” is the breathless quote detractors are happy to supply.) Fairly or unfairly, Spender’s reputation as a toady has steadily consolidated, while his reputation as a poet has steadily declined. His most recent defender, John Sutherland, over 600 pages of an otherwise reverent biography, makes only the meekest case for Spender the literary artist. “They never stopped trying,” Sutherland writes on Page 1 of Stephen Spender: A Literary Life, alluding cryptically to unidentified enemies. “But somehow his quality (and I would argue, his literary greatness) weathered the assault.” It’s nice to know Sutherland would argue it; maybe one day he will. In his current book, though, the case for Spender’s greatness stays parenthetical, optative, and firmly stuck on Page 1. So we’re faced with an interesting question. Why has every decade since the ‘30s bothered to rough up an “indifferent poet,” as Spender’s good friend Cyril Connolly once described him? Why has oblivion consigned Stephen Spender to posterity?
Spender first emerged in the ‘30s as part of a coterie of Oxford prodigies that included Louis MacNeice, W.H. Auden, Cecil Day-Lewis, and Christopher Isherwood. In a round robin of mutual admiration, the poets dedicated their early books to one another and soon came to be known, somewhat derisively, as “Macspaunday.” If a coterie is incidental to a genius, as it certainly became to Auden, it can get rung around the neck of a lesser talent; and Spender has never quite lived down the suspicion that he was little more than a well-placed satellite. He produced indifferent poems—”Hope and despair and the vivid small longings/ Like minnows gnaw the body” is a fair sampling—but he was deft at courting the great, to whom he appeared pleasantly unchallenging. “A loose jointed mind,” Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary after one encounter, “misty, clouded, suffusive. Nothing has outline …we plunged and skipped and hopped—from sodomy and women and writing and anonymity and—I forget.”
Not surprisingly, this was not a personality that organized itself around abiding convictions. To piece together his literary life, Spender went high and went low. He weekended with the Rothschilds at Mouton, and he trundled as a stipendiary from American college to American college. When Auden told him to stick to poetry, he dutifully complied, just as he complied when Auden later told him to write nothing but autobiographical prose. He fell into the reigning Oxford cult of homosexuality, and just as easily fell out of it. Communism was a brief, intense fascination—he even announced his party membership in the Daily Worker—but the depth of the party’s hatred of the bourgeoisie finally only baffled him. Before the war, Spender was gay, Communist, and a poet of reportedly blazing promise. Soon after the war, Spender was a husband, a liberal demi-Cold Warrior, and a thoroughly bland cultural statesman.
Both he and Auden posed an answer to a question that has, always and everywhere, overwhelmed poets, but had lately taken on new powers of vexation. That question was, what does a poet still have to offer a modern world? Auden answered it with great, painstaking care, and correctly, or at least importantly; Spender answered it facilely, and incorrectly, or unimportantly. To understand their answers, one has to have some appreciation of the atmosphere of the 1930s. As self-pleased as Auden and his circle were, they were also deeply serious poets-in-the-making, who to a man wanted to address themselves to—and change—the world. The modern poet is “acutely conscious of the present isolation of the individual and the necessity for a social organism which may restore communion,” wrote Cecil Day-Lewis in 1933. “The majority of artists today are forced to remain individualists in the sense of the individualist who expresses nothing except his feeling for his own individuality, his isolation,” Spender wrote in the same year. How to restore public communion, when public speech is increasingly being given over to sloganeering—or, worse, aggression and persecution? History, they felt, had handed them a choice, to be aesthetes or to be propagandists, and with their collective heart they hated the choice.
Consequently, two seemingly contrary complaints have been lodged against the Auden generation. The first was that they naively overcommitted themselves to political causes. “The literary history of the thirties,” Orwell wrote, in the essay “Inside the Whale,” “seems to justify the opinion that a writer does well to keep out of politics.” The second was that, enamored of their own feline ambivalence, they lacked any conviction whatsoever. The confusion is not baseless. Even in his mature poetry, Auden can appear as both a dealer in hopelessly obscure private parables and the over-explicit schoolmaster. But this confusion was also the source of Auden’s triumph, which was to rescue from a debased public life the possibility of genuine, eccentric human intimacy; and to rescue from intimacy, in turn, something like a quasi-public idiom. “We need to love all since we are/ Each a unique particular/ That is no giant, god or dwarf,/ But one odd human isomorph. …” This was the task of the poet, then; to remind people they were fully human, which is to say, not reducible to convenient ends by dictators, or for that matter, by corporate managers or mass marketers. And to remind them in a language that bore no trace of manipulation or officialdom.
How did Spender answer the question poorly? To begin with, unlike Auden, Spender seemed to possess no guile whatsoever. “When the muse first came to Mr. Spender, ” Randall Jarrell once wrote, “he looked so sincere that her heart failed her, and she said: ‘ask anything, and I will give it to you,’ and he said: ‘Make me sincere.’” Sincerity is a nice enough virtue in acquaintances, but it keeps a literary voice from carrying. His poem about meeting the French phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty begins, “I walked with Merleau-Ponty by the lake.” Part of the problem, apparently, was that Spender was averse to loneliness; and so he crammed his life with luncheons and international symposia. Visiting D.H. Lawrence’s widow, Frieda, in New Mexico, Spender treated himself to six weeks’ isolation on the ranch where Lawrence’s ashes were laid. Later in life, Sutherland tells us, Spender recalled this as the “only time in his life that he had truly experienced loneliness (a condition he normally abhorred). During these lonely weeks he produced a first draft of what would become World Within World.” Is it any accident this remains his one eminently readable book?
The larger defect, though, was that Spender, as perfect counterpoint to his facile idea of the revealed self (the original title for World Within World was “Autobiography and Truth”), maintained an equally facile belief in the poet’s duty to projects of large public renovation. In the postwar years, Spender jetted from conference to conference, as if something as delicate and strange as poetry might be featured as part of the Marshall Plan. For his part, Spender was indefatigable, lecturing at one point on how the modern writer “is a kind of superegotist, a hero, and a martyr, carrying the whole burden of civilization in his work.” For their part, modern writers were happy to take Spender’s handouts, then disparage to others his missionary naiveté. “I met Spender a few weeks ago,” Dylan Thomas wrote to a friend. “It was very sad. He is on a lecture tour. It is very sad. He is bringing the European intellectuals together. It is impossible. He said, in a lecture I saw reported: ‘All poets speak the same language.’ It is a bloody lie: who talks Spender?”
Exactly. Who talks Spender? Though cruelly arrived at, this is the rub. No one talks Spender, just as no one talks Esperanto. Until we are firmly rooted in our strange selves, we cannot begin to speak to others meaningfully. Conversely, if you start from that lovely ideal, of culture as a universal idiom, you quickly find yourself softened into a nonentity. (This is why Auden, I suspect, was willing to court the disgust of the high-minded when he wrote, in his elegy for Yeats, that “poetry makes nothing happen.”) The aim of serious writing isn’t statesmanship, proximity to the rich, or the production of culture, whatever that is. People lock themselves in rooms, and tolerate the sound of their own inane voices on the page, to rescue from “the most recent cacophonies … the delicate reduced and human scale of language in which individuals are able to communicate in a civilized and affectionate way with one another.” Here at last I quote admiringly from Stephen Spender. He was writing about his recently deceased friend, W.H. Auden.