An airline ticket clerk, examining the author’s credit card in Seattle, asked him if he was related to the poet Stephen Spender. Assured of his customer’s identity, the clerk expressed his pleasure: ‘Gee, a near-celebrity.’ No doubt the status of full celebrity was reserved for movie stars and ball-players. At any rate there is little doubt that Spender is the most celebrated of living English writers, known pretty well all over the planet he has so assiduously traversed. His fame, moreover, is deep as well as wide, for he has been a celebrity for well over half a century, part of the history of every decade from the Thirties to the Eighties as well as one of its chroniclers.
His career has a political dimension (Spain and, very briefly, Communism, independent intellectual participation in the Cold War liberalism of the Fifties and Sixties), but that was inevitable and anyway not very distinctive. In their own way, the New York intellectuals of the period described the same trajectory from left-wing rebellion to establishment spokesmen – from bitter theological disputation about Trotsky to a comfortable acceptance of fame and in some cases fortune. But Spender has qualities even the best of them lack, charity being one and humour another; above all, he has remained capable of fresh and intense perceptions of people, landscape, painting, music. And although the kind of life he has led – as writer, traveller, journalist, editor, critic – makes very severe demands on his energy (so must the cultivation of so many warm friendships), he has always been what the airline ticket-collector called him, a poet. His juniors have not always thought well of his verses, and in spite of Auden’s pronouncement that it was his capacity for humiliation that made him a poet, there were periods when he declined to publish verse out of fear of reviewers. He has evidently got over that worry, and now at 76 produces another Collected Poems – an earlier one appeared in 1955. The poems he has chosen to preserve, from almost sixty years of work, are only enough to fill 180 pages.
The severity of this culling he attributes to a change in his way of judging his poetry. Whatever now seems confused or verbose is dropped, and many poems are rewritten to conform more closely with original intentions still remembered. As in the earlier Collected Poems, most of the anthology pieces are left untouched; in a sense, as he said thirty years ago, they no longer belong to him, and in any case he thought he needed to own up to such poems as ‘The Pylons’ and ‘The Funeral’ (‘They record simply/How this one excelled all others in making driving belts’) which also have a certain historical interest. As it happens, ‘The Funeral’ has now disappeared.
The poems that remain are sometimes quite drastically rewritten; some of them, already purged for the 1955 Collected Poems, are now purged again. This kind of revision has been done before, with rather mixed results. Yeats did violence to his early poems, sometimes converting them to an inappropriate modern harshness; nobody seems to like John Crowe Ransom’s reworkings; and Auden’s revisions and exclusions sometimes seem petulant or even perverse, as if he had decided not to understand his own poems. Since the original versions remain accessible this is not a matter of high importance: still, one is bound to try to understand the motives that prompt these renovations. Sometimes they are a mature desire for tidiness and lucidity, sometimes the poet thinks he has caught himself out in a fraud, and one can see why. But I confess I don’t know why Spender has turned against what seem to me among his finest poems, the group in Ruins and Visions about the end of his first marriage. It is not a compensation for the loss of ‘No Orpheus, No Eurydice’ to have revived an early poem about Van der Lubbe. However, a new section labelled ‘Ambition’ includes the candid and interesting poem ‘The Public Son of a Public Man’, and of course there are also poems, many of them about family and friends, written since 1955.
It has often been remarked that Spender’s manner has changed far less than might have been expected over so long a career; the potent influences of Auden and Eliot were early assimilated, and the moods and fashions of half a century have left them pretty well untouched. Of course he has changed and now wants to be rid of things that seem palpably false, though in their own day they perhaps had a bold propriety. Thus the following lines from ‘Not Palaces’,
Drink from here energy and only energy
To will the time’s change.
Eye, gazelle, delicate wanderer,
Drinker of horizon’s fluid line,
originally, and even in the 1955 Collected, had between the first and second lines ‘As from the electric charge of a battery’. It was part of the period dialect and is now merely bizarre.
There are other instances of profitable rethinking. ‘The Uncreating Chaos’, a long poem from The Still Centre (1939), was much revised in 1955 and is now revised once again. It is greatly changed, and its final section, already one might have said well-wrought, is not exempt. That these renewed attentions are valuable is evident from a comparison between 1955 and 1985:
The simple machinery is here
Clear day, clear room, plain desk,
The hand, symbol of power,
Here the veins may pour
Into the deed, as the field
Into the standing corn.
The simple machinery is here
Clear room clear day clear desk
And the hand with its power
To make the heart pour
Into the word, as the sun
Moves upward through the corn.
This same poem tells us that lucidity is holy, and these corrections are devoutly intelligent. Now the poem uses the hand instead of making it a symbol and dismissing it, and it is more appropriate than ‘veins’, just as ‘word’ is more proper than ‘deed’, to the act of writing poetry. The notion of field pouring into corn is acceptable but hardly lucid; the revision is for the good. And it is as if the nearly homophonic ‘power-pour’, which by hindsight we see was doing very little in the older version, is now put strongly to work. This is by no means the sole example of successful revision in the new Collected Poems.
The allusion to Rilke in ‘The Uncreating Chaos’ has gone, and so has the paraphrase of ‘Orpheus Eurydice Hermes’. But a general affinity with Rilke is still evident. It arises, perhaps, from a tendency to allow a great gap between idea and image, a sacrifice of simple metaphoricity to a sort of aura or luminescence. Though Spender’s later tendency is to cut down on this sort of thing, it is often effective, as in the last stanza of the many-toned poem ‘The Public Son of a Public Man’:
O father, to a grave of fame I faithfully follow
Yet I love the glance of failure, tilted up
Like a gipsy’s amber eyes that seem to swallow
Sunset from the evening like a cup.
This is an elaborate conceit, but very unlike those of the Metaphysical poets Spender admires for knowing so much and putting what they knew to such use. A Donne conceit surprises because in defiance of probability it works out, but here we have a conceit that surprises and makes its effect by not working out: there is no neat fit. You might expect the glance of failure to be downward, not tilted up like the eyes of somebody looking at a sunset. Then, why a gipsy, and why amber eyes, unless by affinity with some sunset tint? And why is the figure of the gipsy developed in another figure, of drinking with the eyes from the cup of the sky? In this way the whole notion of ‘the glance of failure’ is enormously elaborated so that it includes the notion of something beautiful as perceived by a person extraordinarily well qualified for such perceptions by his own beauty, his own outsider status, his difference: so that it is only in this variety of failure that success can be found.
Collected Poems ends with some choruses from the Oedipus plays of Sophocles, and Spender’s abridged version of the three plays is separately published in full. It is based on a script he produced for performances at Oxford and Cambridge in 1983, though apparently little is left of that draft. Spender remarks, in a Journal entry of the mid-Seventies, that he felt optimistic about having a Final Phase, and he has certainly been remarkably prolific in the past decade. Among other things he has completely rewritten his Thirties verse play Trial of a Judge, and in that as well as in these versions of Sophocles we may detect traces of the theatrical ambitions common among the poets of his youth. Spender’s natural diction is not obviously theatrical, and the old Trial failed for that reason, but here he has a theatrical text to work with, and a developed passion for plainness, so the Greek plays come through very well. They are cannily abbreviated, and both the dialogue and the more exalted lyrical passages are under control. In the versions of Sophocles’s choruses a modern translator cannot help remembering the reckless magnificence of Yeats, and I think this is in part why Spender tends to keep everything rather tight. The great Colonus ode is remarkably compressed; Aphrodite gets left out, the olive loses its grey leaves; and the line ‘Nor youth nor age can cause it damage’ is so terrible that it can only be explained as a failed attempt to keep out of Yeats’s way. The final chorus of Antigone is simply left out, and the address to Dionysus severely cut; though it ends well as it stands –
For whom the stars move and their breath is fire –
it hardly tries to give us Dionysus, the lord of dancing. Altogether the choruses are less richly rendered than they are in the translation by Robert Fagles, but the austerity is deliberate and this whole work is very cool and restrained. It results from an independent approach to Sophocles, and the introduction offers a personal reading of the plays which is both interesting and quite unlike the way the professionals talk about them.
Nobody who reads through the books so far discussed will want to deny that Spender is right to have thought of himself always as a poet. Yet it is also characteristic that he turned to Sophocles because somebody asked him to, and that having done so he gave himself with such determination to the task. In this instance it was a task for a poet, but that has not always been so. The Journal often registers misgivings about his inability to resist invitations; all things can tempt him from this craft of verse. That he has printed these passages in what, ample as it is, must be only a selection from his manuscript, gives an idea of the anxiety such defections have caused him.
Even the full text of such journals is bound to be a selection – nobody writes everything down. Asked by a friend whether in his journal writing he is entirely candid, Spender replied: ‘I did not feel impelled to be (or rather, I felt impelled not to be – that is what I meant).’ The private rephrasing of the reply is a retrospectively candid acknowledgment of a necessary lack of candour. But given these limits the journals are manifestly honest records. Spender knows he has enjoyed life more than most people, despite an undertone of regret at the ways in which a modern man of letters is obliged to make his living, and a certain vulnerability that makes it easy for enemies, or even friends, to hurt him. Auden, a very close friend, never really gave up his undergraduate practice of saying wounding things, largely because he rarely changed his view of anybody, and Spender was always for him the naive, crazy young Oxford poet, a sort of holy fool for whom he felt some respect precisely on that account. There are tales of Auden treating him thus, and inducing him to play the role as necessary, though Spender always records these occasions with the dry wit of an onlooker. Some of the moral pedantries of Auden were worth setting down, even if they only confirm attitudes already well-known. Thus Auden remarks that Yeats was untruthful when he said he wanted, after his death, to be a form such as Grecian goldsmiths make, for ‘no one has ever wanted or could want such a thing. Besides, it is not for him to decide what will happen to him.’ Equally characteristic is his response when Allen Ginsberg began to sing him his musical settings of Blake: ‘Won’t you please stop? Hearing people sing songs they’ve composed embarrasses me terribly. I can’t bear it.’ Spender of course listened to the songs, which were not painful and sounded rather like hymns, so that Auden ought to have enjoyed them.
Other friends also took him, as he says, with a pinch of salt; in his deepest friendships – with Auden, Isherwood and, rather surprisingly, Ernst Robert Curtius – he was the object of raillery. When Virginia Woolf’s diaries were published he noted certain rather insulting allusions to himself; accepting them without rancour, he prays: ‘Oh blessed Virginia ... help me in my old age not to be a bore ... I’m struggling at the end to get out of the valley of hectoring youth, journalistic middle age, imposture, money making, public relations, bad writing, mental confusion.’ And, like the rest of us, he has moments (one in the emergency ward of the Royal Free in Hampstead) when he looks back at a life of ‘botched beginnings, of tasks inadequately done’. There are gloomy self-appraisals: ‘Distracted, 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, day by day, in a routine of undertakings external to my own inner tasks – reviewing, editing, party-going, travelling, attending conferences, Unesco, Encounter, teaching. Thriftlessness, extravagance, folly.’ Whatever else it meant to be a public figure, to work and travel for Unesco or the Congress for Cultural Freedom, it was plainly not good for writing poetry, the work he felt born to do. At 30 he wrote that he had ‘a prejudice in favour of poetry, a romantic feeling about the poet, a desire to achieve immortality’. But there were many other things, closer at hand, to achieve: and at 70 he remarked that ‘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 as that.’ And we see him abashed by the single-mindedness of an Allen Ginsberg, or the mad self-dedication to the idea of poetry he found in Harry Fainlight.
Yet this is so far from being a life of self-indulgence that it has obviously called for extraordinary stamina and an immense capacity for work, as well as for strenuous pleasures. Sometimes, in old age, he complains of fatigue or jet-lag, about the difficulty of keeping pace with his life. He muses at a Lord Mayor’s banquet (which he enjoys) that this isn’t the poetic life. But instead of going back to ‘clear day clear desk’ he is off to Japan or Russia or China or anywhere, but especially to the USA, where he has spent a large proportion of his days. It is a subject he is almost always sad about. As a young man he had found in Weimar Germany a surplus of peace (‘No one knows what to do with all the German peace’), but with the increased accuracy of maturity he finds in America an incessant, unpeaceful quest for certainties: a sameness, an insularity that informs even the great generosity of the people. Their kindness to other less privileged nationals ‘is like the kindness of people to invalids’, he writes; and ‘Dissect an American mind and you finally arrive at an odourless transparent concept.’ Everything must be explained or labelled. Everywhere is the same, despite superficial attempts to assert a measure of individuality. That quality is found only in small groups, cliques of writers and artists.
Mostly his time in America has been passed as a lonely campus celebrity, known to all and knowing hardly anybody. Obviously he loathed it. He writes with particular gloom during a stay at the Holiday Inn in Nashville (I read this with informed sympathy). In the lowest of spirits he complains thus: ‘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.’ Since he has all these things the comparison with Macbeth seems overdrawn; and in any case he preferred this way of life to being at University College, London, which he left in order to resume it.
But I suppose these moments of desolation – the ennui of the Holiday Inn or the campus apartment – can seem all the more depressing because the not quite available alternatives are so attractive. These pages name what could certainly be called a troop of friends – painters, poets, novelists, dons, statesmen, most though not all of them eminent. He has a memory for their quips and oddities, as he has for anything bizarre that he happens upon. In October 1945 he met a young German who told him that Ernst Jünger was a devil, explaining that he meant by this ‘a person who is aware of himself as a unique part of existence’ unrelated to the social and political structure around him. By this test Hitler was not devilish enough for his job. In the ensuing conversation it turns out that Spender’s own poetry, written as if by an individual isolated from the universe, is pretty diabolical. The poet does not report that he contested this judgment.
Perhaps the most memorable absurdity is the conversation between Stravinsky and Eliot when Spender first introduced them, Stravinsky claiming that his blood was uniquely thick and Eliot that his was thin beyond all precedent. This has some of the quality of the many absurd conversations Spender reports from Japan. Other splendid moments: a doctor telling him that he could see from the X-rays that the poet had eaten pheasant the previous day, and there they were, ‘the four black pellets sputtered through my intestines as though I were a shot pheasant myself.’ Or John Grierson making one of his films about the heroic proletariat and angry at the admonitions of Auden and William Coldstream when they urged him to cut the line ‘Ever on the alert, this worker lubricates his tool with soap.’ Or an assistant at the New York Museum of Modern Art writes him a new membership ticket calling him ‘Mr Spent’. When Spender says that is not his name the assistant replies: ‘That may seem important to you, but I assure you with what’s written on this ticket they’ll let you in.’ A feminist in the audience asks him why he didn’t say the pylons were like nude giant men.
The mood is not always one of complacent reminiscence or self-searching complaint. He can be sharp, too. He attacks Strauss’s Salome as insufficiently perverse: ‘the utmost extent of perversity of which Strauss would have been capable would have been to kiss the lips of a dead Alpine cow and therefore his imagination doesn’t enter into the perversity of his theme.’ This is rather violent, and indeed the poet does have rare outbursts of furious temper, especially perhaps in Nashville. There he dined with a very rich couple – gold knives, forks and goblets – and was sickened by the Philistinism of the husband, so rising and leaving, he cried: ‘I hope we never meet again.’ But his hostess, quite unperturbed, followed him out, drove him home, and offered her services as chauffeur the next day.
He is occasionally a bit sharp with friends, especially with Sonia Orwell, but also with Cecil Day Lewis and John Lehmann; no more, perhaps, than was usual in the literary community of his youth, or perhaps no more than it is usual now. He envies the young a little, but only for their sexual liberty. By and large it sounds like a happy life, nourished by the senses as well as by ideas, by a receptivity to at any rate some people, and by a huge capacity for work, which is, after all, probably the most effective antidote to the horrors of life. Spender never complains of writer’s block. There have probably been more hours of melancholy, probably also more hours of what he calls ecstasy, than the journal or this bit of it records. But it makes a highly attractive self-portrait, an excellent likeness since it is serious and amusing and quite unlike anything or anybody else.