Sir Stephen Harold Spender (1909-1995), poet, critic, translator, travel writer, and English man of letters, first came to prominence as a poet of social protest in the 1930s.
Stephen Spender was born February 28, 1909, the son of well-to-do, accomplished parents. His father, Edward Harold Spender, was himself a novelist and journalist. Stephen attended the University College School and then matriculated at University College, Oxford, where he became active in both literary and political circles, editing university poetry anthologies and debating current issues while forging his own poetic style.
Spender was of the first generation for whom World War I had ceased to be an important symbolic experience (as it had been for such writers as Aldous Huxley and Evelyn Waugh). For him, rather, it was the economic and political dislocations which followed—labor unrest; rising unemployment, especially after 1929; the upsurge of Fascist-Nazi totalitarianism—which fired a lively imagination from the first, both poetic and critical. Although he had a long and creative career, continuing in productivity well after World War II, Spender will probably best be remembered as part of a twin spearhead of English social protest (with his friend W. H. Auden) of the 1930s. Other poets in this group included C. Day Lewis and Louis MacNeice.
The poetry of these young poets tended at first to be too precious, marred and obscured by an excessively private imagery, but Spender's deep sympathies with ordinary people enabled him to simplify his expression for a more direct communication in Poems (1933), the first significant collection of his work. Here, in "Without That Once Clear Aim," he lamented that "on men's buried lives there falls no light." The ideal affirmed was a democratic socialist one:No spirit seek here rest. But this: No man Shall hunger: Man shall spend equally. ("Not Palaces, An Era's Crown")
Spender praised the concept of a collective industrialism: the owner-worker, joyously contributing his labor as part of a meaningful community:They think how one life hums, revolves and toils, One cog in a golden singing hive. ("The Funeral," 1934)
With the development of a growing, menacing fascism on the European continent during the 1930s Spender's industrial images, in protest, became enriched by the addition of those from modern warfare. (Spender spent considerable time in Germany during these years.) The dictator's ticking bomb explodes, silencing the heartbeat of a civilian child:The timed, exploding heart that breaks The loved and little hearts. ("The Bombed Happiness," 1939).
For Spender, the most important political event during these years was the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). Along with many of his generation, he saw this conflict as a dress rehearsal of the titanic conflict between democracy and totalitarianism which was to culminate almost immediately afterward in World War II. Partisanship for the Republican side in Spain, against the eventually triumphant General Franco, inspired Spender's poetry. Some of his best work from this time was collected as Poems for Spain (1939). Earlier, in the same vein of politically radical expression, are Vienna (1934), a long didactic poem, and Trial of a Judge (1937), a verse play. As a critic defending the imaginative writer's social role Spender made a significant prose statement in The Destructive Element (1934).
At the end of the 1930s, when the nature of Stalinist rule had become more evident—especially after the Stalin-Hitler pact of 1939—Spender became disillusioned with Russian Communism (this process having begun with a falling out at a writers' conference in Spain two years earlier). Especially eloquent testimony of this disenchantment with Communism can be found in Spender's essay in The God That Failed (1949).
During World War II Spender served as a fireman in the National Fire Service. An earlier marriage, to Frances Marie Inez in 1936, had been dissolved, and in 1941 he married again, to Natasha Litvin, with whom he had a son and daughter. After the war Spender worked for the United Nations, serving as counsellor for the Section on Letters of the U.N. Economic and Scientific Committee (UNESCO) in 1947.
Another aspect of this writer's contribution was his editorial work. He co-edited Horizon magazine from 1939 to 1941; later he held the same post with Encounter (1953-1967). As a latter day romantic and social critic, it was not surprising that Spender was drawn to sympathetic figures from the past: he edited a book of Shelley's verse (1971) and a volume of D. H. Lawrence's writings (1973). Two years later he paid homage to an old friend by editing W. H. Auden: A Tribute.
A particularly happy aspect of Spender's postwar life and work was the numerous positions held on the New World side of the Atlantic. He held the Elliston Chair of Poetry, University of Cincinnati (1953) and the Beckman Professorship, University of California (1959); he was poetry consultant to the Library of Congress (1965); he gave the Clark Lectures on Poetry in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1966 and the Mellon Lectures in Washington, D.C. in 1968. Other teaching positions in the United States were at Cornell College, Vanderbilt, Connecticut, Loyola, and Northwestern. He was an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In England, Spender was professor of English, University College, London University (1970-1977). He took this position after becoming interested in the student radicalism of the 1960s, which he analyzed in The Year of the Young Rebels (1969). Spender was awarded the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry in 1971 and was knighted in 1982.
He was also a translator of note. Spender's rendition of Shiller's Mary Stuart appeared in 1958 and was produced at the Old Vic Theater three years later. He translated the entire Oedipus Trilogy in 1983, staged by the Oxford Playhouse that year. World Within World, his autobiography, appeared in 1951; Learning Laughter, a record of his travels in Israel, the next year. Throughout this entire postwar period Spender continued to write poetry, collections of this verse appearing from time to time: Poems of Dedication (1946); Collected Poems (1954); Selected Poems (1965); The Generous Days (1971); Collected Poems 1978-1985 (1985); and Dolphins (1994).
In 1993, Spender filed a plagiarism lawsuit regarding a novel which he asserted was taken from his own autobiography. The suit was settled in 1994. He died in London on July 17, 1995.
Other books by Spender included a reminiscence, The Thirties and After (1978); China Diary (1982), another travel piece (with David Hockney); an anthology of short fiction, Engaged in Writing (1958); and a collection of his journals 1939-1983 (published in 1986). D.E.S. Maxwell analyzed Spender's poetry in the context of his early contemporaries in Poets of the Thirties (1969). W.D. Jacobs wrote a shorter critical assessment, "The Moderate Poetical Success of Stephen Spender," in College English 17 (1956). The poet, Joseph Brodsky, wrote a lengthy commentary, English Lessons from Stephen Spender for the New Yorker (1996), in which he reminisced about his 23-year friendship with Spender. □