Stephen Spender: New Selected Journals 1939-1995, edited by Lara Feigel and John Sutherland with Natasha Spender, Faber & Faber, 792pp, £45 (hardback)
‘Oh, Stephen Spender has his head in the clouds!’ ‘Yes, but he has a damn good radar.’ This exchange, overheard by John Gross at a literary soirée in the 1960s, neatly frames the curiously unworldly worldliness exhibited by Stephen Spender. Reviewing Spender’s autobiography World within World (1951), Cyril Connolly, a friend – albeit an unusually cruel and sardonic one – discoursed upon Stephen (I) ‘an inspired simpleton, a great big silly goose, a holy Russian idiot’ and Stephen (II) ‘shrewd, ambitious, aggressive and ruthless’. Spender was certainly shrewd and ambitious, possessing a discerning eye for the main chance; otherwise, apparently gullible and absent-minded.
Puritans reacted indignantly to the rise to cultural eminence narrated in World within World. After dismissing Spender’s credentials as poet and critic, F. R. Leavis asked: ‘How, then, comes the question, did Mr. Spender, with such disadvantages, achieve his confidence in himself as a poet, critic, and an intellectual? Or how (to put it another way) did he achieve recognition as such, so that for years now he has been an established value, and a major British Council export?’ The answer was that Spender was a leading light of the ‘Auden Generation’ who boldly addressed the social misery and political turbulence of the 1930s in a strikingly modern idiom. Leavis ridiculed T. S. Eliot’s publisher’s blurb championing Spender as the ‘lyric poet … of this poetical renascence’, and yet at his best Spender possessed a crisp, stirring lyric voice that owes more to the romantic legacies of Blake and Shelley than to the mythology of ‘MacSpaunday’, that identikit boyish Oxford laureate of drab, post-industrial scenery and left-wing panaceas. Spender paid homage to Auden as a mentor but from the outset his own poetry displayed a struggle for sincerity, passionate intensity and rhythmical power quite distinct from the ‘Audenesque’.
If Spender’s Poems of 1933 was celebrated as heralding a new talent, for Leavis and his disciples this writer was the epitome of the rotten metropolitan literary world: the attrition of ad hominem attacks throughout the 1930s eventually undermined Spender’s youthful self-confidence to the point where the writing of poetry became an activity fraught with difficulty. In many ways, the burden of instant success along with the pressure to respond to alarming political events inhibited his creative freedom. Spender’s poems were deeply introspective, self-exploratory, at times confessional. As the decade wore on, sensitive personal tones were sacrificed to platform oratory. Responding to Auden’s remark that he was an autobiographer manqué, reinforced by Eliot’s praise for his handling of portraiture and dialogue, Spender turned his hand to the genre of journal writing. Here the example of André Gide’s journals, probing the artist’s craft and sexual desire, could be combined with a type of ‘clever mocking brittle manner’ perfected by Bloomsbury acquaintances. Keeping a journal came naturally, fluently to Spender and by contrast with his growing unease over publishing poetry, he was happy to see his journals appear in print: first in Horizon, the monthly magazine he launched in wartime with Connolly and Peter Watson; then in the 1950s and 1960s in Encounter and in the mid-1970s in Alan Ross’s London Magazine. At his death in 1995, Spender’s journals – published and unpublished, but always penned with ‘the sense of a reader looking over my shoulder’ – approached a million words.
As an eye-witness account of momentous historical events; as an intimate record of some of the finest writers of the twentieth century; in his disarmingly vulnerable apercus on life, politics, literature, music, painting and art, Spender’s journals may yet be his most lasting achievement. This new selection spanning fifty-five years, edited by Lara Feigel and John Sutherland with the assistance of the author’s late widow, Natasha, opens with his 1939 ‘September Journal’, set down at a time when public tension over the war with Germany was exacerbated by Spender’s inner turmoil over his desertion by his first wife, Inez. It is followed by his 1945 ‘Rhineland Journal’ – Spender toured the area officially as part of a post-war Allied drive to ‘deNazification’. Together these journals offer a compassionate retrospective on the failure of the political and sexual liberation of the Weimar Republic, placed in stark relief in cities wrecked by carpet bombing, their inhabitants traumatised after twelve years of Nazi rule. The distinguished scholar, Ernst Robert Curtius, who had translated Spender’s poems of erotic yearning into German in the heady days of Weimar, is revisited in the ruins of Bonn, bereft of his library, a sour figure expressing his disgust with his fellow countrymen. Spender’s decision to print (and reprint) his version of their conversations occasioned a rebuke from Eliot, a mutual friend. Those who were exposed by Spender’s indiscretions disputed how much his vignettes owed to accurate reportage and how much to creative license. Their literary quality, the result of careful composition, could embellish the imperfections of memory. There is no disputing, however, the drama of his Dickensian evocation of bomb damaged Cologne:
The girders of the Rhine bridges plunged diagonally into the black waters of the Rhine frothing and swirling white around them. They looked like machines of speed driving into the river, their beautiful lines emphasising the sense of movement. Or where they do not swoop like javelins or speedboats into the river, broken girders hang from piers in ribbons, splinters and shreds, a dance of arrested movement. In the destroyed German towns one often feels haunted by the ghost of a tremendous noise. It is impossible not to imagine the rocking explosions, the hammering of the sky upon the earth, which must have caused all this.
At the end of the war, Spender carved out a high-profile career as a cultural ambassador. Among the best offerings of previously unpublished material are notes from Spender’s 1950 interviews with former Communists (Silone, Koestler, Malraux) on the future of Europe – a fascinating supplement to the Cold War propaganda of The God That Failed. From 1953, Spender’s job as literary editor of Encounter, whose liberal anti-Communism was bankrolled by the Congress for Cultural Freedom (although his salary secretly came from the Foreign Office), facilitated a good deal of junketing of the kind caricatured by Graham Greene as plenary lectures in Taormina on such topics as ‘The Intellectual and the Hydrogen Bomb’. In spite of, or because of, his fractious relations with his American co-editors (‘They are all Philistines’), Encounter was the liveliest political-cultural magazine of the day and Spender’s address book was the source of many of its triumphs. His ‘Notes from a Diary’ serialised in Encounter contains some excellent travel writing: sharply observed reports of writers’ international conferences independently complicated the magazine’s ideological mission. Spender was highly sensitive to accusations that he had been corrupted by American money, once responding to William Empson’s taunts by emptying a wine glass over him. The literary editor understandably resented not being told that Encounter was actually funded by the CIA, although entries from this period record a number of occasions when friends and enemies attempted to let the cat out of the bag. (On a 1960 visit to Moscow, Guy Burgess shocked Spender by referring to him as an ‘American agent’.) He likened his manipulation to confronting rumours that one’s wife is having an affair: the gallant husband is obliged to accept denials of impropriety at face value. This metaphor takes on a somewhat different colouring when read in the light of Feigel’s assertion that Spender’s marriage ‘did not preclude his falling passionately in love with a series of young men’.
In order to pay the family’s bills, Spender was absent from London for long periods on lecture tours and teaching creative writing courses at American universities. His lonely brooding on arid campuses from Tennessee to Cincinnati recounts some bizarre social encounters amid the longueurs of this uncongenial lifestyle, furnishing a few tragi-comic anecdotes – for instance, the students who thought they had turned up to listen to the poet Edmund Spenser and the delicate diplomacy required to extricate ex-Comrade Spender from the clutches of a McCarthyite witch-hunt laid by a student magazine. The humour of such stories owes much to their deadpan delivery, in which both guest and host appear ridiculous. These episodes are also tinged with darker tones of regret, a slightly mawkish acknowledgement that his writing career, if not quite on the rocks, is in the doldrums. Yet these journals keep the writer afloat: the ghosts of unfulfilled promise are chased away by friendships and long-distance amours, most notably with Reynolds Price and Bryan Obst. Love affairs with much younger men provoked tortured, guilt- ridden examinations of his divided sexuality. It is clear from Spender’s journals that he experienced intense longings for both men and women. While homosexual friends such as Auden, Isherwood and John Lehmann commented archly on Spender’s efforts to go straight, his marriage to Natasha Litvin brought with it a hitherto unknown bedrock of long-term stability and happiness. According to Spender: ‘Marriage is ultimately an agreement – or conspiracy – between two people to treat – each of them – the other as having the right to be loved absolutely.’
Some of the most attractive journal entries dwell with a quizzical, paternal tenderness upon his children, Matthew and Lizzie. The family home at Loudoun Road in St. John’s Wood was a magnet for intellectuals and celebrities where the fortunate visitor might marvel at Auden, Eliot, Isaiah Berlin, Stravinsky, Charlie Chaplin or Barry Humphries (Lizzie’s husband) casting off sparkling obiter dicta, to be snagged by the diarist’s dutiful notebook for posterity. The author of an article on name dropping, these journals are sprinkled with references to everybody who was anybody. Feigel observes of the aged Spender that the ‘circumference of his world moved gradually inwards until it came to include only his home and his family’, but this family’s social circle always revolved around a nucleus of brilliant minds. Their second home in Provence, whose luxuriant garden was carefully nurtured by Natasha (her career as a concert pianist was curtailed by cancer), provided a welcome retreat for fellow writers. Iris Murdoch (who visited often with John Bayley) used the region’s white pitted limestone crags as the backdrop for her novel Nuns and Soldiers (1980), a work which Spender felt suffered from the lack of ‘an adequate form for conveying her view of people and life’. Both the London home and the French pied à terre were hives of good company, food and conversation.
As his years lengthened, Spender had the strange ‘feeling that all my dead friends have walked through a door which through some kind of backwardness I have not walked through’. His personal memoirs of the dead are compelling, conjuring a personality in a few strokes. If the
‘truly great’, in Spender’s soaring invocation, ‘left the vivid air signed with their honour’, down-to-earth dealings with them could be extremely testing. These journals sift through his ambivalent memories of Woolf, Eliot, Auden and Connolly with some envy on his side and the whiff of condescension on theirs. Spender winced reading Woolf’s published diaries, where he discovered her characteristically acid assessments of taking tea with this ‘loose jointed mind’ who thinks himself the greatest of all poets but who will prove a ‘prodigious bore’. ‘O blessed Virginia,’ Spender laments sarcastically, ‘help me in my old age not to be a bore.’ (Living up to Woolf’s standards of table talk would have taxed Coleridge, let alone a naive poet in his twenties.) Spender records with gratitude the many of acts of kindness from Eliot, his avuncular publisher, but Spender glimpsed a chilly, reactionary side of Eliot’s character in their meetings. With Auden, the hero worship of a wild, insecure undergraduate gave way to a growing resentment at his friend’s supercilious manner. Spender’s pat psychological interpretation of their sibling rivalry sees literal penis envy as the bone of contention; yet Auden’s success in branding their literary decade was surely also a factor. In 1979, Spender mused: ‘did I really like Wystan [Auden]?’ Yes, but not entirely. Connolly was a more serious offender, apt to lavish his malicious wit on Spender – in his absence. His co-editor at Horizon excused himself for describing Spender on BBC radio as an ‘indifferent poet with outstanding clumsiness of mind and a very bad ear’ because the broadcast had been intended for Indians! It is to Spender’s credit that he was able to pull out such barbs in good humour.
Spender recognised that unlike his knighted friends – Isaiah Berlin, Stuart Hampshire and A. J. Ayer – concentrated philosophical analysis was not his forte. Feigel is correct to say that his reflections upon politics and history are ‘idiosyncratic and partial’. The success of these journals lies in their literary impressionism: rendering the glancing surfaces of the social comedy of everyday life, which he bravely strained to capture with honesty. Snobbery, vanity, weakness, indolence, anger, jealousy and other less-than-deadly sins stalk these pages, as well as bolts of downright rudeness (Americans bore the brunt of Spender’s English upper-middle- class hauteur); the effects are amusing and engagingly human. Spender wore the mantle of public intellectual (the family trade handed down by father and uncle, prominent Liberal journalists) as an ill-fitting garment. He was painfully self-conscious about the absurd figure he cut before a new breed of intellectual impatient with notions of duty or deference; he was aware that his insatiable appetite for glamorous parties, as for self- publicity, was withering his lyric gift.
The London Magazine was a catalyst in the renaissance of Spender’s late style. The experimentalism of his ‘diary poems’ produced some accomplished work. In the summer of 1979 a trip to the Lake District located the farm where in 1917 Harold Spender had read Wordsworth to his family. ‘I have extremely vivid memories of those weeks in the Lake District,’ Stephen recalled, ‘of walks through rain-showers which suddenly cleared: the woods gave off an exhalation of pine-scent: drops of rain hung on the curled ends of fern and bracken; large black slugs, which delighted me, crawled along the paths.’ The plainspoken Wordsworthian recasting of this journal entry, entitled ‘Worldsworth’, was published in the London Magazine in 1992:
And on the road’s far side
A ditch, and caves, where ferns Unfurled heraldic tongues
Of glossy green which, under,
Concealed the dark brown spore.
But more than these I loved
The maidenhair fern with
Stalk fine as the coiled Hairspring in my watch –
Its leaves minute green spots.
Then, from the road, a path
Led through a wood whose branches
Seemed high as a cathedral
Sculpting out from shadow
Its own interior, within
Whose hush we stood, and watched
Under our feet the rain,
Dripping from that branched roof,
Collect into small puddles
On which huge black slugs drifted
Like barges on the Thames.
Ted Hughes admired the ‘clean, precise, concentrated evocation’ of ‘Worldsworth’. The leitmotif of these journals, however, sounds a cry for all the poems not written; while his published poems were endlessly rewritten (few commentators have felt the older man’s revisions represent an improvement). Successive editions of Spender’s Collected Poems have had persuasive advocates, but a question mark still hangs over his greatness as a poet. The importance of his autobiography and of his journals, first-hand testimony from the long-lived survivor of the Auden ‘Gang’, will continue to attract new generations of readers. The emergence of the self-ironising journal writer from the ashes of an ardent lyric poet is a metamorphosis worth embracing.
Doubts about his failure to write the ‘truly great’ poetry he felt was his destiny were partly assuaged by public honours – a CBE in 1962; Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress in 1965-6; and in 1983 a knighthood. Extending beyond Spender’s own 1985 selection (edited by John Goldsmith), Feigel and Sutherland’s generous sampling of journals from the last ten years of his life reveals another side of this elder statesman of letters as he stoically prepared for death, cushioned from slights or spite by his loving, beloved family. The wisdom reserved for retirement enabled an escape from ‘hectoring youth, journalistic middle age, imposture, money- making, public relations, bad writing, mental confusion’. As early as 1975 he had counselled the seemingly hard pressed Karl Miller to cultivate a Goethean optimism. His own happiness, he came to realise, was ‘partly because I live too much in the day and therefore on the surface. Lack of self-pity combined with selfishness. Also gratitude for my family, for my children’. His thirst for fame finally quenched, he could now think of the striving of the young with equanimity: ‘One feels they are play acting and that when they have left the party, the office or their spouse, they will take off their masks and stage clothes, and become the children again.’
Feigel and Sutherland’s judicious editing of this impeccably annotated New Selected Journals helps us better understand the mixture of compassion and ambition jostling behind Spender’s enigmatic mask as the wisest fool in literary London. When Auden and Spender were preparing Times obituaries of one another (like two undertakers wondering which would lay the other out, quips Sutherland), Spender noted: ‘I thought I would like him to say somewhere that my life was in some ways very 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.’ This enjoyable gathering of well-rounded tableaux permits fresh insights into the private faces of Stephen Spender, a wry commentator on social mores. Loudly breaking wind in Covent Garden (after five hours of Wagner) to the cheers of teenagers, this public figure, scion of Victorian moralists, worries whether he should be ashamed. The iconoclasm of this public gesture and its public telling suggests he should not.