World within World: Stephen Spender 05.07.2011

Last night, the Free Word Centre hosted a discussion of the life and work of Stephen Spender, one of the founders of Index on Censorship magazine. The event was organised jointly by Index on Censorship and English PEN. The panel was charmingly chaired by Dr Lara Feigel, who is currently editing a volume of Spender’s letters. The speakers were Lord Grey Gowrie, the editor of Stephen Spender: Selected Poems; poet Alan Jenkins and John Sullivan, who wrote Spender’s biography.

In the interests of “sexual equality”, Dr Lara Feigel began the event with a series of photographs of Spender which were taken at various points in his life. They showed him as a student at Oxford; on the beach with his boyfriend Tony Hyndman, and with his second wife Natasha Litvin. Feigel introduced the event with some biographical details of Spender’s life. She recounted how he started at Oxford but did not take a degree from there, before going to the Spanish Civil War with the International Brigades.

Much of the discussion centred on Spender and his peers’ experience of the war in Spain. Spender was there to report for the Communist Party of Great Britain, whose leader had told him to: “go and get killed; we need a Byron in the movement”. Lord Grey Gowrie commented on how this historical period has received more media attention recently. It has been 75 years since the start of the conflict, which could explain this. He read Spender’s poem, Ultima Ratio Regum, which concerns the futility of war and uses the word “silly” in various ways to describe the death of a very young man.

Lord Grey Gowrie recalled Alan Jenkins earlier comment that Spender himself had been described by other poets as “silly”, notably by Auden, whom Spender “hero worshipped”. Jenkins suggested that, with the exception of Elliot, these other poets “looked down on Spender”. This was partly down to the archaic style which Spender adopted, which led to the comment that he should be saved for Lyric poetry. Auden criticised him for his use of “apostrophes to Time, History and Freedom”, which contrasted with the fresher, newer writing styles which were fashionable.

Alan Jenkins seemed to agree with these criticisms. He recalled how impressed he had been by Spender’s early works when he read them as a 15 year old boy, but how when he returned to them later he realised that they were often clumsy and less technically good. This countered Lord Grey Gowrie’s claims that the first book of poetry contained Spender’s best work, which was why he included the whole book in his Selected Poems. Age seems important to the appreciation of Spender’s work, both his own age at the time of writing, and the age of the reader. I did take slight exception to the suggestion that at 23, he was too young to be taken seriously, and categorised with the 15 year old Jenkins. This is a personal qualm, though, since I will turn 23 later this month…!

John Sullivan made a further suggestion to explain the fluctuating quality of Spender’s work. He suggested that when Spender was happier his poetry was less good. Jenkins qualified this by saying that it was also as he became more famous that his poetry suffered. He read The Double Shame, a deeply moving poem which Spender wrote when his wife left him for another man. This was a clear example of how well he could write during periods of suffering.

Spender’s personal life was also the subject of discussion. His sexuality has been much debated, but John Sullivan said people were “wrong to say that Spender wasn’t brave” about his homosexuality. He pointed out that he could have been penalised for publishing “World within World” much as Oscar Wilde was. Muriel Gardiner was credited with converting Spender to heterosexuality, as well as to communism. Lord Grey Gowrie spoke fondly of the “love poetry” Spender wrote for his wife and children, ending with a touching recital of a poem written for his daughter Lizzie.

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