A poet's life measured out in silver spoons
DIARIES: New Selected Journals 1939-1995, By Stephen Spender, edited by Lara Feigel and John Sutherland with Natasha Spender, Faber and Faber, 792pp. £45
‘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 at that,” Stephen Spender confided to his journal. A poet who measured out his life with silver spoons, Spender was a semi-professional party-goer and party-giver. Reading his gregarious Journals, we too become guests at the damask-covered tables, flies on the flock-papered walls, encountering some of the intellectual and artistic royalty of the age.
Those on Sir Stephen’s A-list include Virginia Woolf, WH Auden, TS Eliot, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Igor Stravinsky, Iris Murdoch, David Hockney, Henry Moore, Isaiah Berlin and Alfred Brendel. Classified by an airport check-in clerk as a “near-celebrity”, Spender – a socialist turned socialite – was the perfect dinner guest, to the top table born: a lively, congenial conversationalist who could hold his own with anyone, from Danny Kaye to Jean-Paul Sartre, from Charlie Chaplin to Czeslaw Milosz, from Jacqueline Onassis to Michel Foucault. Affable, clubbable, personable, he was tall, handsome, satisfyingly dreamy, deliquescent and “poetic” in appearance.
Spender’s triple-A standing as a poet in the 1930s has now been downgraded by the literary credit rating agents to junk status; some reputation regulators deem his stock to be mere laughing stock. But the less one has read of his work, the easier it is to dismiss it; indeed, one suspects that many of his most contemptuous mockers scarcely deigned to read his derided writings before they dropped him from their anthology guest lists.
The best of Spender’s essays and critical writings are highly engaging and illuminating, as are his Journals 1939-1983 (1985), the forerunner of the present book. His enthralling early autobiography, World Within World, for which even his more vocal naysayers can sometimes muster a grudging good word, is outstanding. One of the most perceptive introductions to poetry and its interface with politics, Life and the Poet, printed on wartime economy paper and ignored for the past 70 years, deserves a permanent place in print. Having, in that book, set out his criteria for great poetry, he strained too hard to attain this exalted level in his own work. Instead of relaxing into a natural style, his verse is marred with poeticisms, rhetoric, sepia-tinted language that never seems quite “fit for purpose”.
Something of the innocent abroad, the “romantic youth astray in a terrible world” identified by Austin Clarke in a spirited 1939 review, survives throughout Spender’s verse-writing life. It is when, as in the riveting Port Bou (one of his Spanish Civil War poems), he adopts a concrete, conversational style that he is at his most impressive. But many modest successes and memorable lines notwithstanding, his status in the aristocracy of poetry is decidedly that of a minor royal, a very distant heir to the Auden throne.
Plagued by self-doubt, Spender was only too aware that the “great immortal work” had eluded him. “After my early poems, I had somehow lost my way in my poetry,” he confessed to the American novelist Reynolds Price (one of the men with whom, happily married though Spender was to his second wife, the pianist Natasha Litvin, he conducted a homosexual affair). Hospitalised due to a serious fall in 1980, he had “a flash of my whole life’s achievement”: “It seemed to me a succession of botched beginnings, of tasks inadequately done, perhaps a few real achievements. These of which there were a dozen jewels on a refuse dump of failures; filth.”
WH Auden – whose earliest poems were first published in 1928 in a pamphlet hand-printed by Spender – is recalled as “not at all like other people and of an inhuman cleverness”. But those, Auden included, who “produced masterpieces” are “not the happier for it”: “The person who makes a work that is immortal may have sacrificed the fullest realisation in his life of his own personal existence in order to do so.”
Apart from the shambolic Auden (whose lair resembled “the habitation of a mole – some animal that works underground and sees nothing”), numerous other writers and artists are astutely and wittily evoked and assessed – painters and sculptors not least. This book will be profitably ransacked by future scholars and biographers.
There is, however, a great deal more to these journals than a menagerie of the artistic and aristocratic. When released into the wild, Spender roams the globe, returning with forage from places ripe for reportage: war-devastated Germany (where he served the Allied Control Mission); newborn Israel (to which he travelled with the sponsorship of the Jewish Committee of Refugee Children); post-Mao China (resulting in China Diary, a book collaboration with David Hockney). Meanwhile, the US (“so large, / So friendly, and so rich”, as Auden quipped) supplied the lucrative visiting professorships and reading circuits that became the mainstay of his otherwise precarious finances.
This meticulously edited and comprehensively annotated new selection from Spender’s journals focuses less than the equally indispensable 1985 edition on Spender’s “thoughts about poetry”. It foregrounds “the more intimate thoughts and feelings of the private man” and his work as a public intellectual – co-editing Encounter, until it was revealed to be CIA-funded, serving as a Unesco literary counsellor, prompting the founding of the noble Index on Censorship, and contributing to countless high-minded committees, conferences, seminars and debates.
Among the entries in the 1985 edition that Irish readers will miss from this new book is one in which Jack Yeats and Mrs George Yeats gossip about the artistic and domestic failings of John B Yeats (“the governor”). Also omitted is an amusing wartime anecdote about Louis MacNeice. Utterly silent and detached as he surveys fellow-guests at a party “through half-closed eyes”, the famously aloof Belfast-born poet is informed undiplomatically by ambassador Clerk-Kerr that he is the living confirmation that “a school of seals went on shore and interbred with the people living on . . . the coast of Ireland”.
More smiling dolphin than saturnine seal, Spender – whose mellow final collection of poems is called Dolphins – was affectionately and admiringly remembered, both as poet and friend, by Ted Hughes. Hughes (poet laureate, and no stranger therefore to major royalty) cherished Spender’s charm and cultivation, qualities that imbue these welcome, engrossing and timely Journals: “He drew you immediately into his sphere, where you were enveloped in overflowing, generous, happy feelings, passionate sympathies and great sweetness.”
Dennis O’Driscoll’s ninth book of poems, Dear Life (Anvil Press), was published recently. His forthcoming books are The Outnumbered Poet: Critical and Autobiographical Essays (Gallery Press) and, as editor, A Michael Hamburger Reader (Anvil Press)