In paths of light
For Paul Binding, a fine new biography of the poet Stephen Spender brings back memories of a gentle friend too often scorned by critics
Sunday 16 May 2004
The New Collected Poems of Stephen Spender (l909-l995), edited by Michael Brett, ends with two poems between hard covers for the first time: "Timothy Corsellis" and "The Mythical Life and Love of DH Lawrence". They form an appropriate coda for a writing life of some 65 years. Timothy Corsellis, whom the poet met but once, in a London pub during the blackout, was a Battle of Britain pilot moved by the sane, unflagging respect for humanity's diversity and resilience that he found in the famous magazine Spender co-edited, Horizon. "Timothy Corsellis" is a reminder of Spender's ability to communicate personally with all who valued the feeling life. After the war he proved himself an invaluable mentor to many younger writers, and a magnetic lecturer and teacher on two continents. Spender first attempted a poem honouring the dead Corsellis in l941, but didn't write anything he wanted published till the year of his own death, l995. The persistence is typical, and fittingly it is with this fine poem that John
The New Collected Poems of Stephen Spender (l909-l995), edited by Michael Brett, ends with two poems between hard covers for the first time: "Timothy Corsellis" and "The Mythical Life and Love of DH Lawrence". They form an appropriate coda for a writing life of some 65 years. Timothy Corsellis, whom the poet met but once, in a London pub during the blackout, was a Battle of Britain pilot moved by the sane, unflagging respect for humanity's diversity and resilience that he found in the famous magazine Spender co-edited, Horizon. "Timothy Corsellis" is a reminder of Spender's ability to communicate personally with all who valued the feeling life. After the war he proved himself an invaluable mentor to many younger writers, and a magnetic lecturer and teacher on two continents. Spender first attempted a poem honouring the dead Corsellis in l941, but didn't write anything he wanted published till the year of his own death, l995. The persistence is typical, and fittingly it is with this fine poem that John Sutherland ends his surely definitive authorised Life.
Spender believed that most artists make from their lives mythological constructs, Lawrence being an extreme - and admired - example: that is, they raise certain events, encounters, relationships to a metaphoric level, rendering them parts of universal as well as individual experience, and so providing what he called "a grammar of images". Spender was anyway one of the most autobiographical of creative writers, and so one opens Sutherland's life anticipating the sequence of identities which poems and stories, and the superb memoir, World Within World (l95l), have already made familiar, often to the extent of our assimilating them into our own selves. Here is the sensitive boy in a prosperous, cultured but tense North London household; the unconventional undergraduate under the uncompromising tutelage of the precocious, two-years-older Auden; the enthusiast for the Weimar Germany of sun-cult and Kameradschaft, the vanguard discerner of the evil strength of Nazism; the champion of Austrian Socialism and of the Spanish Republic when his own emotional life was torn between the pressures of a heterosexual present and a homosexual recent past; the dedicated internationalist determined to do his best for Britain during the war years; the happy young husband and father; the later passionate opponent of totalitarianism, unafraid to lambast the Soviet Union and its British apologists even if this meant that he incurred charges of moral defection.
But Sutherland has uncovered with patience and acute intelligence the many-layered soils from which all these avatars grew, and which the artist in Spender tended. For example, his father, the well-known Liberal journalist, Harold Spender, had enlightened attitudes and bold stances by which his son must have been, if reluctantly, impressed. Auden, though revered, accounted for comparatively little in his younger friend's development of style; diffident he may have been, but Spender knew his own literary mind. The influence on him at that period of Isaiah Berlin, with whom he'd regularly attend the Salzburg Festival, was quite as essential to his evolution. The apostrophist of his small son at play and his cot-bound daughter was also a parent worrying about the best to do by them and how financially to manage it. The regular visitor to America (and celebrant of its energy and its literature) would always need time in the London he loved, and in the English countryside, and increasingly in the second home his wife Natasha created for them, in the mysterious Alpilles of Provence. Nor, for all the success he enjoyed in the US (unequalled by any contemporary British writer's), did he spare himself the thinking person's anguish over Vietnam and, later, the crass Reagan administration.
John Sutherland has carried out his work with a strong belief in his subject's "literary greatness". If this means the ability to embody in an organic artefact unique perceptions of particular situations that reveal the deeper forces behind them, then I am in a good position to testify to Spender's. I spent my early childhood in the ghastly, inhuman after-world of Occupied Germany, German-surnamed in a largely Germanophone household. When in my young manhood these years began to preoccupy me, it was, after extensive literary explorations, Spender's writings which helped me most: the poems of Ruins and Visions (l942) which Sutherland rightly believes then to have been his strongest collection to date, and the more elusive, metaphysical ones of The Edge of Being (l949) especially the courageous, ambivalent "Responsibility: The Pilots Who Destroyed Germany, Spring l945", and, in prose, "European Witness" (1946) with its final exhortation: "The only answer to this past and this present is a conscious, deliberate and wholly responsible determination to make our society walk in paths of light." Grateful, I contacted Spender. We became good friends; this friendship, lasting from the mid-1970s to his death, was of inestim-able importance and pleasure to me.
So much so that for me he has never died. His bearing and manner - amiable, gentle, often solicitous, always lively, irreverently humorous, yet ever serious too, talking in a first-hand way about an extraordinary range of subjects, personal, political, cultural and literary - are with me still. Nobody was less pompous, less self-important, but his infectious ease and inclusive sensitivity were offset by formidable moral sharpness. Sutherland's Spender I find eminently recognisable; this is a most understanding portrait. Inevitably I have differences, of emphasis not content. The untangling of the perplexed intricacies of Encounter and its funding takes up too much space, space which could have been spent on Spender's response to landscape, so integral to his writing. I suspect too that he was far more agonisingly and constantly haunted by Hitler's Reich than is apparent here (he read everything about it!). But Sutherland is very good indeed on Spender's relationship to other arts than literature, on the importance to him of, say, Moore and Stravinsky, and on the atmosphere of his home with Natasha both in Britain and in Provence. Above all, while saluting the even now startling originality of Spender's early poems - Poems l933 received enormous acclaim - he sees his literary achievements as constituting a forward-moving trajectory. In so doing he shows up the mean-spirited habit-blindness of too many English critics who, vociferously and during a sadly sizeable proportion of his life-time, elected (the right word!), because in thrall to Leavis, to regard them otherwise.
Michael Brett has dispensed with Spender's own strange willingness (in previous Collected editions) to consign a majority of his poems to libraries, and given us, complete, all his published volumes of poetry, together with poems published ephemerally. Continuously Spender strove to express the near-inexpressible; Rilke, in his metaphysical questing, was the greatest single influence on him. Yet one is struck again and again by the poems' felt particularities, and, too, by how many of the most successful actually post-date the period he's generally associated with, the Thirties: the wonderful "Seascape" in memory of his brother, Michael (marrying the private and the natural worlds), "Sirmione Peninsula", "If It Were Not", "Worldsworth" (sic), testament to childhood, England and Wordsworth, "Late Stravinsky Listening to Late Beethoven", and now, "Timothy Corsellis". These should, along with many others, become the inward companions of all who care about humanity and the arts.
'Stephen Spender: New Collected Poems' is published by Faber, £30 (£27 free p&p from Independent Books Direct). 'Stephen Spender: the Authorised Biography' is published by Viking, £25 (£22.50, free p&p). Call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798897.
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