obituaries: Sir Stephen Spender

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The commanding figure of Sir Stephen Spender, leaning like a tall crane above a city skyline, has been so familiar a sight at literary gatherings around the world that its absence from now on will add considerably to the insecurity and friendlessness of the age.

Throughout his long and varied career, Spender was the symbol of youthful promise in poetry, the proof that the fresh qualities of idealism and innocence which we assume, however mistakenly, to be the hallmark of the poet can survive all the long littlenesses of life, including modulations of fashion and the wit of competitors. The negative catchwords about Spender were really tributes to him: "the Rupert Brooke of the Depression" looks now a better nickname to have been given than many which were bestowed in that "low dishonest decade" - even Auden's, as "the Kipling of the Left".

But Spender's idealism was only one part of his paradoxical nature. He was a brilliant journalist, a gatherer and virtuoso presenter of ideas, and a shrewd judge of people and art. G.S. Fraser used to assert that Spender was the closest approach to a continental intellectual that Britain could muster, and Spender's many books of criticism and comment support this, from The Destructive Element (1935), through The Struggle of the Modern (1963) to Love-Hate Relations (1974). Spender also wrote countless pieces of generous and well-informed journalism. It is often from such byways that I find myself remembering his apercus, as with his British Council pamphlet Poetry Since 1939, brimming with sound and original judgements of his contemporaries, and with his Faber booklet on the paintings of Botticelli.

He was fortunate in his friends, so that by living long he became the survivor of a great generation of writers, perhaps the last native-born poet to dominate the English-speaking world. At Oxford, W.H. Auden was his close friend and remained so till Auden's death in 1973. In Spender's Journal, Auden is recorded as returning to talk to him in his dreams. It was Spender who started Auden's publishing career, with a small collection of poems partly printed on a hand-press in 1928.

A touching and witty account of the undergraduates Auden, Isherwood and Spender makes up the first third of Spender's autobiography, World Within World (1951). This is one of the 20th century's great biographies: in it Spender's endearing Boswellian honesty about himself and his motives enables him to present a portrait of a generation and a country unrivalled even in the works of such great truth-tellers as Orwell and Koestler. His vulnerability was always one of Spender's strengths.

As a child of a political decade, Spender's literary progress was tied up with the fight between Communism and Fascism. After Oxford, he spent years in Europe's trouble spots - Dollfuss's Vienna and the Spain of the Civil War particularly. In the Second World War he firewatched in London and helped Cyril Connolly edit Horizon, a literary and cultural journal dedicated to a way of life which Connolly remembered from before the war.

After 1945, in the years of austerity, Spender plunged back into literary politics, now orientated to the dominant culture of the time, the United States. An early member of the Congress of Cultural Freedom, he founded Encounter, which he edited jointly, first with Irving Kristol and later with Melvin Lasky.

This was a period of the testing of loyalties when literature was seen as a weapon in the war of ideology. At the time of the founding of Encounter, Spender contributed a chapter to Richard Crossman's The God That Failed (1949), an anthology of articles describing intellectuals' disillusion with Communism, but his own disenchantment never turned him into a right- wing fanatic or professional apologist for capitalism. He remained a liberal, as did Auden, but unlike Auden he did not lose patience with newer forms of poetry and art. Indeed, Encounter in his days was an open forum for writers of all kinds and, if its tone was robustly anti- Communist and its pages were sometimes over-full of Kremlin-watchers, nevertheless it was against witch-hunts and willing to print the writings of experimenters and consolidators alike.

Spender resigned from the magazine when an American leak revealed that funds for Encounter had come from the CIA. It is difficult to see why this mattered, given that the fiction and poetry was never asked to toe any line, but some of Spender's closest colleagues, including Frank Kermode, resigned with him and stressed that none of them had known of the CIA's involvement.

In 1970 Spender was appointed to the Chair of English Literature at University College London. Ever the internationalist, he continued to travel the world, attending conferences and inspiring generations of students. In 1983, he was knighted. More impressive than the many honours which marked his approach to the status of Grand Old Man was Spender's unabating concern for the stuff of writing itself. He worked hard to the last: performing, reviewing and editing. Even in his seventies, in one year (1985) he published three major books - a compilation drawn from his massive private journal, the latest recension of his Collected Poems, and his condensation into one play of the Oedipus/Antigone trilogy of Sophocles, this last being one of his most audacious and successful ventures.

Spender did not escape some of the unpleasant consequences of his combination of celebrity and longevity. In this age of biographical obsession, he was inevitably chosen as a suitable subject for treatment of the more revelatory and controversial sort. A man so willing to use himself as subject-matter, egotistically but not self- justifyingly, was bound to face the exegesis of less scrupulous explainers. On entering his eighties, he was confronted by an unauthorised study of his life by Hugh David. Much worse was the use made of certain passages from World Within World by the American novelist David Leavitt in his novel While England Sleeps. The plagiarism was plain but what caused Spender's annoyance was Leavitt's vulgarly modern sexual explicitness, an unjustified fictionalising of a human relationship which in Spender's original had been presented in a baffled but reticent manner. On this occasion, after litigation was set in motion, Spender was vindicated and Leavitt's book was pulped in Britain, though it appeared throughout the rest of the world. Both Spender and his wife protested that authors today are defenceless against would-be biographers, whose policy is to seek out all warts on their subjects' portraits and underline whatever they can find.

It was always Spender's poetry which was the ultimate touchstone of his busy literary life, and many people believed that he had not kept proper faith with his poetic talent. Perhaps his own doubts about what he had written contributed to this belief. His Collected Poems was more savagely winnowed as time went on than even the canons of such devoted detonator- removers as Auden and Robert Graves.

Spender's verse written in his twenties stands up well to re-reading. "My Parents" touches us the more for Thom Gunn's sneers, and "What I Expected" shares with early Auden the excitement of a new and terse lyricism. Vienna, though a sprawling poem, has great originality and should never have been allowed to go out of print. "Ultima Ratio Regum" remains one of the few poems which keeps faith with the political convictions of the Spanish volunteers.

One thing never deserted Spender - his conviction that poetry is divine fire, the true voice of feeling. His best work conjures up a nimbus rather than a sharp outline, but lines like the following are etched firmly enough:

Clean silence drops at night, when a

little walk

Divides the sleeping armies, each

Huddled in linen woven by remote


When the machines are stilled, a

common suffering

Whitens the air with breath, and

makes both one

As though these enemies slept in each

other's arms.

His 85th birthday added the coping-stone to the edifice of his life's work in poetry when his collection entitled Dolphins was published. It contained his finest lyrical writing for many years, being haunted by subtly transformed images from Eliot and Holderlin and suffused with a valedictory gentleness.

"But behold where on high

The entire ink-black sky

Is diamonded

With stars of great poets

Whose language unfetters

Every Alphabet's letters

Interweaving through Time

In rhythm and rhyme -

Where the living shall read

The more living - the dead!"

Stephen Spender was born in 1909 into the family of a Liberal politician, and his education and upbringing were orthodox for his class, culminating in his undergraduate years at University College, Oxford. His first marriage to Inez Pearn ended in the Thirties. By his second wife, the concert pianist Natasha Litvin, he had a son, Matthew, now a successful painter living in Italy, and a daughter, Lizzie, an actress and writer, married to the superstar Barry Humphries.

He was seldom discommoded by the passage from any private to any public world, but like Rilke, whom he and J.G. Leishman translated so effectively, he knew that it is day-to-day events which give the angels the words they need to cry out to us from heaven. All who knew Spender will lament his death, and go on hoping to glimpse his head high above the crowd.

Peter Porter

Stephen Harold Spender, poet and critic: born London 28 February 1909; co-editor, Horizon 1939-41; counsellor, Section of Letters, Unesco 1947; co-editor, Encounter 1953-67; CBE 1962; Professor of English, University College London 1970-77 (Emeritus); Kt 1983; books include Poems, the Destructive Element 1934, Vienna 1934, The Burning Cactus 1936, Poems for Spain 1939, The Still Centre 1939, Ruins and Visions 1941, World Within World 1951, Collected Poems 1954, China Diary 1982, Journals 1939-1983 1985, Collected Poems 1930-1985 1985, Dolphins 1994; married 1936 Inez Pearn (marriage dissolved), 1941 Natasha Litvin (one son, one daughter); died London 16 July 1995.