3 minute read

Sir Stephen Spender (Sir Stephen Harold Spender) Biography

(1909–95), (Sir Stephen Harold Spender), Nine Experiments, Twenty Poems, The Temple, New Signatures, New Country

British poet and critic, born in London, educated at University College, Oxford. As a student he began his lasting friendship with W. H. Auden, whose poems were first collected in an edition of thirty copies hand-printed by Spender in 1928. While at Oxford he also produced a pamphlet of his own poems entitled Nine Experiments (1928), which was followed in 1930 by Twenty Poems. After graduating in 1929, he travelled in Germany with Christopher Isherwood and drafted his novel The Temple; originally rejected by his publisher as pornographic, the book did not appear until 1988, having been reworked to form a substantially autobiographical evocation of the Weimar Republic at the time of Hitler's ascendancy. The inclusion of his poetry in Michael Roberts's New Signatures (1932) and New Country (1933) gained him notice as a member of the group of politically conscious poets which also included Auden, Louis MacNeice, and C. Day Lewis; Spender's poem ‘The Pylons’, typifying the group's tendency to employ emphatically contemporary imagery, suggested the term ‘Pylon Poets’. With Auden, Isherwood, and MacNeice, he was associated with the Group Theatre, which produced his play Trial of a Judge (1938). Poems (1933) contains much of his best-known verse, which frequently displays his ability to fuse documentary realism with a resonantly idealistic tone of lyrical exaltation. His political preoccupations are apparent in the critical study The Destructive Element (1935), which acclaims the writings of Auden and Edward Upward for their respective exemplification of the socio-political mode in poetry and prose fiction. He was a propagandist for the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War, an interlude which resulted in numerous memorable poems collected in The Still Centre (1939). A member of the Communist Party in 1936 and 1937, he argued that communism was an authentic extension of the liberal tradition in Forward from Liberalism (1937), one of the Left Book Club's most noteworthy publications. From 1939 to 1941 he assisted Cyril Connolly in the editorship of Horizon. He was a member of the National Fire Service in London between 1941 and 1944; his experiences of the bombings inform poems in Ruins and Visions (1942), in which the increasingly meditative and personal nature of his verse becomes apparent. His disengagement from doctrinaire socialism is already discernible in Life and the Poet, a critical work of 1942, and is clearly recorded in the autobiographical World within World (1951), a central document in the intellectual history of the 1930s. The critical study The Creative Element (1953) establishes the position of philosophically affirmative humanism which forms the basis of all his later work. He was co-editor of Encounter from 1953 to 1966 and a founder of Index on Censorship in 1972. In 1970 he became Professor of English at University College, London. His post-war collections of poetry include Poems of Dedication (1947), The Edge of Being (1949), and Sirmione Peninsula (1954). His subsequent output as a poet is largely represented by additions to successive collected editions of his work, among them Collected Poems 1928–1985 (1985). The volume contains much new verse marked by a refreshing directness of tone and shrewdly understated accomplishment. A subsequent volume of poems, Dolphins, appeared in 1994. Among Spender's other publications, which include books on art, travel, short stories, and numerous translations, chiefly of German works, are Love–Hate Relations: A Study of Anglo-American Sensibilities (1974) and the personal and cultural recollections of The Thirties and After (1978); his Journals, 1939–1983 appeared in 1985. He was knighted in 1983.

Additional topics

Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: Souvenirs to St Joan of the Stockyards (Die heilige Johanna der Schlachthöfe)