One of the early poems with which Stephen Spender made his name opens like this: "My parents kept me from children who were rough."
In 1957, in The Sense of Movement, Thom Gunn proclaimed: "I praise the overdogs from Alexander / To those who would not play with Stephen Spender."
Not long afterward two distinguished Englishmen of letters decided that "Stephen" had earned his very own limerick, and wrote,
Then up spake the bold Stephen Spender
"You may think my conscience is tender.
You might think my heart
Was my sensitive part—
But you should see my poor old pudenda."
In a long life Spender never quite succeeded in overcoming the widespread impression (which he may have privately shared) that there was something vaguely preposterous about him. His official biographer, John Sutherland, perhaps unwittingly and certainly unwillingly, provides armfuls of ammunition for this view. He does not cite either of the cracks I have just mentioned, but he does give the passage below, taken from Spender's memoir World Within World. In 1930 T.S. Eliot had decided to publish four of the young man's poems in the Criterion, and furthermore invited him to lunch.
At our first luncheon he asked me what I wanted to do. I said: "Be a poet." "I can understand you wanting to write poems, but I don't quite know what you mean by 'being a poet,'" he objected.
I think this is quite funny on its own, but additionally so because it inverts what ought to be the proper Jamesian scenario—the stuffy English don admonishing the brash young American student. Be that as it may, Stephen Spender was to pass a great deal more of his life "being a poet" than he ever did writing poetry.
The thought lay about him in his infancy (which was marked by an awful father, a frightful elder brother, and a hideous torment of a boarding school education—so far, "on track" for English writing). At the age of nine he went to the Lake District on a family holiday and was exposed to "the simple ballad poems of Wordsworth," which, as he further phrased it, "dropped into my mind like cool pebbles, so shining and so pure, and they brought with them the atmosphere of rain and sunsets, and a sense of the sacred cloaked vocation of the poet." He was already, in other words, what Byron witheringly called "a Laker." An early school poem sustains the same note of moist wonderment about the weather, yearning for the spring in Devonshire but opening, "The rain drops from the mist endless and slow / The trees are bare and black … "