A Nice Bloody Fool

The vaguely preposterous Stephen Spender spent a great deal more of his life "being a poet" than he ever did writing poetry. And yet beneath the surface he had a pith of seriousness and principle

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 … "

This culminates in the line "O God! … would I were there." Sutherland misses a trick, I think, in failing to point out the obvious debt to Rupert Brooke and his Grantchester, inspiration of drooping and sensitive versifiers at that time and since. (Ten years later Geoffrey Grigson was dryly to say, in reviewing Spender's book The Destructive Element, "Stephen Spender is the Rupert Brooke of the Depression.")

Indeed, it was above all the sense of an epoch, and of a decade, that allowed Spender to get away with "being a poet." Crucial to this image were his friendships from Oxford days with W. H. Auden, Louis MacNeice, Christopher Isherwood, and Cecil Day-Lewis. This cabal provoked Roy Campbell's joke about the "MacSpaunday" school: a joke that was a source of embarrassment (and rage, given Campbell's open sympathy for fascism) while simultaneously furnishing a near guarantee of immortality.

Among this book's assembly of sometimes very striking unpublished photographs is a shot of Spender, Auden, and Isherwood on the beach at Fire Island in 1947. Spender stands commandingly erect in the center, with his arms around the shoulders of his two much shorter comrades. There would be no doubt in the mind of the untutored as to which of them was the senior (the photo is presumably from Spender's private trove). And yet, as Sutherland shows very skillfully, it was Auden who was the literary boss from the beginning, and Isherwood (sometimes with Auden, and sometimes without) who was the sexually tougher and more resourceful one. Auden demonstrated his mastery from the very first, demanding to know of Spender how often he wrote poetry.

Without reflecting, I replied that I wrote about four poems a day. He was astonished and exclaimed: "What energy!" I asked him how often he wrote a poem. He replied: "I write about one in three weeks." After this I started writing only one poem in three weeks.

So silly. Up until then, of course, Spender had been so impressed at attending the same Oxford college as Shelley that he had felt compelled to adopt yet another poetic pose: that of the agonized and alienated young dreamer.

Anyone who has seen Cabaret can read several of the succeeding chapters at speed. The three men pursued boys of various sorts and conditions (usually proletarian) all over Berlin and over much of Germany and Austria as well. (Auden ended up with a painful rectal fissure, which led him to write his wince-makingly titled Letter to a Wound.) They seem to have done most of it on borrowed money or on tiny publishing advances. Orwell's vicious remark, about the "nancy poets" who spent on sodomy what they had gained by sponging, was barely a match for the amazing narcissism revealed in these pages. However (and as Orwell was later to ruefully admit), there was a core of principle involved. Spender could feel fascism coming on, and was appalled by the premonitory symptoms of it. He may have made a complete fool of himself by going briefly to Spain. (The leader of the British Communist Party, the cynical Harry Pollitt, probably did say that he thought Spender's only usefulness would be to die the death of a Byronic martyr: another potential poetic "character" for him to have adopted, had he been less prudent than he was.) Spender may have written a fatuous book titled Forward From Liberalism, which among other things defended Stalin's show trials. But beneath all this playacting and conceit and gullibility was a pith of seriousness.

We can reconstruct this, not from Goodbye to Berlin but from the words of Isaiah. Dr. Berlin, whatever his many drawbacks, was an excellent judge of character. What he saw in Spender was an open-faced, vulnerable, rather captivating readiness to take chances. Most bullied English public school boys with oppressive fathers would soon have learned how to wear a protective carapace of some sort; Spender remained a naif in the best sense of that term, even as he remained something of an adolescent in matters of the pudendum. (The reason I don't name the authors of the above limerick, written by contemporaries of his, is that even now they regard it as accurate but unkind.)

The hinge moment, if I read Sutherland correctly, came with the outbreak of the Second World War. Spender had become an admirer of America, but it would not have occurred to him to take ship and leave England at that moment, as Auden and Isherwood both famously did. In the course of an earlier quarrel Spender had exclaimed to Isherwood, "If we're going to part, at least let's part like men." Isherwood had won that round, replying bitchily, "But Stephen, we aren't men." In some fashion or manner brittleness of that sort was to become de trop after Dunkirk. Spender "stayed on," tried to enlist and was rejected on health grounds (which ranged from tapeworm to varicose veins), joined the London Fire Brigade (not a soft option at that time), and also became a husband and father. Sutherland rightly doesn't speculate about this, but there appears to me to have been a latent connection between the advent of war and the triumph of Spender's heterosexual side. His disastrous earlier, "open" marriage, to the bohemian hell-minx Inez Pearn, had been a failure partly because of his reluctance to break things off with his lover Tony Hyndman, here depicted as sponger and sodomite on a majestic scale. By falling for Natasha Litvin, a gifted musician and a considerable beauty, Spender found himself not only able to hold on to a serious woman for the first time but also—and perhaps not without its own significance that year—to confirm and affirm the slightly suppressed Jewish element in his family background. (His mother, Violet Schuster, was from a long line of converted and assimilated English Jews originating in Frankfurt.)

The war also improved his poetry. In the thirties Spender had had to contend with the criticism—obviously wounding to an aspiring writer and poet—that he didn't write very well at all. Eliot noticed it. Auden noticed it. Cyril Connolly noticed it. To Connolly, Spender wrote in that disarming manner that Isaiah Berlin so adored, "You are quite right about the bad writing. I am very sorry. It disturbs me very much." Hilarious. Even his most famous poem, "I Think Continually of Those Who Were Truly Great," with its closing line, "And left the vivid air signed with their honor," had to be retouched by Isherwood before it "sang." Spender's readers often had to put up with things like "Hampstead Autumn" (1932), yet another rumination on the seasons: "In the fat autumn evening street / Hands from my childhood stretch out / And ring muffin bells."

Possibly … But in 1943 he published Exercises/Explorations, the third "exercise" of which read,

Since we are what we are, what shall we be
But what we are? We are, we have
Six feet and seventy years, to see
The light, and then release it for the grave.
We are not worlds, no, nor infinity,
We have no claims on stone, except to prove
In the invention of the city
Our hearts, our intellect, our love.

This is very fine, and Sutherland is not stretching too far in comparing it, with its "mortuary sonorousness," to Donne's "Holy Sonnets."

Spender was more than six feet tall and lived on to be well over seventy. He easily outlived all his more famous contemporaries, and became in a sense their living witness as well as their official obituarist. I heard him give a rather beautiful address at Auden's memorial in Oxford in the fall of 1973. His long, spare frame and his nimbus of white hair had by then become familiar at dozens of international conferences and seminars. Sutherland speaks of him as a pioneer version of what we now call "the public intellectual." But Noël Annan went a bit further in terming him a "cultural statesman": a concept with a trapdoor of absurdity built right into it. This trapdoor was soon to fall open with a dismaying bang.

Having stayed in wartime England while keeping lines open to America, Spender was ideally positioned after 1945 to become a figure in the Anglo-U.S. "special relationship" and in one of its aspects, the cultural Cold War. The flagship symbol of both was the magazine Encounter, published in London but financed from across the Atlantic. Spender was a distinguished member of the team of anti-communist liberals (Isaiah Berlin, Richard Wollheim) and not-so-liberals (Irving Kristol, Melvin Lasky) who characterized the magazine. His wife, Natasha, came up with the name.

Square miles of print have now been devoted to the scandal that occurred in the late 1960s when Conor Cruise O'Brien flatly accused Encounter of being a self- or at least semi-conscious organ of the Central Intelligence Agency. That it had long been receiving a thick-envelope CIA subvention was quickly established. But who among the editors had known all along? Lasky certainly had, and Berlin (in my opinion) equally certainly. Spender staked, and nearly lost, his reputation on the stubborn assertion that he had had absolutely no idea. It will be quickly seen that he was making it certain that he would look a fool. The English subdivide this title into categories, starting with plain fool, moving through damn fool to bloody fool, and ending with fucking fool—for which one has to be sinister as well as silly. By throwing wine over William Empson for even suggesting anything covert about Encounter's finances, Spender qualified as at least a bloody fool. But a nice kind of fool for all that: the sort who could write, as he had in Germany many years before, "On the whole though I've decided that the best thing is to stick through thick and thin to the best one can find in one's fellow creatures, even though one is humiliated by having one's weakness and lack of pride exposed by one's dependence on them."

In the end, after dodging much collapsing scenery at Encounter, Spender announced that one was frightfully hurt to find that one's colleagues had been deceiving one. I don't doubt that this was largely genuine. But Sutherland provides a detail that was hitherto unknown to me. It seems that Spender had been unable to recruit the support of T. S. Eliot for the enterprise. The conservative sage of Faber had from the first been "chronically suspicious of the 'American auspices' of the magazine." Well then, how could Spender really maintain that the thought had never even occurred to him?

He managed, with that providence that sometimes protects the terminally innocent, to escape into a third act of his life. This period might be described as "Backward to Liberalism." There was always a threat of the farcical or the undignified in the interest Spender took in the young, but Sutherland makes a convincing case that he was kept young, in a sense, by the growth of his gifted children, Matthew and Lizzie. Thus his book about the events of 1968, with the potentially embarrassing title Year of the Young Rebels, did not go over the abyss into a glassy admiration of student revolt. And he became one of the first to see the moral importance of the dissident movement in the Soviet Union, with its synthesis of literary and ideological opposition. Having been an early defender of Boris Pasternak, he became an equally early patron of the exiled Joseph Brodsky and a vigorous organizer of petitions and support groups. This sympathy took institutional shape in the 1970s, with the imaginative inauguration of the magazine Index on Censorship. Devoted to the battle against repressive governments on all continents, this journal was and remains highly worthwhile. So over the long term Spender had had a part in launching Horizon, which for all Cyril Connolly's idiosyncrasies was indispensable to keeping alive a literary pulse in England during the war. Despite being despised by the true editor of Encounter and being kept on only as a "useful idiot" by the surreptitious moneymen, he ran a more than respectable "back half" of books pages for the magazine. This is a not altogether shabby record.

Attempts were made to smirch it all the same. Spender rather trustingly indulged a young opportunist named Hugh David, who then produced a scabrous "biography" titled Spender: A Portrait With Background. This gave infinite pain, both in its numerous falsifications and in its pitiless exposure of the old boy's days as a gay boy. The same trope was exploited without scruple by the forgettable American "gay writer" David Leavitt, who in 1993 extruded a novel called While England Sleeps and simply annexed some passages of World Within World in order to do so. Yet none of this seems to have prevented Spender from continuing to form friendships with writers younger than himself, of the generation of Peter Ackroyd and James Fenton (two rather acute choices). If his lifelong vice was that he could not stop himself from RSVPing to any old card of invitation, it can still be said of Spender that he continued to take the cheery chance of new encounters.

It may be that Sutherland felt a need to compensate for previous injustices in the writing of this biography, but one sometimes has the sense that his dutifulness became a chore to him. The word "idyllic" is employed so many times, even for scenes of relatively ordinary satisfaction at the seaside or in the countryside, that after a while I stopped circling it. Nothing excuses the use of "prevaricate" for "procrastinate," or "refute" for "repudiate." And Spender may well have been discharged from the Fire Brigade on June 13, 1944, but it is an abuse of a crucial word to say "Ironically, it was the same day that the first of the V-1 buzz bombs fell on London." That barely rises to the level of coincidence. An author has furthermore become far too close to his subject if he can write—this time unironically, and of a domestic row in the ski resort of Gstaad—that "the upheaval dwarfed the Suez crisis."

Still, by the time of his much mourned death, in 1995 (which occurred just after his unprecedented last-minute decision to decline a social invitation from the Holroyd/Drabble household), Spender had managed to outlive the sorts of taunt and nickname ("Stainless Splendor," "Stephen Savage") that his parents had feared when they first forbade him—pointlessly, as it was to turn out—the company of "rough" boys. He had never stopped working. He had never ceased to take an interest. And he had perhaps earned himself the most sentimental line of the much less sentimental poet Philip Larkin: "What will survive of us is love."