Stephen Spender

Stephen Spender’s most recent book is Letters to Christopher, a collection of letters to Christopher Isherwood. He and David Hockney are preparing a diary account of their current travels in China, to be published by Thames and Hudson next spring.

Diary: Unnecessary Wars

Stephen Spender, 9 April 1992

I completed my memoir World within World in 1950, when I was 41. Reading it now, 42 years later, it seems to me that much of it represents the situation of a generation of English writers during the Thirties, novelists and poets, coming from a background of the professional middle class, and most of them born between 1905 and 1910. The accident of the time, as well as of the social class into which they were born, accounts for many of their attitudes during a period that covered two world wars – or perhaps only one war, lasting from 1914 to 1945, with a truce under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles between 1918 and 1939. Such is the rapidity of historical change in the present century that generations seem to succeed one another at intervals of five or ten, rather than thirty, years. We think in decades. The Thirties generation to which my colleagues and I belonged was separated by what seemed an abyss from the one ten years older, so many of whom had taken part in the 1914-18 war. The fact that they had been in the war when we were children created a gulf between generations profounder than that of the few years’ difference. Moreover, ten years after 1918, these former soldiers – as though summoned by the ghosts of their comrades in the trenches – started turning back to their war experiences, about which they wrote books which are today rightly regarded as classics.’

What I believe

Stephen Spender, 26 October 1989

When asked the question ‘What do you believe?’ I suppose it to mean, first and foremost, ‘Do you believe in God?’ My mind is a blank with regard to this, as to similar questions. ‘Do you believe in life after death?’ ‘Do you believe that life has any meaning other than that which we put into it?’ I am incapable of thinking that there is an eternal being whose existence has neither beginning nor end, because I cannot think a beginning which has no previous beginning, an end which has no subsequent end. Equally, if scientists tell me that the universe began with the Big Bang, I find myself asking: ‘How did the forces begin that began the banging?’

Was she Julia?

Stephen Spender, 7 July 1983

I suppose I should ‘declare an interest’. In 1934 I had a love affair, which is briefly related here, with the author, who has remained to this day one of my closest friends. I have written about this in World within World, where Muriel is called ‘Elizabeth’.

Diary: Towards a Kind of Neo-Paganism

Stephen Spender, 21 April 1983

One day of early winter my friend D, arriving unexpectedly in London, telephoned to ask me to attend the funeral of someone I had never met or heard of – B, the 17-year-old son of a friend of his. He had flown from America for the funeral and to do all he could for the mother and stepfather of B, whom he regarded as a promising young artist and the most lively and intelligent boy he knew.

Poem: ‘Auden’s Funeral’

Stephen Spender, 4 June 1981

To Christopher Isherwood


One among friends who stood above your grave I cast a clod of earth from those heaped there Down on the great brass-handled coffin lid. It rattled on the oak like a door knocker. And at that sound I saw your face beneath Wedged in an oblong shadow under ground: Flesh creased, eyes shut, jaw jutting, And on the mouth a smile: triumph of one Who has escaped from...

‘But do you really think I am any good?’ a breathless Spender asked. ‘Of course’ was Auden’s reply, and when pressed a little further: ‘Because you are so infinitely capable of being humiliated....

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Stephen Spender was a visitor to the city of Hamburg both before the war and after, when he played a part in the work of occupation and recovery. He was well on his way to being the noted...

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Edward Timms, 17 March 1988

‘Mayn’t your politics simply be the result of sexual maladjustment?’ This question, unobtrusively formulated in Stephen Spender’s Forward from Liberalism (1937), lurks as...

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Spender’s Purges

Frank Kermode, 5 December 1985

An airline ticket clerk, examining the author’s credit card in Seattle, asked him if he was related to the poet Stephen Spender. Assured of his customer’s identity, the clerk...

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Revolutionary Gaze

Mark Elvin, 4 November 1982

I remember very clearly a visit to the art college in Nanking in April 1976. The suffocating presence of Jiang Qing (Mao’s wife and aesthetic dictator of the day) could be felt almost...

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