Stephen Spender had spent two terms as an undistinguished student at University College, Oxford, before he finally met W.H. Auden. It was not for want of trying. Michael, Spender’s elder brother, an insufferable turbo-brain at Balliol, had known Auden at school and kept in touch, but refused to arrange an introduction for Stephen, fearing, as Spender later put it, that ‘in producing me he would be playing the weakest card in his hand.’ Auden was the sort of person you felt obliged to impress. Spender’s friend Gabriel Carritt, on whom he had a wholly unreciprocated crush, was part of Auden’s circle at Christ Church – Auden also longed forlornly for the strapping rugby player whom he addressed admiringly in one poem as ‘a snub-nosed winner’. Carritt certainly admired Auden in return: one of his favourite topics of conversation was Auden’s remarkable genius, by comparison with which he and Spender were, as he enjoyed insisting, ‘just little Oxford intellectuals’. But Carritt too refused Spender’s petitions to be taken to meet Auden, considering him not ‘worthy’ of such an honour. An opportunity only arose when the two coincided at a lunch party, and then the encounter did not seem auspicious. Auden said only one thing to Spender, which was to ask him who he thought were the best poets of the day: Spender replied ‘Humbert Wolfe’, which was obviously not the right answer. The moment, long hoped for, was, as Spender later reflected, ‘a humiliating failure’.
Even so, to his surprise, Auden invited him to call round, and shortly afterwards he did. Spender told the story of this first interview over and over again: John Sutherland, his biographer, calculates that he repeated it at least six times in print and uncountable times in lectures and talks and interviews, as well as in conversation. Spender would come to resent Auden’s tendency always to think of him as he had when they were both young, as though he had never grown up, but Spender himself returned repeatedly to those days as though to some rite of passage. In World within World (1951), the memoir he published while still only in his early forties, Spender gives the encounter the force of an epochal moment, and it was evidently the first thing to come to mind when he later wrote a poem for Auden’s 60th birthday, the point of which was that relations with his old friend were still much the same, a matter of him ‘fitting our lives to your game’:
You – the young bow-tied near-albino undergraduate
With rooms on Peck Quad (blinds drawn down at midday
To shut the sun out) – read your poems aloud
In so clinical a voice, I thought
You held each word gleaming on forceps
Up to your lamp.
Sitting in the dark, Auden gave his impressionable new acquaintance a crash course in being a modern poet, largely drawn from the critical writings of T.S. Eliot. Poetry should be classical and austere and impersonal, all of which came as a rude awakening to Spender, whose poetry was quite the opposite – ‘the young Romantic’s/Praying his wound would blossom to a rose/Of blood, vermillion under a gold moon,/Exclaiming – “O!”’, as he put it in the birthday poem, sending up his early manner in a likeable and wholly characteristic way. ‘How often do you write poetry?’ Auden asked him. Spender said he normally wrote about four poems a day. Auden replied that he managed perhaps one in three weeks. ‘After this,’ Spender said, ‘I started writing only one poem in three weeks.’
He returned to the bracing gloom on several occasions over the following weeks to receive further instruction. One day they walked out into the hills around Oxford in the footsteps of Arnold’s scholar-gipsy, a day Spender remembered in World within World as ‘the most English day of our relationship’ during which they achieved ‘a feeling of communion’. Louis MacNeice sharply discerned ‘Stephen’s lust to mythologise the world in which he walked’, and the various accounts of his discipleship do have a mythical quality about them. They generalise about the young Auden’s manners and opinions, and appear to draw on a long and deepening acquaintance (‘It seems to me that one always saw Auden alone’) so it’s a surprise to realise, as Sutherland pointed out, that Spender is actually talking about barely six or seven weeks in the summer of 1928 – the term in which, moreover, Auden was panickily occupied with his finals. He seems to have found time to cast a critical eye over Spender’s poems. Only isolated lines were singled out for praise, and then for praise of so qualified a kind that Spender was astonished to learn that he had been inducted into Auden’s small circle of influential friends. ‘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. Art is born of humiliation.’
A most doubtful general maxim and, as Spender himself remarked, not one that Auden noticeably exemplified, but it probably was true of Spender, who wrote as habitually and intuitively of humiliation as John Clare wrote about birds. In the reiterated Auden story, for instance, he begins by describing himself as too embarrassing and unworthy a person to be introduced; when he does meet Auden he praises the wrong poet; and when they finally have a conversation it turns out that he writes the wrong sort of poems and far too quickly. In the World within World version, he even manages to screw up an attempt to express his admiration for a poem of Auden’s that he had recently encountered in a student magazine. Asked why he liked it, Spender praised the ‘climatic part’, meaning ‘climactic part’. ‘I don’t remember anything in it about the climate,’ Auden replied, puzzled. ‘Neither did I,’ Spender recalled, ‘so I was silent.’ To be told you have a gift for being humiliated is, of course, itself a kind of humiliation, and when, years later, after Auden’s death, Spender brooded in his journal, ‘Did I really like Wystan?’ he returned to the primal scene yet again: ‘He said, “You will be a poet because you will always be humiliated” … I imagine he laughed at me a lot behind my back.’ Auden was indeed rude about Spender’s little pamphlet, Nine Experiments, comments which Carritt helpfully reported back. Spender bought up as many copies as he could and destroyed them. (Now it’s worth a fortune.)
Auden’s remark became a motif for a long writing life, both in poetry and prose. Spender’s barely fictionalised novel The Backward Son (1940) is an excruciating anthology of school ignominy, the story of a boy ‘always on the point of saying “I’m very sorry,” apologising for his clumsiness, his face, his round shoulders, his accent’. Humiliation is a recurrent note in his journals too. Spender was stunned by his bad notices: when a volume of his poems got a negative review in the TLS (after several decent ones) he vowed ‘not to run the gauntlet of another volume of new poetry ever again’, and didn’t publish another book of verse for twenty years. Anthony Quinton once gave a sniffy account of Spender’s interesting book about T.S. Eliot, and Spender was mortified, as though caught out doing something he had no right to attempt: Quinton’s piece was ‘of the kind I always bring down on myself and which is the result of the bad phraseology and lack of organisation in my books … I felt humiliated and furious – with myself above all.’ It wasn’t just the public reception of his work: ‘Writing to me is a humiliating experience (even in this journal),’ he wrote at a point in his life when his status as an elder statesman was beyond dispute. Late in life, he recorded in his journal a dream in which, much against his wishes, he had been made pope and was consequently forced to give a sermon on weighty matters of concern, though constant interruption and his own shameful lack of preparation meant there was no hope of his doing it properly. Not a dream that needs long on the couch to crack, but Spender analysed one element with particular insight: he was currently struggling with a long memorial poem in which he hoped to sum up what he thought about Auden, ‘of which the ending is only a cloudy vision at present’.
He had a gift for startling self-exposure: ‘The frankness seems almost deliberately self-lacerating,’ Julian Symons wrote. John Lehmann said he was ‘the most rapidly self-revealing person’ he had ever met. In an introductory note to the Collected Poems (1955), Spender admitted that he felt obliged to ‘own up’ to the poems of the 1930s that had become ‘an embarrassment to my friends’ luggage more even than to my own’, meaning those such as ‘The Pylons’ that remain his most celebrated poems. Perhaps even more striking, in a prose collection of 1978 Spender forced himself to reprint an excruciating piece called ‘I join the Communist Party’ (it appeared in the Daily Worker in 1937), of which he was ‘thoroughly ashamed’, on the grounds that if he was going to portray his writings of the 1930s he simply had to include ‘the most embarrassing one’ – as though embarrassment and authenticity went together. Something in Spender evidently found his own maladroitness horribly absorbing but he wasn’t just its victim. As the pope dream suggests, he could be very funny, and the jokes often turned on the comedy of his own embarrassment or social ineptitude: you get a sense of his penchant for self-denigration in many pages of his autobiographical writing. Checking in at the airport on one occasion he was asked by the airline official if he was related to the poet Stephen Spender: ‘That’s me,’ Spender said. ‘Gee,’ the official replied, ‘a near celebrity.’ Such moments of Pooterish indignity recur, not kept in the privacy of a journal but deliberately pushed into print. On a trip to Moscow, a representative of the Writers’ Union explained that it would be very difficult to rustle up anyone for him to meet: ‘He would have to be a great expert,’ as Spender recorded his host’s explanation, ‘to have heard of my writing.’ It was no better at home. Sitting next to the wife of the guest of honour at a grand lunch Spender ‘worked rather hard at being polite’: ‘I’m afraid I’ve only heard of one Spender,’ his neighbour said, ‘Stephen Spender – and he’s dead I believe.’ ‘Well, I’m Stephen Spender,’ said Stephen Spender, much to the amusement of the woman, who repeated the story to several other guests before lunch was over. He strikes a similar note when telling a story of Geoffrey Grigson, who held forth with characteristic trenchancy on the shortcomings of Horizon as the name for a magazine: who could ever have come up with that? ‘“Well,” I said, “as a matter of fact, I thought of Horizon.” This mollified him somewhat.’ His reminiscences of Eliot, who was evidently fond of him, are full of the comedy of getting it slightly wrong with the Master, like Boswell with Johnson. When, at their first lunch, Eliot asked the young man what he wanted to be, Spender replied ingenuously: ‘To be a poet.’ ‘I can understand your wanting to write poems,’ Eliot responded, ‘but I don’t quite know what you mean by “being a poet”.’ There is a fine comedy in Spender’s remark that he habitually heard in Eliot ‘a faint hint in his voice that … I was not choosing the word altogether exactly.’
Spender emerges from these stories looking, as his friend Cyril Connolly put it, like ‘an inspired simpleton, a great big silly goose’. He makes a memorable entrance as Stephen Savage in Christopher Isherwood’s thinly fictionalised novel Lions and Shadows (1938): ‘He burst in upon us, blushing, sniggering loudly, contriving to trip over the edge of the carpet – an immensely tall, shambling boy of 19, with a great scarlet poppy-face, wild frizzy hair, and eyes the violent colour of bluebells.’ Such a description is not without an edge: Spender’s deepest friendships, he once said, always involved him being taken with a pinch of salt. Isherwood, who was certainly one of those closest friends, told him that one of the things he most missed about England was hearing Stephen’s funny stories about his psychoanalyst. ‘On the whole,’ Spender wrote to Vita Sackville-West in 1931, after Isherwood had been prickly with him, ‘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 first years of their friendship, Spender later claimed, Auden used to treat him as a lunatic, ‘a kind of Dostoevskian Holy Fool’; and he seems to have struck many as both wild and a bit silly, ‘buffoonish, half-absurd, half-serious’ in Cecil Day-Lewis’s account. Rosamund Lehmann wrote wearily to a friend at Christmas in 1932: ‘That absolute lunatic Stephen Spender is still with us … he has been booming, droning, pouring, bursting out of doors like a northeaster, into rooms like a fiery sunrise, beaming, beaming, beaming.’ He always retained an antic quality, and it is probably true that, as Christopher Hitchens observed, he never quite overcame ‘the widespread impression … that there was something vaguely preposterous about him’. Whether overcoming it was his ambition is another matter.
Isaiah Berlin described him as ‘disarmingly innocent’; but not everyone was disarmed. Ian Hamilton – whom Spender called ‘a professional hatchet man’ – once wrote a peppery though not wholly unsympathetic piece for the New Yorker in which he diagnosed in Spender a wily habit of getting in first to name his shortcomings so as to disarm the horrid critic who might otherwise have brought them to light. To attribute quite this degree of canniness to him doesn’t seem right, but there is no doubt that Stephen the humiliated innocent abroad shared his human frame with a person of the steeliest self-determination. Alongside the goose, as Connolly observed in his review of World within World, there operated someone ‘shrewd, ambitious, aggressive and ruthless’. These were his friends! Still, Connolly put his finger on something tough-minded and self-preserving in Spender that many people recognised and which expressed itself partly in his worldly ambition. It is humiliating to be told you have an infinite capacity for humiliation, but Auden doesn’t come out of the story so well either and it is an act of resistance, perhaps even of retaliation, to put the story prominently into your book. When Auden wrote to Spender to congratulate him on the success of World within World (it was a bestseller) he registered just one criticism, though on reflection it feels like a substantial one: ‘While confessing your sins of weakness you pass over in silence your sins of strength, i.e. of calculation and coldness of heart; and nobody, my dear, who is as successful or can be as funny as you, is without them.’
Spender certainly was successful; the enigma is how his haplessness and genius for ineptitude related to his position as an eminent poet and public intellectual. ‘What miracle divides/Our purpose from our weakness?’ he asked in a poem of 1939, conscious that in his case the two were intertwined. We think of the writers of the 1930s as constellated around the figure of Auden, but for a time in the early part of the decade Spender (as Sutherland puts it) ‘nudged ahead’. Cushioned, like Isherwood, by a small private income, he was quickly taken up by the literary world – a friend of Nicolsons, Lehmanns and Woolfs, who lunched with Eliot, Herbert Read and Lady Ottoline Morrell, and a reviewer in the leading journals. A pamphlet, Twenty Poems, had appeared to much acclaim in 1930, and three years later Poems was published by Faber to strikingly good reviews. ‘Another Shelley speaks in these lines,’ Herbert Read wrote. The jacket blurb was no less hyperbolic: ‘If Auden is the satirist of this poetical renascence Spender is its lyric poet … these poems appear to make a definite step forward in modern English poetry.’ ‘What idiot wrote it?’ Isherwood asked, apparently not twigging that the person responsible was almost certainly Eliot. Spender worried that Auden might take exception to the praise, but, toiling away as an impecunious schoolmaster, Auden was probably more jealous of Spender’s allowance. Auden’s bright idea that they split the allowance between them had not been taken up: hero worship had its limits.
When he made his famous remark about humiliation Auden wasn’t just analysing his friend: he was also responding to something he saw in the poetry. At the time of their first meeting Spender had been writing about an excruciating relationship with ‘Marston’, a fellow student who deflected Spender’s inept attempts to win him less with repugnance than with uncomprehending indifference. When Spender finally spilled out his romantic feelings, according to the dreadfully funny account in World within World, the young man gazed at him in honest bewilderment and said: ‘Do you know, old son, this is the first time you’ve ever talked with me that I haven’t been completely bored?’ In a book full of squirm-worthy moments this is one of the choicest, but Auden must have recognised that Spender was beginning to forge a voice out of the awful mixture of idealisation and inadequacy that characterised his feelings for ‘Marston’:
This aristocrat, superb of all instinct,
With death close linked
Had paced the enormous cloud, almost had won
War on the sun;
Till now, like Icarus mid-ocean-drowned,
Hands, wings, are found.
The prosaic detail behind this was that ‘Marston’ was in the University Flying Club; but Spender conjures him into a zooming superhero, a doomed Lawrentian aristocrat of the spirit, whose life and death are thrillingly out of reach. You get pilots in Auden too, of course, and one of his lessons that Spender took to heart was to work contemporary things – aeroplanes and factories and the working class – into the poems. But Auden typically imagines himself up there with the airman (‘Consider this and in our time/As the hawk sees it or the helmeted airman’), while Spender gazes skyward at wonderful kinds of being that elude him, like the excitingly rough children with whom he was forbidden to play, who ‘sprang out behind hedges/Like dogs to bark at our world’.
In World within World he made a distinction between his mind and Auden’s: ‘Auden’s life was devoted to an intellectual effort to analyse, explain and dominate his circumstances,’ where his own was ‘one of complete submission to experience, which I approach with no preconceived theoretic attitudes’. The antithesis is a bit too neat, but it does catch something about the way experience in Spender is typically something he can’t get his head around and would mistrust if he could, while Auden often comes across as master of all he surveys. This quality can make Spender’s prose works and longer poems incoherent and puzzling, but it brings to the early shorter poems a version of what the 18th century called the sublime, a state of consciousness in which one is thrillingly humiliated by the mystery or enormity of what one contemplates: ‘the mind’, as Burke put it, ‘hurried out of itself by a crowd of great and confused images; which affect because they are crowded and confused’. Where once it would have been the Alps or the boundless ocean that did this to you, for Spender it was a new range of sublime objects, like the communist future or its emblems, the ‘powerful plain manifesto’ of a thundering express train (‘Steaming through metal landscape on her lines/She plunges new eras of wild happiness/Where speed throws up strange shapes’) or, most notoriously, a line of pylons, ‘like nude, giant girls that have no secret’, reaching into the future:
This dwarfs our emerald country by its trek
So tall with prophecy:
Dreaming of cities
Where often clouds shall lean their swan-white neck.
The nude giant girls are more than a little daft, but in a characteristically Spenderish way the poem courts the possibility of its own mockery. The pylons march on to a prospect of electrification and urban socialism, but for all that the poetry remains in a wholly incongruous Yeatsian world of dreams and swans; and as Michael O’Neill, the best champion of Spender’s poetry, once pointed out, ‘often’ isn’t exactly the register of Utopia. Spender’s most wilfully committed poems frequently muff their rhetorical aplomb like this, and it always works to their advantage. ‘That a poem beginning “I think continually of those who were truly great” should ever have been greeted with anything but helpless embarrassment,’ Randall Jarrell wrote, ‘makes me ashamed of the planet upon which I dwell,’ and you see why the line disgusted a generation that valued irony and understatement. Robert Lowell told Spender that the line should be ‘I would think continually of those who are truly great’ because, as he patiently explained, ‘one cannot think of the great all the time, though one may wish to do so’; but the line, with its illogic and deft metrical clumsiness, wears its helpless embarrassment on its sleeve. How else would you dwell upon the great except weakly?
‘I think continually’ and ‘The Pylons’ are the sort of poem Spender wrote because the age demanded something big and political, but their charm is individual and, as he once described himself, ‘dotty and neurotic’. He had a strong and evidently genuine instinct to participate in public life, presumably inherited from his father and uncle, who were both prominent Liberals in the grand 19th-century tradition. The instinct expressed itself in the 1930s as a desire to move (as one of his think-books had it) Forward from Liberalism, and then after the war as a desire, no less driven, to hurry back to the arms of liberalism again. During the 1950s and 1960s and 1970s he was a go-to public intellectual – a natural choice, say, when Dick Crossman wanted a literary contribution to The God that Failed, his collection of essays by disenchanted former communists, and the perfect name for the masthead of Encounter, the house journal of Cold War liberalism (where he did a good job of the literary pages).
He became, in Noel Annan’s phrase, a ‘cultural statesman’. His German friend Ernst Robert Curtius noted wrily: ‘You were a communist and now you go on yachts on the Mediterranean,’ to which Spender’s less than knockout response was ‘I have never been in any real sense a communist.’ He wasn’t exactly dissembling: despite having professed himself one fairly noisily at the time, his communism was very idiosyncratic, and, by his own account, largely an expression of his humiliation complex. He had revered D.H. Lawrence, whose writings spoke to what Spender called a ‘lack of confidence in the quality of my own nature’, and then communism did the same thing, but even better. ‘I was impressed by the overwhelming accusation made by communism against bourgeois society, an accusation not only against all its institutions but also reaching deep into the individual soul,’ he wrote in World within World, but even at the time, in Forward from Liberalism, he could ask himself the startling question, ‘Mayn’t your politics simply be the result of a sexual maladjustment?’ and give as his own unforgiving answer: ‘Very probably. Perhaps the revolution responds to some need in me which I have felt since I was a child.’ Harry Pollitt, the wily boss of the British Communist Party, seems to have regarded his contribution to the cause as purely ceremonial: he was keen to send Spender off to fight in Spain, reportedly, so he could ‘get himself killed to give the party its Byron’.
Spender’s capacity as a political thinker was never obvious, especially not to himself. Readers of all persuasions must have been as puzzled by his early explanation that ‘I am a communist because I am a liberal’ as by his later assertion that ‘politics without ideology and with a strong tendency towards autobiography, equals liberalism.’ In Forward from Liberalism he maintained that ‘the artist’ would ‘fight on the side of the workers’ and renounce ‘the private worlds of romanticism’; but in truth Spender’s best writing had always been drawn to private worlds within worlds.
Moving through the silent crowd
Who stand behind dull cigarettes
These men who idle in the road,
I have the sense of falling light.
A resonantly public theme – the plight of the unemployed – shifts abruptly, in a kind of non sequitur, into some alternative, distracting lyrical space, as though the poetic impulse were a version of the inability to concentrate properly. In a late poem, ‘A Political Generation’, Spender reflected on the decisions he and his friends had taken in their writings, which he ruefully summarised: ‘Putting first things first,/They did their best to write their worst.’ Spender continued to write poetry all his life, and there are good later poems: Ian Hamilton suggested that, in his deepest instincts, he was more a poet of the 1940s than the 1930s, and there is a tang of moody apocalyptic portentousness about the later poems that sometimes comes off (‘To break out of the chaos of my darkness/Into a lucid day is all my will’) and sometimes doesn’t (‘multiply the cannon balls,/Those genitals of death’). I like the late ‘diary’ poems about his contemporaries (there are two good ones about Auden) and about his experiences as a visiting professor in America; the elegies for his sister-in-law in Poems of Dedication (1947) are often moving; and there are some fine versions of Rilke, especially ‘Orpheus Eurydice Hermes’. But the volume of 1933 remains closest to a masterpiece because it is so specially primed, in its historical moment, to create the self-doubt that made Spender’s precarious and self-doubting gift the thing it was.
Poems Written Abroad is a sort of prelude to the Spender story. It’s a facsimile, with facing page transcription, of a poetic notebook that Spender kept for a couple of months in his late teens, while brushing up his French in Nantes and Lausanne before going up to Oxford. It is a very handsome production published by the Lilly Library of Indiana University, to whom Spender sold the notebook during one of his occasional financial crises; and it is full of the sort of thing a young man might write who hadn’t yet had his taste for Humbert Wolfe beaten out of him by Auden. ‘O lovely boy, with the undaunted head/What shall I call thee? Hyacinth for thy eyes/Or lily for thy pose, crowned by the fair/And falling glory of thy auburn hair?’ And so on. There are a few intimations of the poet he would become: Christopher Irmscher in his excellent introduction notices the way the images bump against one another ‘like a badly made puzzle’, and also ‘the pervasive feeling that somewhere someone is having a more authentic experience’. He also quotes from an early sonnet in which Spender declares, ‘My eyes scan early that far-off bird/Futurity,’ which isn’t great but perhaps anticipates the prospective cast of many of his most memorable later verses. The best line by far comes in an otherwise undistinguished poem called ‘Consolation of Dust’ in which Spender refers to ‘the ragged Eden of my mind’. A paradisal mind in rags: he once remarked that he regarded a contemporary as ‘a failed version of myself’, before going on to say, inevitably, ‘but I also regarded myself as a failed version of myself.’ ‘My father’s strength was his weakness,’ Matthew Spender writes in his study of his parents, A House in St John’s Wood (2015), a book sustained by what Larkin called ‘all a son’s harsh patronage’. Late in his journals, Spender contemplated his similarity to his own father, a man whom he considered a failure: ‘What makes me different from him is my self-distrust. Still that hasn’t been sufficient to stop me.’