Spender’s Purges

Frank Kermode

  • Collected Poems 1928-1985 by Stephen Spender
    Faber, 204 pp, £4.95, November 1985, ISBN 0 571 13666 4
  • A Version of the Oedipus Trilogy of Sophocles by Stephen Spender
    Faber, 199 pp, £12.50, November 1985, ISBN 0 571 13834 9
  • Journals 1939-1983 by Stephen Spender, edited by John Goldsmith
    Faber, 510 pp, £15.00, November 1985, ISBN 0 571 13617 6

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 expressed his pleasure: ‘Gee, a near-celebrity.’ No doubt the status of full celebrity was reserved for movie stars and ball-players. At any rate there is little doubt that Spender is the most celebrated of living English writers, known pretty well all over the planet he has so assiduously traversed. His fame, moreover, is deep as well as wide, for he has been a celebrity for well over half a century, part of the history of every decade from the Thirties to the Eighties as well as one of its chroniclers.

His career has a political dimension (Spain and, very briefly, Communism, independent intellectual participation in the Cold War liberalism of the Fifties and Sixties), but that was inevitable and anyway not very distinctive. In their own way, the New York intellectuals of the period described the same trajectory from left-wing rebellion to establishment spokesmen – from bitter theological disputation about Trotsky to a comfortable acceptance of fame and in some cases fortune. But Spender has qualities even the best of them lack, charity being one and humour another; above all, he has remained capable of fresh and intense perceptions of people, landscape, painting, music. And although the kind of life he has led – as writer, traveller, journalist, editor, critic – makes very severe demands on his energy (so must the cultivation of so many warm friendships), he has always been what the airline ticket-collector called him, a poet. His juniors have not always thought well of his verses, and in spite of Auden’s pronouncement that it was his capacity for humiliation that made him a poet, there were periods when he declined to publish verse out of fear of reviewers. He has evidently got over that worry, and now at 76 produces another Collected Poems – an earlier one appeared in 1955. The poems he has chosen to preserve, from almost sixty years of work, are only enough to fill 180 pages.

The severity of this culling he attributes to a change in his way of judging his poetry. Whatever now seems confused or verbose is dropped, and many poems are rewritten to conform more closely with original intentions still remembered. As in the earlier Collected Poems, most of the anthology pieces are left untouched; in a sense, as he said thirty years ago, they no longer belong to him, and in any case he thought he needed to own up to such poems as ‘The Pylons’ and ‘The Funeral’ (‘They record simply/How this one excelled all others in making driving belts’) which also have a certain historical interest. As it happens, ‘The Funeral’ has now disappeared.

The poems that remain are sometimes quite drastically rewritten; some of them, already purged for the 1955 Collected Poems, are now purged again. This kind of revision has been done before, with rather mixed results. Yeats did violence to his early poems, sometimes converting them to an inappropriate modern harshness; nobody seems to like John Crowe Ransom’s reworkings; and Auden’s revisions and exclusions sometimes seem petulant or even perverse, as if he had decided not to understand his own poems. Since the original versions remain accessible this is not a matter of high importance: still, one is bound to try to understand the motives that prompt these renovations. Sometimes they are a mature desire for tidiness and lucidity, sometimes the poet thinks he has caught himself out in a fraud, and one can see why. But I confess I don’t know why Spender has turned against what seem to me among his finest poems, the group in Ruins and Visions about the end of his first marriage. It is not a compensation for the loss of ‘No Orpheus, No Eurydice’ to have revived an early poem about Van der Lubbe. However, a new section labelled ‘Ambition’ includes the candid and interesting poem ‘The Public Son of a Public Man’, and of course there are also poems, many of them about family and friends, written since 1955.

It has often been remarked that Spender’s manner has changed far less than might have been expected over so long a career; the potent influences of Auden and Eliot were early assimilated, and the moods and fashions of half a century have left them pretty well untouched. Of course he has changed and now wants to be rid of things that seem palpably false, though in their own day they perhaps had a bold propriety. Thus the following lines from ‘Not Palaces’,

Drink from here energy and only energy
To will the time’s change.
Eye, gazelle, delicate wanderer,
Drinker of horizon’s fluid line,

originally, and even in the 1955 Collected, had between the first and second lines ‘As from the electric charge of a battery’. It was part of the period dialect and is now merely bizarre.

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