On the Feast of Stephen

Karl Miller

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 ex-communist poet, whose lyricism of the left spoke up in praise of pylons and the landing aeroplane, gliding over the suburbs, ‘more beautiful and soft than any moth’. It was in shattered Hamburg that I reviewed, in the uniform of a soldier and in a studio of the British Forces Network, his autobiography of 1951, World within World. The British Army of the Rhine was told of my enthusiasm for it. I practically stood to attention at the microphone.

I went off to Cambridge, to study with F.R. Leavis, who let few days pass without enlarging on the badness of Stephen Spender. After prolonged exposure to the stir of anti-Spender sentiment in more general circulation, I came to like him, in absentia, as did the many others, I imagine, who stayed with the intriguing literary eminence kindly characterised, eventually, in John Sutherland’s biography.[*] Nevertheless, a suspicion persisted. Sharp little verses – by Thom Gunn and John Coleman – were flighted; and Ian Hamilton capped it all with a brilliant and damaging New Yorker profile. Stephen grew used to being abused. He abused himself. He could seem generous and long-suffering, but could hardly be blamed for resenting a few of the more vocal of the new generation of critics, as figures of speech attest. In 1980, he was interviewed by Hamilton: ‘hatchet-faced, looking as though cast for the role of Third Murderer in a performance of Macbeth’. When I went to see him in hospital at this point, I stepped forward as a Fourth Murderer: ‘wearing a great coat with leather lapels, which made him look like a rather gloomy hussar of some Death Watch Regiment’.

I went to see him because I was becoming a friend of his and of his wife Natasha. He and I taught together at University College London in the 1970s. These personal allusions may savour of the excessive. Let me plead that they serve as an introduction to the uncertainties and inconsistencies of his experience of life, to his changing fortunes, contrasting reputations, to the human interest and eccentric charm of Stephen. Of the Stephen who would worry whether artists could be saints. Those who have seen a saint in him, as in Eliot, might draw the line at most of the artists featured in his diaries. He counted himself the luckiest of his writer companions, happy in his personal life, ‘made up by Natasha, Matthew, Lizzie – by all of these’. This might sound faintly protesting. It also sounds like the persuasive voice of a family member.

This new edition of his diaries, 1939 to 1995, has abundant evidence of his conflicting qualities, and is enough to suggest that diaries are his forte, or best vein. Various selections from them have already been published, and he himself did the choosing of extracts for the edition of 1985: the stress lay on talk about poets and poetry, while the stress here is on his personal life.[†] He hated the fact that he had made his wife unhappy, ‘due to my being what I am’. He is referring to passionate friendships with men – with the novelist Reynolds Price and with Bryan Obst, a zoologist who died of Aids in 1991, and was buried to the sound of birdsong. Stephen’s putative conversion to heterosexuality is treated here as a happy, if also unhappy myth. His accounts of intermittent meetings with Obst are well judged and moving. The editors were right to include them. Natasha, who died just before the book appeared, did not want this.

The edition goes, then, for the personal and anecdotal, and this, too, seems in general the right choice. The editors have followed the early versions of the text, and have kept his idiosyncrasies of spelling and punctuation. This is not without its snags. Whose mistakes are we witnessing? ‘Inaninity’? Did being in the same room as Lukács give a feeling ‘almost of exultation’, or exaltation? ‘A bit disinterested but very friendly’? Did Leavis’s father sell prams, as he heard from a sore I.A. Richards? We always thought it was pianos.

Leavis would say that Spender’s writings gave him the sense of a physical struggle to get the words on the page. The same has been said of Leavis and of many others. But Stephen described the struggle. ‘Words seem to break in my mind like sticks when I put them down on paper. I cannot see how to spell some of them.’ And yet he managed nearly a million words of diary, a quarter of which were chosen for this edition.

The feast of Stephen isn’t always deep and crisp and even; it has its slips and pitfalls. But these diaries are distinctly a feast, one which owes much to the stories, told of Spender, by Spender and by others. Take the satirical extravaganza which commemorates a luncheon (the book is packed with luncheons) in honour of a departing John Lehmann. ‘With infinite gravity’, Eliot said

that he shared three occupations – or should he say professions? – with John Lehmann: as poet, businessman and publisher. He was quite sure that, whatever had happened – and he didn’t have any air of knowing in particular what had happened – that John would carry on with one of these.

John ‘then got up and was more banal than his introducers’. As an editor, he was

haunted by titles, stories and poems, which came flooding in on him, haunted by ideas for articles and poems suggested to him. He also had to send out a great many rejection slips, by the consciousness of which he was haunted also. (We all shuddered. Cyril putting on an expression as though he were stuffed with John’s rejection slips.)

The passage comes close to calling the grave Eliot banal. Cyril Connolly elsewhere invites Stephen to ‘look at me in my bath. Hot stuff, don’t you think?’ Elsewhere again, we learn that Auden may have envied him his large penis. ‘Did I really like Wystan?’ he was capable of asking himself, in the course of absorbing evocations of his ‘witch-doctor’ alter ego, in Ian Hamilton’s designation. Auden and Connolly are targets for the hardest knocks in the book.

The stories come in various sizes. Virginia Woolf called Isaiah Berlin a ‘violent Jew’ (I throw in a further story here, to the effect that at his funeral or synagogue memorial service an earwitness friend of mine heard two old Oxford panjandrums agree that the service had gone well – ‘but what was all that Jewish stuff about?’). Then again, there is the lecture at which a student is vexed to find that the speaker will not be Edmund Spenser. In 1975 he writes: ‘One day I had a slight “affair” with Dick which was compounded of passion and lust on both sides, and was not in the least serious.’ This paid-on-both-sides short story has been supplemented by hearsay, which has a benighted Stephen struggling across a dark moor, spying a light in a cottage window and being greeted at the door by none other than Dick Crossman.

Perhaps the most welcome entry in the book is the celebrated riff about being cheered for breaking wind in the street (after hours of Wagner): ‘Then a self-important thought came in my mind. Supposing that they knew this old man walking along Long Acre and farting was Stephen Spender – what would they think?’ Leavis, he reckoned, would not have been amused. This is not the utterance of the goose or juggins seen in him, on this as on other occasions, by certain of his peers. They are missing the point of its self-parody, and the thought that such thoughts are distinctively human. He is also making a joke.

In the field of literary judgment, Spender can now and then outdo Auden, whose critical or speculative prose is, to my mind, one of the false lights of the postwar period. He cared for MacNeice, whose comparative neglect is another false light, while not responding to Day Lewis. When the time came, he saw the point of Ted Hughes and Thom Gunn, for all the latter’s youthful scorn. Seamus Heaney he describes as ‘a man of immense good will’ who ‘wrote poems which are models of what we might call the late Georgian Yeatsian Irish peasant’. Here is the sentence of a poet who felt himself to be a modernist and who on another occasion wrote about workers on the land:

The peasant relapses to a stumbling tune
Following the donkey’s bray.

Knowing and not knowing your way is a concern of the diaries. It was said of Spender that he never seemed to know where he was going but always seemed to know, that cunning goose, the shortest way to get there. Meanwhile his son was credited with a like skill by his father: ‘Matthew always seems not to know his way and then surprises you by knowing it.’ The father came to feel that he had lost his way, and his confidence, as a writer, and may perhaps have lost his taste for writing verse, for the struggle of the modern.

As far back as 1950 Stephen had told his diary: ‘Accompanying everything I do there is a voice which says: “You are wrong.”’ In time, he could think of only a handful of poems of his that would be remembered. He had failed. He had even failed to fail.

I blame myself not so much for failure – but for not having pressed ideas of work original work to the point of proof where they either failed or succeeded. What I blame myself for in a sense is that I didn’t have enough failures – but that I so often put aside the things I most deeply wanted to do – the things that were my own thing from inside myself – and did things which were proposed from the outside.

The book is brave in causing you to feel that these really were his misgivings, and it was brave of him to state them and to face them.

He can’t have been helped by belonging to a Vanity Fair (the name spoke to him via a title of the time) with quite so many cruel and spiteful people, to offset some excellent friends. The word was that other people were boring or vulgar. Virginia Woolf threatened that he might one day be boring. Stephen felt that it should be considered an honour to be insulted by the truly great: ‘That’s the line we have to take,’ replied Isaiah Berlin.

At the zenith of vulgarity-detection is Diana Duff-Cooper, who disdained ‘that common word “common”’ (a postwar upper-class catchphrase), and for whom the scientist Julian Huxley was vulgar. At a certain party punishment was meted out by Evelyn Waugh. ‘I adored Evelyn but he had a very unkind side to him. He would keep on tormenting Julian Huxley. Though he was perfectly aware he was head of Unesco, he insisted on treating him as though he were still head of the zoo. “How are the giraffes?” he kept on asking.’

Two of the worst observations cited in the diaries relate to foreign writers, come to Britain. ‘Too bad that Mr Brodsky is trying to push into the scene,’ meaning the refugee poet and the London literary scene, where, in another part of the wood, Auden took pleasure in telling Robert Lowell, with his history of mental illness: ‘Gentlemen don’t go mad.’ This is the scene which was and may still be regarded as the post-Bloomsbury stronghold of the national literature.

There’s an affinity between the candour and humour of Spender’s journals and those of the pioneer diarist, egotist and owner-up, Boswell, a performer, an actor, who, with some degree of paradox, wanted everyone to know what he was. Spender’s episode of the famous fart is completely Boswellian. Boswell was frequently taken with a pinch of salt, as Stephen said of himself, and his writings were often slighted. His journals, unknown till fairly recently, would no doubt have been slighted too, had they been accessible earlier: they are his masterpiece. Both men were hero-worshippers who sought fathers in the great, with Auden a less considerate and no less acerbic parent than Johnson.

Lara Feigel’s introduction deals well with Stephen Spender’s troubles and struggles, which it would be harsh to make light of – with what became of his art and with what became of his heart, as it grew old. He took to worrying, she relates, not about posterity any more, but about what his death would mean for his wife and children. It takes confidence to try to grasp, as he appears to have done in his last years, what had gone wrong with his life, and right with it.

[*] Stephen Spender: The Authorised Biography was reviewed by Stefan Collini in the LRB of 22 July 2004.

[†] Journals 1939-83 were reviewed by Frank Kermode in the LRB of 5 December 1985.