Stephen Spender

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Sir Stephen Harold Spender CBE, (February 28, 1909, London – July 16, 1995) was an English poet, novelist and essayist who concentrated on themes of social injustice and the class struggle in his work.


  • 1 Early life
  • 2 The war years
  • 3 Late life
  • 4 Sexuality
  • 5 Selected bibliography
    • 5.1 Poetry
    • 5.2 Letters and journals
    • 5.3 Criticism, travel books, and essays
    • 5.4 Drama
    • 5.5 Memoir
    • 5.6 Fiction
  • 6 Notes
  • 7 Further reading
  • 8 See also
  • 9 External links

Early life

He was born to a journalist father (Edward Harold Spender); his mother was Violet Hilda (née Schuster), who was a painter and a poet. Spender went to Gresham's School, Holt, as a child and University College, London and University College, Oxford as a young adult. He was made an honorary fellow of Oxford University in 1973. But He did not finish his at degree London University and lived for periods of time in Germany. Perhaps his closest friend and the man who had the biggest influence on him was W.H. Auden. Around this time he was also friends with Christopher Isherwood (who had also lived in Weimar Germany), and fellow Macspaunday members Louis MacNeice, and C. Day Lewis. He would later come to know W.B. Yeats, Allen Ginsberg, Ted Hughes, Joseph Brodsky, Isaiah Berlin, Mary McCarthy, Roy Campbell, Raymond Chandler, Dylan Thomas, Jean-Paul Sartre and T. S. Eliot, as well as members of the Bloomsbury Group, in particular Virginia Woolf.

His early poetry, notably Poems (1933) was often inspired by social protest. His convictions found further expression in Vienna (1934], a long poem in praise of the 1934 uprising of Viennese socialists, and in Trial of a Judge (1938), an anti-Fascist drama in verse. His autobiography, World within World (1951), is a re-creation of much of the political and social atmosphere of the 1930s.

Spender began work on a novel in 1929, which was not published until 1988 under the title The Temple. The novel is about a young man who travels to Germany and finds a culture at once more open than England—particularly about relationships between men—and showing frightening anticipations of Nazism, which are confusingly related to the very openness the main character admires. Spender says in his 1988 introduction:

In the late Twenties young English writers were more concerned with censorship than with politics.... 1929 was the last year of that strange Indian Summer -- the Weimar Republic. For many of my friends and for myself, Germany seemed a paradise where there was no censorship and young Germans enjoyed extraordinary freedom in their lives....[1]

The war years

When the Spanish civil war began, he went to Spain with the International Brigades (who were fighting against Francisco Franco's fascist forces) to report and observe for the Communist Party of Great Britain. Harry Pollitt, head of the CPGB, told Spender "to go and get killed; we need a Byron in the movement."[citation needed]

A member of the political left wing during this early period, he was one of those who wrote of their disillusionment with communism in the essay collection The God that Failed (1949), along with Arthur Koestler and others. It is thought that one of the big areas of disappointment was the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, which many leftists saw as a betrayal. Like fellow poets W.H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood and several other outspoken opponents of fascism in the 1930s, Spender did not see active military service in World War II. He was initially graded 'C' upon examination due to his earlier Colitis, poor eyesight, varicose veins and the long term effects of a tapeworm in 1934. However, he contrived by pulling strings to be re-examined and was upgraded to 'B' which meant that he could serve in the London Auxiliary Fire Service.

He felt close to the Jewish people; his mother, Violet Hilda Schuster, was half Jewish (her father's family were German Jews who converted to Christianity, while her mother came from an upper-class family of Catholic German, Lutheran Danish and distantly Italian descent). Spender's second wife, Natasha Litvin/Lady Spender, whom he married in 1941, was also part Jewish.

With Cyril Connolly and Peter Watson Spender co-founded Horizon magazine and served as its editor from 1939 to 1941. He was editor of Encounter magazine from 1953 to 1966, but resigned after it emerged that the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which published the magazine, was being covertly funded by the CIA. Spender always insisted that he was unaware of the ultimate source of Encounter's funds. Spender taught at various American institutions, accepting the Elliston Chair of Poetry at the University of Cincinnati in 1954. In 1961 he became professor of rhetoric at Gresham College, London.

Late life

Spender was Professor of English at University College, London, 1970-77, and then became Professor Emeritus.

In 1980, following a lecture in Oneonta, New York, Spender's plane was grounded due to bad weather, so he took a taxi 287 miles to Manhattan for a date with Jacqueline Onassis. "I simply had to get there," he said. [1]

Spender was made a CBE in 1962 and knighted in 1983.

His son Matthew is married to the daughter of artist Arshile Gorky.


Spender's sexuality has been the subject of debate. Spender's seemingly changing attitudes towards homosexuality and heterosexuality have caused him to be labeled bisexual, repressed, latently homophobic, or simply someone so complex as to resist easy labelling. Many of his friends in his earlier years were gay. Spender himself had many affairs with men in his earlier years, most notably with Tony Hyndman (who is called "Jimmy Younger" in his memoir World Within World). Following his affair with Muriel Gardiner he shifted his focus to heterosexuality,[2] though his relationship with Hyndman complicated both this relationship and his short-lived marriage to Inez Maria Pearn (1936-39). His marriage to concert pianist Natasha Litvin in 1941 seems to have marked the end of his romantic relationships with men. Subsequently, he toned down homosexual allusions in later editions of his poetry. The following line was revised in a republished edition:

Whatever happens, I shall never be alone. I shall always have a boy, a railway fare, or a revolution.

It was later revised to read:

Whatever happens, I shall never be alone. I shall always have an affair, a railway fare, or a revolution.

Spender sued author David Leavitt for allegedly using his relationship with "Jimmy Younger" in Leavitt's While England Sleeps in 1994. The case was settled out of court with Leavitt removing certain portions from his text.

Selected bibliography


  • Nine Experiments (1928, privately printed)
  • Twenty Poems (1930)
  • Poems (1933; 2nd edition 1934)
  • Vienna (1934)
  • The Still Centre (1939)
  • Ruins and Visions (1942)
  • Spiritual Exercises (1943, privately printed)
  • Poems of Dedication (1947)
  • The Edge of Being (1949)
  • Collected Poems, 1928-1953 (1955)
  • Selected Poems (1965)
  • The Express (1966)
  • The Generous Days (1971)
  • Selected Poems (1974)
  • Recent Poems (1978)
  • Collected Poems 1928-1985 (1986)
  • Dolphins (1994)
  • New Collected Poems, edited by Michael Brett, (2004)

Letters and journals

  • Letters to Christopher: Stephen Spender's Letters to Christopher Isherwood (1980)
  • Journals, 1939-1983 (1985)

Criticism, travel books, and essays

  • The Destructive Element (1935)
  • Forward from Liberalism (1937)
  • Life and the Poet (1942)
  • European Witness (1946)
  • Poetry Since 1939 (1946)
  • The God That Failed (1949, with others, ex-Communists' testimonies)
  • Learning Laughter (1952)
  • The Creative Element (1953)
  • The Making of a Poem (1955)
  • The Struggle of the Modern (1963)
  • The Year of the Young Rebels (1969)
  • Love-Hate Relations (1974)
  • Eliot (1975; Modern Masters series)
  • W. H. Auden: A Tribute (edited by Spender, 1975)
  • The Thirties and After (1978)
  • China Diary (with David Hockney, 1982)
  • Love-Hate Relations (1974)
  • The Thirties and After (1978)


  • Trial of a Judge (1938)
  • The Oedipus Trilogy (1985)


  • World Within World (1951)


  • The Burning Cactus (1936, stories)
  • The Backward Son (1940)
  • Engaged in Writing (1958)
  • The Temple (written 1928; published 1988)


  1. ^ Quoted in Richard R. Bozorth, "But Who Would Get It?": Auden and the Codes of Poetry and Desire (ELH 62.3 [1995] 709-727).
  2. ^ MS letter, 14 September 1934, Huntington Library, quoted in John Sutherland, Spender, Sir Stephen Harold (1909–1995)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [, accessed 24 October 2006

Further reading

  • Hynes, Samuel, The Auden Generation (1976)
  • Sutherland, John, Stephen Spender: The Authorized Biography (2004); US edition: Stephen Spender: A Literary Life (2005)

See also

  • List of Gresham Professors of Rhetoric
  • NY Review of books bibliography
  • "Spender's Lives" - Ian Hamilton, The New Yorker
  • "Stephen Spender, Toady: Was there any substance to his politics and art?" – Stephen Metcalf,, February 7, 2005
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