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Spender, Richard

Category: Poet

Richard Spender [27th June 1921 – 29th March 1943] was an English musician and a published poet held in high regard. Some of his poems were published during his lifetime in prestigious periodicals including Country Life, the Times Literary Supplement and The Observer. He was once referred to in the Daily Telegraph as the Rupert Brooke of the Second World War and his poems were published by Sidgwick and Jackson.  He was killed in the Second World War aged only 21,  leaving us with just three books of his poetry:

·         ‘Laughing Blood’ (1942) ‘Parachute Battalion

·         Last poems from England and Tunisia’ (1943)

·         ‘The Collected Poems‘(1944)  

Many have heard of Stephen Spender, the poet, and maybe even of his brother Humphrey Spender (19 April 1910 – 11 March 2005) the British photographer, painter, and designer.  They may also have heard of Michael Spender the English explorer, and surveyor, who was a leader in photo-interpretation in the Second World War, an RAF squadron leader and a brother of the poet Stephen Spender and the artist Humphrey Spender.

But Richard Spender, was no close relation to any of the Spender family you may have heard of [Humphrey Spender was a fourth cousin], even though his poetry was vibrant and his imagery startling.  At one time Richard Spender was classed with all the other poets of World War Two.  But for everybody who remembers Wilfred Owen or Rupert Brooke who really remembers Richard Spender?

Visions, voices and ecstasy

We are often apt to linger on the poems of poets whose character is outrageous, or those who display acres of angst or pain, but although Richard Spender’s poems from the War reflect the horrors of war, he also intersperses them with the contrasting poems of joy and peace that were written when he was in the countryside,  with a lover or simply at peace with himself.

In an Oxford Study

The fire’s eye winks
On stone grate, joined beam and book.
Over the bells’ chimes
That filter through my window
Like stars on a silent blanket
A piano struts about the air;
And like a plough boy to some city slave
Strolls whistling down the lanes of memory,
Or lifts the crows of coming years from off their tree.
Fingers grope for half learnt chords,
Whilst classic air and jazz tune
Climb the stairway, faltering,
To stay and linger round my chair. 

Perhaps of great import is that he had visions, - ecstatic visions - and the war brought them to an end .  His sorrow was that he no longer heard the Thousand voices

The Thousand Voices

The thousand voices that have sung
The wings, the silver shining wings that flew
In brilliant, blinding choirs about,
About and yet about, from hall to hall
Within the grave pavilions of my soul
Lie mute and still
No bird, shot with keenest cruellest arrow,
Fell so utterly, fell so brokenly
To the grim ungiving ground.
No bird, fallen from the fairest finest flight
Lay so scattered and so still
My heart has neither birds nor song
All that remains is earthly
And the low material craving
The hopes of Light are gone -
Of Light and some strange wonder
In an unseen star
An unknown, high ideal.

As such he is of great interest to us on this site.

A Short Life

Richard was born in Hereford on the 27th of June 1921 the youngest of four children.  After a period spent in London he moved to Stratford-on-Avon where he went to King Edward VI School, Stratford-on-Avon from 1930 to 1940 [where Shakespeare had been a pupil].  There he was Captain of School and the School has now honoured Richard Spender with a brand new building that houses the school library and both the English and Computer Studies Departments.   The dedication that is to be found in his collected poems reads.

To my Mother and Father and to King Edward VI School, Stratford-on-Avon, because their joint conspiracy gave me the happiest first twenty-one years of life that anyone could dream of having.

He also wrote a poem about his schooldays and how happy they were and how inspiring, a refreshing contrast to the picture often painted by other poets of their schools.

From Embarkation Leave

Amid the silence and the coolness of this roof,
Where the hewn beams meet upon the plaster’s white
Like fingers raised in prayer – somewhere here
Watch the spirits of a host of wise and daring men.
I stood in this music-filled stillness –
Eternity stole from the warehouse of Time –
Hearing in the distance the stamping runs and shouts
Of boys playing. I heard grave voices speak.
They have taken me by the hand and led me;
They have strengthened my heart and made it see a Truth
Which, yesterday, my eyes were feared to look upon.

Initially he was a delicate child but he soon grew stronger and spent his early days roaming the countryside and exploring the river.  He grew into a fine athlete and was a keen rower and a boxer and also enjoyed rugby a great deal.  He was described as a charismatic, charming young man, hence his nickname “The Laughing Cavalier”.

In 1940 at the age of nineteen he found himself in Oxford studying Modern History, but not for long, because he, like a great number of young men of his generation decided to enlist.

He was at first in the young soldier’s battalion of the Gloucestershire Regiment and then progressed into the Royal Ulster Rifles.  At first he was an instructor, but in October 1942 he volunteered to join the Parachute Regiment and soon was on his way to Africa with the 2nd Battalion.

Just over six months later on the night of the 28th – 29th of March 1943 he was killed leading his men in attack against German machine-gun positions in Sedjenane in Northern Tunisia, during Operation Torch.

His loss was keenly felt by men and officers of the 2nd Parachute Battalion.

Victor Dover, a fellow officer in the battalion, recorded many years later: “His death left a gap of friendship which was never filled. A character who was so much more colourful than fiction.” His friends saw him as a kind, sensitive, energetic and happy person. These positive qualities endured even during the intense fighting and hardships of Operation Torch. One soldier who served under him commented: “He was different from any other officer I served with…. a real character and a brave man.”

He was later buried in the Military Cemetery in Tabarka.

In Remembrance of Richard Spender - November 14, 2017 by Sylvia Morris

Had Shakespeare died at the age of 21 we would all be the poorer. He would never have written anything of note: without knowing it, we would have lost his insights into human life, expressed in unrivalled poetry through vivid characters and situations. The sense of loss for young lives unfulfilled is always felt most sharply in November, when we honour those whose lives have been cut short by war …..In March 1943 the young soldier Richard Spender died in action in North Africa. He was 21, and was beginning to make his mark as a poet. Because he died so young it’s impossible to say how successful he might have been, but there are enough clues in what he wrote to be sure that he would have been a writer of note.




 many are by Paul Nash, that to the right, for example is entitled Battle of Britain.


Only one book of Richard's poems was published before he died -  Laughing Blood.  He gave strict instructions regarding editing and publishing:

" Now – I will not have any Latin or Greek in my book. It is of poems of now, & I hope they are full of the life, urgency & wonder that is truth, & a bit of cobwebbed Latin at the top can do no good at all. I will not have any dead languages near it. Final. ... the book's nett tone is one (I hope) of optimistic resolve. "

Richard sent nine poems home shortly before his death, while serving with the Parachute Regiment in Tunisia, and which were published posthumously as Parachute Battalion: Last Poems from England and Tunisia (November 1943); in publication order:

  • 'Before the First Parachute Descent' (opening: "All my world has suddenly gone quiet/ Like a railway carriage as it draws into a station/ Conversation fails, laughter dies..."),
  • 'Wing and Arrow' ("...The girl who wears a badge of wings/ Holds hands across tea cups with the man/ Who breaks the bombers flight with rushing shell./ Thus does the bird love the arrow./ And thus the bow kisses the wing it pierces..."),
  • Embarkation Leave' -the three poems that make up the sequence 'Embarkation Leave' - 'Train Journey', 'Big School' and 'School Chapel',
  • 'Heart's Song' ("...'Learn to laugh until you're blind,/ 'And then the fear that lurks behind/ 'Will not be seen, will not be known..."),
  • 'Women of Sleep' (ending: "For I have seen men, who had kissed you in darkness,/ Wake to your cold sister Death's chilly stare"),

Although a Collected Works was published after his death, in November  2017 a collection of his poems together with a biography was published, offering a fitting and permanent recognition.  The collection is edited by Richard Pearson, School Archivist for King Edward VI, and Perry Mills, Deputy Headmaster of King Edward VI School.

Called “The Laughing Cavalier, Spender’s Collected Poems” it contains a number of his already published poems along with many published for the first time. They bear witness to his love of his school and of the town and surrounding countryside: rowing on the Avon was a favourite pastime and the river often finds its way into his poems.

From River:

The river moves beneath a breath
Of mists that swirl and whirl and eddy
In currents of a faery book. ............
Dark descends, and the trees retreat into the pillow of the soft black night.
Banks fade within the breathing silence
And the river is a long glass road
Cutting the velvet of the sleeping fields
And chuckling elfishly beneath the boat.


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