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Spender, Stephen

Category: Poet

Sir Stephen Harold Spender CBE (28 February 1909 – 16 July 1995) was an English poet, novelist and essayist.  Perhaps his closest friend and the man who had the biggest influence on him was W. H. Auden.  Spender was also acquainted with fellow Auden Group members such as Louis MacNeice, and Cecil Day-Lewis. He mixed in the company of people like W. B. Yeats, Ted Hughes, Dylan Thomas, Jean-Paul Sartre and T. S. Eliot, as well as members of the Bloomsbury Group, in particular Virginia Woolf.

Spender helped found the magazine Index on Censorship, he was involved in the founding of the Poetry Book Society, and he did work for UNESCO.  After the war Spender made several visits to the United States, teaching and lecturing at a number of universities and 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, and in 1965 became the first non-American to serve as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress (now poet laureate consultant in poetry), a position he held for one year.

The Still Centre (1939)
A poet can only write about what is true to his own experience, not about what he would like to be true to his experience.  Poetry does not state truth, it states the conditions within which something felt is true.
Even while he is writing about the little portion of reality which is part of his experience, the poet may be conscious of a different reality outside.
His problem is to relate the small truth to the sense of a wider, perhaps theoretically known, truth outside his experience.

In 1970 he was appointed professor of English at University College, London; he became professor emeritus in 1977.  Spender was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) at the 1962 Queen's Birthday Honours, and knighted in the 1983 Queen's Birthday Honours.

In 1995 received a Golden PEN Award.  The Golden PEN Award for a Lifetime’s Distinguished Service to Literature is presented annually to a British Writer. The winner is chosen by the Board of English PEN. 

Left Auden with Spender and Isherwood


Spender was born in Kensington, London, to journalist Harold Spender and Violet Hilda Schuster, a painter and poet. Through his mother he gained an understanding of the Jewish people.  His mother 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. It is worth adding that Spender's second wife, Natasha, whom he married in 1941, was also Jewish.
See below:  Spender with Natasha and his children

Spender has been labelled as an atheist or an agnostic, even a communist, and perhaps to his contemporaries, as opposed to his friends, that is how he wanted to appear, but Spender wrote ‘Spiritual exercises’, a most extraordinary poem, which we have included on the site in its entirety.

It is true that Spender, born right in the middle of the Great War of 1914-18, was unlikely to have much time for those who believed in a father figure God, but he was not without some very strong beliefs when it came to spirituality and metaphysics. 

When asked the question ‘What do you believe?’ I suppose it to mean, first and foremost, ‘Do you believe in God?’
My mind is a blank with regard to this, as to similar questions……………..
Attempts to rationalise metaphysical beliefs seem to me to lead to absurd conclusions by trying to make sense of what is beyond our power of reasoning and, indeed, the reach of language.

Left Spender by Wyndham Lewis
Initially drawn to the left wing of politics in his youth, as an antidote to the social ills that were all too prevalent at the time, Spender soon realised that Socialism and Communism were simply another form of totalitarianism, a means of gathering power to a new elite, worse than the last, whose aim was simply to amass power and wealth.  In 1937, Spender wrote "Forward From Liberalism," and was invited to join the British Communist Party.  It was an association that lasted only a few weeks. "I wrote something for The Daily Worker attacking the party," he recalled later, "and that was the last I heard of my membership."

He was one of those who wrote of their disillusionment with communism in the essay collection The God that Failed (1949), which collects six essays written by ex-communist writers and journalists. The common theme of the essays is the authors' disillusionment with and abandonment of communism. The six contributors were Louis Fischer, André Gide, Arthur Koestler, Ignazio Silone, Stephen Spender, and Richard Wright.

From Stephen Spender, Poet of Melancholic Vision and Social Conscience  - Eric Pace  July 18, 1995 [New York Times]

In the 1930's, Stephen Spender was one of a small number of young poets who gave a new direction to English letters by insisting that poetry be linked to political and social concerns …… sometimes Mr. Spender was described as "Shelleyan" because of the fervor of his call for sweeping change and of his lyrical way with words. …….  "We are living in a political age. That is to say political beliefs and events play a part in the lives of contemporaries which religious and spectacular warnings of the working out of doom amongst the great used to play in the past.  Poets are faced, then, with the problem of transforming into the comprehensive terms of the imagination the chaos of this politically obsessed world."

In the late 1920's, MacNeice described Spender as "redeeming the world by introspection," and he remained involved with the world and its continuing need for redemption in his poetry and prose, as critic and commentator.

Spender’s confusing private fife

Spender’s mother died when he was 12 and his father not many years later; Stephen and his three siblings were left under the care of their maternal grandmother, Hilda Schuster. He grew up tall and handsome, not always helpful when one is packed off to boarding school.  Spender was a victim of the UK’s private school system, going to Hall School in Hampstead and then at thirteen to Gresham's School, Holt and later Charlecote School in Worthing [where he was caned, repeatedly]. On the death of his mother [she was just forty when she died], he was transferred to University College School (Hampstead). 

Sir William Coldstream
Inez Spender

Like many sent to public schools from an early age, Spender became bi-sexual.  And I use the words became advisedly here, as if not sent to public school, it is clear he would have been heterosexual.  This separation from his mother and father, the subsequent death of his mother and his education in several all-boys schools, had a profound effect – as it nearly always does, on one who is naturally sensitive.  Put bluntly, if one has been kissed and had sexual relations with boys all one’s formative years, one cannot but believe it to be ‘normal.’ 

Couple this with a life which virtually excludes contact with any women including one’s own mother, one is going to find it exceptionally difficult to know how to behave normally with women.  One will probably never have known tenderness, or compassion or kindness, for example.  Despite all this trauma, however, it is worth emphasising that Spender himself is described as kindly, shy and compassionate.

"But Who Would Get It?" Auden and the Codes of Poetry and Desire - Richard R. Bozorth

 In 1988 Stephen Spender published The Temple, a novel he first drafted in 1929. The Temple recounts how Paul Schoner, a young Englishman, discovers in Germany a subculture devoted to youth and the male body, and this subculture’s disturbing overlap with the rise of Nazism. The author and his friends have pseudonyms, …. but in its explicitness about homosexuality, The Temple recalls Christopher and His Kind, Isherwood’s 1976 outing of life in the 1930s. In his introduction, Spender describes how his publisher, Geoffrey Faber, “pointed out that there could be no question of publishing a novel which... was pornographic according to the law at that time.” The force of censorship [is exemplified by the then ] recent suppression of Ulysses and The Well of Loneliness…. However Another result of censorship was to make us wish to write precisely about those subjects which were most likely to result in it...

In 1933, Spender fell in love with Tony Hyndman, and they lived together from 1935–36.  But in 1934, Spender had an affair with Muriel Gardiner [above].

 In a letter to Christopher Isherwood in September 1934 he said: "I find boys much more attractive, in fact I am rather more than usually susceptible, but actually I find the actual sexual act with women more satisfactory, more terrible, more disgusting, and, in fact, more everything."

 In 1936, shortly after the end of his relationship with Tony Hyndman, Spender fell in love with and married Agnes Maria Pearn (known as Inez Pearn). This marriage broke down in 1939. In 1941, Spender married Natasha Litvin, a concert pianist. This marriage lasted until his death.
Their daughter Lizzie [left] is married to the Australian actor and comedian Barry Humphries, [yes that Barry Humphries] .

And their son Matthew Spender is married to the daughter of the Armenian artist Arshile Gorky.

Works and Career

Spender said at various times throughout his life that he never passed an exam, ever. He left Oxford without taking a degree

Encyclopedia Britannica

A nephew of the Liberal journalist and biographer J.A. Spender, Stephen Spender was educated at University College School, London, and at University College, Oxford. While an undergraduate he met the poets W.H. Auden and C. Day-Lewis, and during 1930–33 he spent many months in Germany with the writer Christopher Isherwood. Among important influences shown in his early volumes—

  • Poems (1933),
  • Vienna (1934),
  • Trial of a Judge, a verse play (1938), and
  • The Still Centre (1939)

—were the poetry of the German Rainer Maria Rilke and of the Spaniard Federico García Lorca.
Right Mathew Spender
Above all, his poems expressed a self-critical, compassionate personality. In the following decades Spender, in some ways a more personal poet than his early associates, became increasingly more autobiographical, turning his gaze from the external topical situation to the subjective experience. His reputation for humanism and honesty is fully vindicated in subsequent volumes—

  • Ruins and Visions (1942),
  • Poems of Dedication (1947),
  • The Edge of Being (1949),
  • Collected Poems (1955),
  • Selected Poems (1965),
  • The Generous Days (1971), and
  • Dolphins (1994).

From the 1940s Spender was better known for his perceptive criticism and his editorial association with the influential reviews Horizon (1940–41) and Encounter (1953–67) than he was as a poet. Spender’s prose works include

  • short stories (The Burning Cactus, 1936),
  • a novel (The Backward Son, 1940),
  • literary criticism (The Destructive Element, 1935; The Creative Element, 1953; The Making of a Poem, 1955; The Struggle of the Modern, 1963),
  • an autobiography (World Within World, 1951; reissued 1994), and
  • uncollected essays with new commentary (The Thirties and After, 1978).

As it was for many of his contemporaries, the Spanish Civil War for Mr. Spender was a searing experience. “  During the Spanish civil war, Spender tried to enter the country via Cadiz, but was sent back. Then he traveled to Valencia and met with Ernest Hemingway and Manuel Altolaguirre. Spender was imprisoned for a while in Albacete.

Spender was a pacifist.  During World War II, he was a member of the National Fire Service (1941–44).  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. In 1942 he joined the fire brigade of Cricklewood and Maresfield Gardens as a volunteer.

Right   Arshile Gorky
After the war he was member of the Allied Control Commission, restoring civil authority in Germany.  As we can thus see, Britannica’s assessment is very accurate, he was indeed guided by humanism and honesty.  It makes it even more sad when we see how his honesty and perhaps innocence were exploited.  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's Lives" by Ian Hamilton in The New Yorker, (28 February 1994)

He was the one who had believed the slogans — "Oh young men oh young comrades" — and, after the war, the one who had recanted most shamefacedly. He was the fairest of fair game...

Spender always insisted that he was unaware of the ultimate source of Encounter's funds and there is no need to doubt him.

John Sutherland in "A talent for friendship" : a review of Stephen Spender: The Authorised Biography (2004)

"But do you really think I'm any good?" a nervous Stephen Spender asked WH Auden, some six weeks after they'd met. "Of course," Auden said. "Because you are so infinitely capable of being humiliated."
Humiliation was Spender's lifetime companion. Few poets have been more savagely reviewed. And none has nurtured a greater sense of inadequacy. This is the man who, having dismissed John Lehmann as a potential lover because he was a "failed version of myself", adds: "but I also regarded myself as a failed version of myself." With Spender, self-deprecation reaches comic extremes of self-abasement.


On 16 July 1995, Spender died of a massive heart attack in Westminster, London, aged 86.

In memory of him, The Stephen Spender Trust was founded to widen knowledge of 20th century literature, with particular focus on Stephen Spender’s circle of writers, and to promote literary translation. The Trust's activities include poetry readings; academic conferences; a seminar series in partnership with the Institute of English Studies; an archive programme in conjunction with the British Library and the Bodleian; work with schools via Translation Nation; The Guardian Stephen Spender Prize, an annual poetry translation prize established in 2004; and the Joseph Brodsky/Stephen Spender Prize, a worldwide Russian–English translation competition.



Poetry collections

  • 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)
  • An Elementary Classroom


  • Trial of a Judge  (1938)
  • Rasputin's End (opera libretto, music by Nicolas Nabokov, 1958)
  • The Oedipus Trilogy (1985)

Novels and short story collections

  • The Burning Cactus (1936, stories)
  • The Backward Son (1940)
  • Engaged in Writing (1958)
  • The Temple - Spender began work on this novel in 1929.  It was not published until 1988.

Criticism, travel books and essays

  • The Destructive Element (1935)
  • Forward from Liberalism (1937)
  • Life and the Poet (1942)
  • Citizens in War – and After (1945)
  • 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; Fontana Modern Masters)
  • W. H. Auden: A Tribute (edited by Spender, 1975)
  • The Thirties and After (1978)
  • China Diary (with David Hockney, 1982)


  • World Within World (1951). This autobiography is a re-creation of much of the political and social atmosphere of the 1930s.


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