Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Born Today In 1909, English Poet Sir Stephen Spender

Sir Stephen Spender CBE was born today, February 28, in 1909. He was an English poet, novelist, and essayist who concentrated on themes of social injustice and the class struggle in his work. He was appointed Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the United States Library of Congress in 1965.

Spender was born in Kensington, London. Spender said at various times throughout his life that he never passed an exam, ever. Perhaps his closest friend and the man who had the biggest influence on him was W. H. Auden, who introduced him to Christopher Isherwood. The earliest version of Poems written by Auden was hand-printed by Spender. He left Oxford without taking a degree and in 1929 he moved to Hamburg. Isherwood invited him to come to Berlin. Every 6 months Spender went back to England.

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's—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..."
His early poetry, notably Poems (1933) was often inspired by social protest. Living in Vienna his convictions found further expression in Forward from Liberalism and in Vienna (1934), a long poem in praise of the 1934 uprising of Austrian socialists, and in Trial of a Judge (1938), an anti-Fascist drama in verse.

In 1936 he became a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Harry Pollitt, head of the CPGB invited him to write for the Daily Worker on the Moscow Trials. In late 1936, Spender married Agnes Maria (Inez) Pearn, whom he had only recently met at an Aid to Spain meeting. She is described as 'small and rather ironic,' and 'strikingly good-looking'. In 1937, during the Spanish civil war, the Daily Worker sent him to Spain. His mission was to observe and report on the Soviet ship Komsomol, which had sunk while carrying Soviet weapons to the Second Spanish Republic. Spender travelled to Tangier and tried to enter the country via Cadiz, but he was sent back. Then he travelled to Valencia and met Ernest Hemingway and Manuel Altolaguirre. Spender was imprisoned for a while in Albacete.  Because of medical problems he went back to England and bought a house in Lavenham. In 1939 he divorced.

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. 

After the war he was a member of the Allied Control Commission, restoring civil authority in Germany.

Spender co-founded Horizon magazine and served as its editor from 1939 to 1941. From 1947 till 1949 he went to the USA several times and saw his friends Auden and Isherwood. 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 U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. 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.

He helped found the magazine Index on Censorship, he was involved in the founding of the Poetry Book Society, and he did work for UNESCO.

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

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.

Spender's love life was complicated. In 1933, Spender fell in love with Tony Hyndman, and they lived together during 1935–1936. In 1934, Spender had an affair with Muriel Gardiner. 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. 

Spender's sexuality has been the subject of debate. Spender's seemingly changing attitudes 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. 

Auden, Spender, and Isherwood at Fire Island

While many had written that his marriage to Natasha ended his same-sex relations, six years into their second marriage Spender was photographed semi-naked while reveling with gay icons W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood on Fire Island, an über-gay venue if ever there were one. 

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, though his relationship with Hyndman complicated both this relationship and his short-lived marriage to Inez Pearn (1936–1939). His marriage to Natasha Litvin in 1941 seems to have marked the end of his romantic relationships with men, although not the end of all homosexual activity, as his unexpurgated diaries reveal. 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." 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.

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

1 comment:

Raybeard said...

I think his reputation regarding poetry achievements has faded a little, at least since my schooldays, and perhaps unfairly - whereas Auden's has conspicuously increased, which gives me some satisfaction, helped in no small measure by the 'Four Weddings' film, of course.