Terrorism and Trade Unionism, the most obvious forces at work in the politics of the free countries of Europe today, have almost nothing to offer to the literary imagination. This is in part because they are parodies or degenerate mutants of old-fashioned capitalism and its robber barons, exercising by force and fraud a degraded form of private enterprise at the expense of liberal institutions. Neither offers any real idea of an alternative society in the romantic sense in which anarchism and socialism once did. This fact alone makes the political climate of the Thirties, as it appeared to poets and intellectuals, seem infinitely far away, a fairy tale age of “new styles of architecture, a change of heart,” an age in which it was possible, even on the verge of a frightful abyss, to believe in human nature being born again.
The special flavor of Stephen Spender’s writing is, above all, a political flavor; its true originality that of a poet who swims in political and social speculation like a fish in water. Almost alone among authors who reflect upon the times (and they are not in short supply) he has a style of great directness and simplicity which, whether in poetry or in prose, seems to dissolve the hard gritty concepts and abstractions, the self-importance and self-protectiveness which the most sensitive intellectuals clutch about themselves and weave into their syntax and grammar. In a critical essay Spender once made a distinction between opaque and transparent styles. His own is extremely transparent: it seems artless, but without wishing to seem to conceal art.
The question of style is important, because it is by the formation of what may be called a style that most poets, novelists, and intellectuals who are associated with attitudes to events of the Thirties and after responded to those events. The most obvious style would be the jargon of the Party, with its comforting stress on the correct line, the historically inevitable solution. Malraux, Sartre, Koestler, Graham Greene—even, in their almost comically different fashion, Auden and Isherwood—exhibit subtler versions of this protective extrusion of style, a verbal version of the need to escape from the imbecile irrelevance of a society falling apart, to create a world elsewhere. The great strength of Spender, which gives a curious authority to his recollections, his narrative of his own and others’ feelings and responses, is that he never seems to have needed such a world or made any attempt to create one. His curiosity, his creative energy seem alike much more literal, more simplistic in a way, and all the more effective for that in presenting a medium in which other worlds may appear like the weeds and stones a fish encounters, in which the Thirties and the Seventies both seem present and alive, unhistorical and all around us. He regards the phenomena past and present in his life with an imagination of his own, which does not seem to be a literary imagination.
Spender has often been lumped together, as a convenience, with Auden and Isherwood, but that could not be more misleading. As an essayist and creative writer he functions in a manner radically different from either of his two contemporaries. To put it in the simplest terms, they were idealists and he was a realist, notwithstanding he was often assumed to be the most sentimental, indeed naïve, of the three, writing poetry full of aspirations and romantic hopes for himself and society. But whatever the appearances, he and his art were living in the real world in a sense in which they and theirs did not. Auden invented a world for his poetry to live in, that terse, enigmatic, factual fantasy of excitement and dread, the modernist world of the Helmeted Airman, which now seems to convey so much of the atmosphere of the Thirties.
As an undergraduate Spender set up Auden’s first poems on a hand-press in his Hampstead home, and in the address—reprinted here—he gave at Auden’s memorial service, he recalled the especial magic that resided for him in lines, openings, and whole poems that Auden subsequently dropped from his collected canon.
Tonight when a full storm sur- rounds the house
And the fire creaks, the many come to mind,
Sent forward in the thaw with anxious marrow….
No other poetry of our century has created such an immediate and vivid sense of its own unique existence, a blend of science and northern saga transposed into southern suburban England. But the tone of critical detachment and remorseless psychological authority, the game of an unknown party who in the bar “beckon their chosen out,” or plan to seize the post office across the river—all this is both a potent incantation and defense against the real, and the method by which an authentic and effective poetic imagination creates and conjures it up. Spender is a different kind of verbal artist whose characteristic effects are, sometimes disconcertingly, plain and direct. Auden insisted on the absolute gap between poetry and life. When he made the ritual pilgrimage to the Spanish civil war as an ambulance driver he returned in six weeks and “never spoke of his experiences”; nor did they become in any sense a part of his life—perhaps his actual experiences never did.
Spender, by contrast, has been reflecting and commenting ever since on the significance of his time in Spain: he did so in his autobiography, World Within World—one of the funniest and most penetrating of all contemporary essays in this genre—and he does so, even more illuminatingly, in this collection. He is fascinated by the reactions to it of himself and other intellectuals, and the lessons he learned from it. Like his other experiences it has directly influenced his poetry. He wrote poems there, some of his most moving and beautiful poems, which, like some of Whitman’s, are actually about impressions of war seen by a sensitive and observant poet, on the spot and without preconceptions. Incongruities are recorded there, as in the section on Spain in this prose collection, in a peculiarly individual and firsthand way—the cossetted machine-gun wrapped up like a granny in a shawl, the look of the dead under olive trees, the bizarre involuntary intimacy of friend and foe in trench warfare, “as if these enemies slept in each other’s arms.” Auden’s “Spain” is a mythological set-piece, like Yeats’s “Easter 1916,” almost a recital piece, intended to order and sanctify the muddle and dishonesty of the whole business, keep it at arm’s length from the poetry, the poet, and ourselves. None the worse for that—it takes a great poet to achieve this time-honored function of the poetic—but it is a very different thing from the lyric and lucid curiosity with which Spender has felt, seen, and recorded his experiences.
Isherwood’s literary imagination is equally distant from Spender’s. The Auden fantasy world became with him a much more clear, precise, and prosaic place, but in an important sense made up: Isherwood was not a camera but a brilliant literary impresario, constructing a world of sexual romance which could not be found in England but only in Germany, where, as we learn from his autobiography Christopher and His Kind, such a word as Tisch was magical because it signified the table in the Lokal where he met his friends, whereas “table” was his mother’s dining room in horrible, old, repressive, common-place England.
Germans had for Isherwood the same sexual glamour that the working class had for E.M. Forster, whom he hero-worshipped: perhaps because they needed this glamour so much they could not afford to find out too much, or see the beloved outside its enchanted compartment. Again a paradox. Spender might seem to have been the archetypal hero-worshipper, a bit crazy, full of abounding ardors; but underlying this was a shrewd perception and common sense that would not have been possible in the specialized worlds of Auden and Isherwood, who were apparently so much more sure-footed and beady-eyed, patronizing in an amused way the enthusiasms of the one who seemed to them the most unworldly member of their trio.
Spender of course knew, or came to know, Germany very well. In an extract of this book called “September Journal,” written just after war broke out in 1939, he reflects on visits there and friends, especially Ernst Robert Curtius. The picture of Curtius, “an egoist of the liberal, Goethe tradition,” is done with the kind of sympathy and warmth that only a very good novelist can command—understanding through loving, as Henry James said it should be done—and is as absorbing to read as those of the many other friends we meet in the book, like Cyril Connolly and Louis MacNeice. It is a pity that Spender has not written novels (we learn that he once wanted to be a novelist as much as to be a poet) because he likes people for their natural egos, instead of using his understanding of these against them, as usually happens in memoirs and recollections. He understands Curtius in just this way, through his awareness of himself.
His life was organized with an enlightened selfishness: he did not take more than he could take, nor give more than he could give. He would not put himself out, even for his best friends, if he thought that his own resilience was going to be depressed by their needs…. I asked a friend of his about this, and he told me how, at a period of crisis and confusion in his life, Ernst Robert had cut himself off from him completely. I myself have a tendency in my relationships with people never to refuse anything, and often to promise far more than I can undertake. I know how this leads to a feeling of resentment which affects one’s relationships with people, and to a fear of making new acquaintances who may plunge one into new commitments. Ernst Robert remained happy and broad and objective. He would not lose this by identifying with others in their predicaments…. He did not enter into their lives because his generosity lay in the freedom with which they could enter into his.
Connolly’s natural ego is appreciated in the same sort of way and with the same closeness of sympathy, in this case for the brilliant man who pines both for the rewards of art and for those of the beau monde. Where Bloomsbury looked down its nose (E.M. Forster observed that Connolly “discredited pleasure,” and Virginia Woolf referred to him as “that smartiboots”) Spender expresses a penetrating affection.
When he contemplated buying a car he became a sucker for ones with names like Sabre and Scimitar. What Yeats wrote of Keats sums up very well Cyril’s passion for goodies:
I see a schoolboy when I think of him
With face and nose pressed to a sweet-shop window.
…He had a strong Walter Mitty side which turned into self-parody. He and I were once both guests on a yacht rented by the Baroness A, who was extremely wealthy…. Cyril was soon fantasizing that he would marry the Baroness. Two spectators standing on the quayside of some Mediterranean harbor, seeing a white sail on the horizon, would remark: “Voyons! C’est le yacht du Baron Connolly!”
This intuitive feel and sympathy extends to societies—Spain, Germany, and America—and the interrelation within them between personalities and political and social trends. Having myself been in Germany at the end of the war I can testify to thinking that the only account of it that made sense was Spender’s in European Witness, which appeared in 1946. A selection from it is reissued for the first time in this volume. It is an admirable example of Spender’s tentacular and sympathetic curiosity, applied to personalities he met in those ruined and helpless cities, like the student Aulach, who was already exhibiting some of the same symptoms—in particular the invocation of a new charismatic authority to exorcise and replace the old—that appear today among the following of the Baader-Meinhof group.
Guilt and sorrow would perhaps anyhow in those circumstances have been unreal responses; but there was present in Germany then, as Spender intuited, contempt for the Nazis because they had failed, and a still more secret underlying contempt for the Poles and Jews because they had been slaughtered. The survivor’s mentality could there still be disagreeably close to the superman’s, and was expressed by Aulach who was himself partly Jewish (“his Nordic side was creative, bold, bad, generous, ruthless; his Jewish side was analytic and self-destructive”) in a self-justifying theory about devils, which, however jejune and repellent, made Spender feel “a strange and exciting sympathy for him.”
“A devil is outside his environment,…despises in his heart the whole social and political structure of our time…. If anything about it is real, it is the fact of the struggle itself—the violence, the hatred, the destruction, the chaos it involves.” Aulach said that he despised the Nazis because they were not honest devils. He said that there was a diabolic side of Hitler which he admired because Hitler really saw through the sham of bourgeois society.
It is still being seen through; and Spender’s gift is both to perceive the continuity of the process and to feel the attraction without in the least sharing it.
The empathy and the capacity for poetic identification—that Protean gift valued in poets by Coleridge—is the same whether in prewar Spain, pre- and post-war Germany, or present-day America; though on an American campus today Spender feels no sense of identification with that rather creepy detachment about their own lives and habits which is fashionable among some poets and intellectuals, and which is perhaps not entirely unrelated to the attitude of Aulach. What Spender reacts against here is a certain dehumanizing of ordinary life, and his reaction to it shows a hard reef of humanist morality underlying the ebb and flow of his sympathetic responses. At a campus gathering a poet reads a poem called “Adultery,” and attaches it by an anecdote directly to an event in his own life.
All the anecdotes were autobiographical and the poems seemed …like pages of a journal…. I felt embarrassed a bit for the poet’s wife who was sitting next to me. But she did not seem in the least concerned. American poets reading their poems take it for granted that their lives are the matière of their poetry, and if one says, “I wrote this after a three-day binge,” or “I was needing a shot when this came to me,”…or “the girl I fuck in this poem must now be about fortyfive. I look her up sometimes,” no one is any more suprised than he would be if a scientist referred to his caged rat or guinea pig.
The judgment is oddly harsh, perhaps the harshest in the book; and it is significant that Spender should fall back here on an earlier tradition of reticence in the face of this new dehumanized intimacy of American life. Old decencies are the best. In this respect at least the avant-garde trio never really got away, or wished to get away, from their earlier upbringing.
Merging naturally with these personal impressions are essays on writers of the Thirties and today, reflections on modern poetry, on “late Stravinsky listening to late Beethoven,” and accounts of the founding of Horizon and Encounter and of Spender’s resignation when the latter magazine was found to be subsidized by the CIA. Of particular interest are the prewar essays on joining the Communist Party, on Wyndham Lewis as a poet, and on Aragon’s collection of poems, The Red Front, which the young Spender dismissed with an independence most unusual in that circle at that time as odious and worthy of the Nazis themselves.
One of the best essays is on the verse plays which Auden and Isherwood wrote before the war, The Ascent of F6, The Dog Beneath the Skin, and On the Frontier. Spender is particularly well qualified to write of these because his own play Trial of a Judge is certainly the most effective and most moving of all these prewar poetic dramas; I would put it higher even than Murder in the Cathedral. The reasons are connected with what I earlier defined as Spender’s realism, in contrast to the fantasy worlds invented by the others, which would not exclude the special type of Anglo-Catholic apologetics canvassed by T.S. Eliot. A surprising thing about the theater is that it requires a more generalized representation of “reality” than need be necessary to either poetry or the novel: the action of Hamlet must really seem to take place in the Danish court, and Shakespeare has seen to it that his representation of the Danish court is an entirely convincing one.
This aspect of dramatic verisimilitude, which Spender instinctively understands, was ignored by Auden and Isherwood. As Spender points out, Lord Stagmantle, the newspaper proprietor in The Dog Beneath the Skin, and Valerian, the international industrialist of On the Frontier, are simply not convincing as portraits of men in their respective callings. Their authors are not interested in making them live, as Brecht or Shaw were careful to make their ideologically oriented characters live—Spender instances the portraits based on Asquith and Lloyd George in Back to Methuselah.
He points out that the art of such portraiture concentrates on the gap between the private man and the public one—“the interplay between the littleness of the man and the greatness of his position.” In Shakespeare, of course, the contrast between the two is much more subtle than this; but it exists, making such figures as Anthony and Cleopatra far more dramatically alive than they would be if the play concentrated on either their private lives or their public personalities. And Spender’s own Trial of a Judge, in addition to the beauty of its poetry, is moving and intricate in the ways in which it reveals in depth the dilemma of its characters, a dilemma in which—unlike those in the other poetic dramas of that time—all the private and political consciousness which we share is involved. It is rumored that Spender has been engaged for some time now in writing another verse play. Its production will be an event to look forward to.
January 25, 1979