"Spender's Lives," by Ian Hamilton

excerpts from The New Yorker, February 28, 1994

In 1960, Spender was renowned as a figure from the past--a poet of the nineteen-thirties--and his work was deeply out of fashion. Indeed, the 1930s were out of fashion, and [he was] seen as a tragicomic literary epoch in which poets had absurdly tried, or pretended, to engage with current politics--one in which pimply young toffs had linked arms with muscular proletarians in order to "repel the Fascist threat" when they weren’t at Sissington or Garsinghurst for the weekend, sucking up to Bloomsbury grandees. The Homintern, Cyril Connolly had called them--"psychological revolutionaries, people who adopt left-wing political formulas because they hate their fathers or were unhappy at their public schools or insulted at the Customs, or lectured about sex." Someone else had dubbed Spender "the Rupert Brooke of the Depression."

We undergraduates liked to repeat these gibes. Most of us had been told in school that of all the thirties poets Spender was the one whose reputation had been most inflated. He lacked the complexity of Auden, the erudition of Louis MacNeice, the cunning of Cecil Day-Lewis. 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. I remember my school’s English teacher--an acolyte, I later learned, of F. R. Leavis--reading aloud from Spender’s "I think continually of those who were truly great" and substituting for "great" words like "posh" and "rich" and "queer." The same piece involving Spender’s "Pylons, those pillars / Bare like nude, giant girls that have no secret." "Even you lot," he would say, "might draw the line at girls who looked like that."

My teacher was in line with current critical opinion. He usually was. The late fifties was a period of skeptical nay-saying. It was modish to be cagey, unillusioned. The only brave cause left was the cause of common sense, the only decent political standpoint the refusal to be taken in. "Look what happened in the thirties!" was the common cry. And it was not just political wind-baggery that was distrusted. There was suspicion, too, of anything religiose, arty, or intense. "A neutral tone is nowadays preferred," Donald Davie wrote in a mid-fifties poem called "Remembering the ‘Thirties." And Thom Gunn--the young poet we nineteen-sixties students most admired--was preaching a doctrine of butch self-reliance:

        I think of all the toughs through
	And thank heaven they lived,
	I praise the overdogs from Alexander
	To those who would not play with 
	    Stephen Spender.

It was better, Gunn said, "To be insensitive, to steel the will, / Than sit irresolute all day at stool / Inside the heart." Such tough talk was music to our ears.

After the war, Spender joined UNESCO as Counsellor to the Section of Letters, and this marked an new phase of his celebrity: a twenty-year-long stint as a kind of globe-trotting cultural emissary. The postwar years were good years in which to be an intellectual. The civilized world had to be rebuilt, but thoughtfully: this time, we had to get it right. Huge congresses were organized at which famous thinkiers debated the big questions: "Freedom and the Artist," "The Role of the Artist," "Art and the Totalitarian Threat." Spender was in regular attendance at such gatherings in Europe, and was soon in demand for trips to India, Japan, even Australia. These "junketings," as he described them, were usually paid for by the Congress for Cultural Freedom, based in Washington, as part of America’s herats-and-minds offensive against Communism. In 1953, he was approached by the congress to edit the literary side of a new monthly, Encounter, which would be "anti-Communist in policy but not McCarthyite." (He was told that the money for it cam from the Farfield Foundation, a supposedly independent body.) Spender, it had been noted, contributed to the much discussed 1949 anthology "The God That Failed," a collection of contrite essays by six of Europe’s most prominent ex-Communists. His 1936 flirtation with the Party was no longer to be laughed at: he had experienced that of which he spake, and could thus be seen as a Cold Warrior of high potential.

As Spender saw it, there was nothing at all warlike in the politics he’d settled for--a politics that transcended immediate East-West disputes, that dealt not in power plays but in moral absolutes. "I am for neither West nor East," he wrote in 1951, "but for myself considered as a self--one of the millions who inhabit the earth." Freedom of speech, the preeminence of the individual conscience--in short, the mainstream liberal verities--would from now on be the components of his faith.

He had by this time become the Spender who disconcerted us in Oxford. No longer the holy fool of thirties leg-end, he was transmuting into an itinerant representative of liberal unease. During the late fifties and throughout the sixties, Spender was perpetually on the move, sometimes as troubled ambassador for Western values, for the congress, for International PEN, or for the British Council, and agency for promoting British culture abroad, and sometimes as hard-up literary journeyman, lecturing on modern poetry at Berkeley or Wesleyan or the University of Florida--wherever the fees were sufficiently enticing--or dreaming up viable book projects, such as "Love-Hate Relations," a study of Anglo-American literary relationships, and "The Year of the Young Rebels," and account of the 1968 upheavals in Paris, Prague, New York, and West Berlin.


Document URL: http://www.english.upenn.edu/~afilreis/50s/spender-in-1960.html
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