Sir Stephen Harold Spender was an English poet, novelist and essayist who concentrated on themes of social injustice and the class struggle in his work. He was appointed the seventeenth Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the United States Library of Congress in 1965.
Spender was born in Kensington, London, to journalist, Edward Harold Spender and Violet Hilda Schuster, a painter and poet. He went first to Hall School in Hampstead and then at thirteen to Gresham's School, Holt and later Charlecote School in Worthing, but was unhappy there. On the death of his mother he was transferred to University College School (Hampstead), which he later described as "that gentlest of Schools." Spender subsequently went up to University College, Oxford where, in 1973, he was made an honorary fellow. He left Oxford without taking a degree and subsequently lived for periods of time in Germany. He 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. Around this time he was also friends with Christopher Isherwood (who had also lived in Weimar Germany), and fellow Macspaunday members Louis MacNeice and Cecil Day-Lewis. He was friendly with David Jones and later come to know W. B. Yeats, Allen Ginsberg, Ted Hughes, Joseph Brodsky, Isaiah Berlin, Mary McCarthy, Roy Campbell, Raymond Chandler, Dylan Thomas, Jean-Paul Sartre and T. S. Eliot, as well as members of the Bloomsbury Group, in particular Virginia Woolf.
His early poetry, notably Poems (1933) was often inspired by social protest. His convictions found further expression in Vienna (1934), a long poem in praise of the 1934 uprising of Viennese socialists, and in Trial of a Judge (1938), an anti-Fascist drama in verse. His autobiography, World within World (1951), is a re-creation of much of the political and social atmosphere of the 1930s.
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—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...
When the Spanish civil war began, he went to Spain with the International Brigades (who were fighting against Francisco Franco's forces) to report and observe for the Communist Party of Great Britain. Harry Pollitt, head of the CPGB, told Spender "to go and get killed; we need a Byron in the movement."
His 1938 translations of works by Berthold Brecht and Miguel Hernández appeared in John Lehmann's New Writing.
A member of the political left wing during this early period, he was one of those who wrote of their disillusionment with communism in the essay collection The God that Failed (1949), along with Arthur Koestler and others. It is thought that one of the big areas of disappointment was the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, which many leftists saw as a betrayal. 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. Spender spent the winter of 1940 teaching at Blundell's School, having taken the position left vacant by Manning Clark, who returned to Australia as a consequence of the war to teach at Geelong Grammar.
He felt close to the Jewish people; his mother, Violet Hilda Schuster, 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). Spender's second wife, Natasha, whom he married in 1941, was also Jewish.
After the war he was member of the Allied Control Commission, restoring civil authority in Germany.
With Cyril Connolly and Peter Watson Spender co-founded Horizon magazine and served as its editor from 1939 to 1941. 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 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.
At a ceremony commemorating the 40th Anniversary of the Normandy Invasion, D-day on 6 June 1984, President Ronald Reagan quoted from Spender's poem "The Truly Great" in his remarks:
Gentlemen, I look at you and I think of the words of Stephen Spender's poem. You are men who in your "lives fought for life... and left the vivid air signed with your honor."
In 1933, Spender fell in love with Tony Hyndman, and they lived together 1935-36. 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 Inez Maria 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 is married to the Australian actor/comedian Barry Humphries, and their son Matthew is married to the daughter of the Armenian artist Arshile Gorky.
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 labeling. Many of his friends in his earlier years were gay. 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 Maria Pearn (1936–39). His marriage to Natasha Litvin in 1941 seems to have marked the end of his romantic relationships with men. 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.
Spender died from heart failure in Westminster, London, at 86.
Stephen Spender Memorial Trust
The Stephen Spender Memorial Trust was founded in 1997 to commemorate Spender's life and works and to encourage some of his principal interests: poetry, poetic translation, and freedom of creative expression. The Trust aims to widen knowledge of Spender and his circle, help contemporary writers reach an English language audience, and promote literary translation from modern and ancient languages into English. The Trust runs a programme of grants to support translators, as well as an annual translation competition, The Times Stephen Spender Prize for Poetry Translation.