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Stephen Spender’s New Selected Journals – Warm and Funny, Or Egotistical?

By Periscope @periscopepost
Stephen Spender, by Wyndham Lewis Stephen Spender, by Wyndham Lewis

The background

The poet Sir Stephen Spender’s New Selected Journals, 1939-1995, are out now, published by Faber & Faber and edited by Lara Feigel and John Sutherland. The journals are intended to show a more private face to the very public poet; his wife, Natasha Spender, helped to edit them (she has recently died.) During this period, he, amongst other things, edited Encounter – and weathered a crisis that suggested the magazine was sponsored by the CIA, as well as a novel by David Leavitt which reimagined Spender’s sexual relationship with a man in the Thirties. He also fell in love with a 20 year old, Bryan Obst, when he was 67. He knew everyone, met everyone, did everything. Critics are divided – do they show a gentle, humorous man, or a talentless egotist?

 “In real life, Stephen Spender was gentle and very tall, with wide-open pale blue eyes and a persistent air of slight hesitancy, as if he expected to be violently contradicted at any moment. He had one of the nicest voices I’ve ever heard, a voice which might have been made for poetry: impossible to imagine it raised in anger,” wrote his goddaughter Cressida Connolly in The Spectator.

Spender is absorbing, generous and funny

When Spender’s first wife, Inez Pearn, left him on the same day that Britain declared war on Germany, Spender wrote: “It so happens that the world has broken just at the moment when my own life has broken.” It’s this “combination of the public and private,” said Peter Parker on The Telegraph, that characterises his “life and career.” Spender had to “juggle” being a “poet, a critic and academic, a public intellectual … a husband and father who enjoyed numerous homosexual relationships.” This book “covers all aspects of its author’s crowded life.” But there are gaps – no mention of the Encounter scandal, for instance. There are “illuminating portraits” of Cecil Day-Lewis, Francis Bacon, Henry Moore, Igor Stravinsky, Isaiah Berlin (and many others.) Spender is a “vital” witness of the age he lived through – a “part of the Establishment.” And these journals are “absorbing, generous and funny.”

Spender is a talentless egotist

The text is often “subtantially” altered from comparable passages in the Journals published in 1985, said David Sexton in The Evening Standard – not to mention excisions, such as a classic episode where Spender farted in the street after going to the opera. But we learn now that W H Auden envied Spender because the latter had a larger penis (or so thought Spender). But he’s not a “good enough writer” to make his encounters with the famous “rewarding.” He was, basically, “mired in his talentless egotism.”

Listen to Spender reading his poem Thoughts on an Air Aid below:

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