COLLECTED POEMS, 1928-1985 By Stephen Spender. Random House. 204 pp. $19.95; JOURNALS, 1939-1983 By Stephen Spender. Random House. 488 pp. $19.95.
SIR STEPHEN SPENDER's new Collected Poems is slightly shorter than his 1955 collection, showing a modesty remarkable in a poet; and it restores some early poems dropped in 1955. The only one Spender cannot bear to reprint is "The Funeral," which he considers, rightly, to be his worst poem, though its absurdity (for the happy communists, "Death is another milestone on their way") is produced by the same attitudes that make his good poems attractive: an ardent idealism, an earnest dedication that leaves him vulnerable in his sympathy for the deprived and exploited, his hopes for a better world, his reverence for greatness and heroism, especially in art.
Spender's dedication to both art and social betterment, together with his love of travel and interest in other cultures and societies, make his Journals (from which many extracts have been published before over the years) fascinating. As co-editor of Horizon and then of Encounter, he knew everyone in the intellectual-cultural world. The book is full of amusing stories and perceptive observations about a great variety of people and places.
There are also interesting general comments on such matters as "the anti-creativeness of Oxford Senior Common Rooms where every impulse that provokes the unreasonable compulsive fantasizing effort which is creative dissolves in talk. . . . To write a poem or novel is to the Senior Common Room a way of giving yourself away, showing that you are unhappy, or obsessed, or in love, that there is something in you which has been held back and is not resolvable into the Oxford of shared conversation . . . to create anythingreveals your ignorance of what has been done already. Moreover, if you do it, you do it in one way rather than another, which indicates ignorance of the many alternative ways in which it might have been done, probably better." "Reading history in old age can easily become a passion, something that one seizes on. It gives an odd sense of d,eja vu; also, of discovering, at the end of a journey on some island upon which one has done servitude, the documents which explain about its past and why one has been put there."
THE MOST remarkable achievement of these Journals, however, is the picture they present of Spender himself. This is candid and often touching, as when he's called a "near-celebrity" or discusses the difficulties of being a minor poet ("I can't really convince myself my poetry gives pleasure to anyone. I feel apologetic sending it to a friend, humiliated sending it to an editor, as though asking a favour. . . .ing a minor poet is like being minor royalty, and no one, as a former lady-in-waiting to Princess Margaret once explained to me, is happy as that.") At a party someone hopes a drink will "stir the embers of creativity" in him. He knows his faults and limitations all too well: many of his published poems are botched, "full of energies, ideas, simplicities of lines, rhythms and images, crying to be let out. If only I could release them they might be positive instead of being, so many of them, the negative lumpish efforts which weight down my Collected Poems of 1955." He reproaches himself for "not having pressed ideas to the point of proof. So often I put aside the things I most deeply want to do -- the things that came from inside myself -- and did things which were proposed from the outside. Wrote a book of criticism which was suggested by a publisher -- instead of writing the novel I had in my head, or the poetry. Was too easily discouraged by a remark repeated to me or in a review -- turned back from a vein of work which I should have continued exploring. Distracted, lazy, pleasure-seeking, frivolous, ever ready to fall in with other people's wishes, desiring to please them, fearful of losing their good will. Years wasted, slipping by hour by hour . . . Thriftlessness, extravagance, folly."
On the other hand, he is aggrieved when not treated with the attention and deference he feels to be his due: "Still here after ten days without anyone in Nashville having invited me even for a drink . . . I feel mildly sorry for myself in this room, knowing no one here, with no one calling, and yet I also enjoy it with a kind of amused malice against the people who are neglecting me. I rather hope that no one will ever invite me -- and that people will say, ten years hence, 'they had SS for three months and no one took the slightest notice of him.'"
Homosexuality is an almost obsessive theme: he quotes a 1933 letter of Virginia Woolf saying that he "talks incessantly and will pan out in years to come a prodigious bore. But he's a nice poetic youth -- big nosed, bright eyed, like a giant thrush . . . He is writing about Henry James and has tea alone with Ottoline and is married to a Sergeant of the Guards. They have set up a new quarter in Maida Vale; I propose to call them the Lilies of the Valley." Spender comments, "Oh, blessed Virginia, if you look down on me from any height where you now live, help me in my old age not to be a bore. Boredom was taking tea with Ottoline. Boredom was writing about Henry James . . . " Rereading a novel he wrote in 1931, called The Temple, he says, "An absurdity is that I've made the main character -- myself -- a girl. This was doubtless out of fear of censorship." The most intense relationship in the Journals, however (aside from the omnipresent one with Auden, who haunts the Journals more after his death in 1973 than before), is that with his young friend B., an ornithologist who took Spender's writing course in Gainesville and continued teaching and researching in Florida and then California. He and Spender exchange visits and frequent telephone calls.
SPENDER IS always unsure of himself; he loves and reveres Auden, but wonders what he really thought of him: "during sleepless patches of the night I asked myself a question I certainly did not ask at the time -- did I really like Wystan? To attempt to answer the question I had to recall what Wystan thought of me. He thought I was a wild romantic, rather 'mad'. . . . To him I was, suppose, a kind of Dostoevskian Holy Fool. I was so tall, he once told me, because I wanted to reach heaven. . . . On the other hand, there was something about my utter vulnerability and openness which he respected. . . . He said, 'You will be a poet because you will always be humiliated' and he felt that I had a kind of truth. . . . I imagine he laughed at me a lot behind my back . . . Finally, he came to be slightly jealous of me for reasons not indeed to do with talent or success, but because I had a family. When, in May 1945, wearing GI's uniform, Auden arrived at our house in London, the first thing he said when I opened the front door was, 'You've got a son.'"
Eliot appears as always generous, courteous, benevolent; there is a marvelous passage describing his meeting with Stravinsky (surely deserving a place among legendary anticlimatic meetings of famous writers, like the one between Joyce and Proust): Stravinsky complained that his doctors said his blood was too thick, "so rich, so very rich, it might turn into crystals, like rubies, if I didn't drink beer, plenty of beer, and occasionally whisky, all the time . . . Eliot said meditatively: 'I remember that in Heidelberg when I was young I went to a doctor and was examined and the doctor said: 'Mr. Eliot, you have the thinnest blood I've ever tested.'" There is a touching description of a celebration in honor of Eliot in 1983: "Valerie sat there discreet, knowing, sensible, reallyhumorous -- more so than Tom -- and intelligent, loving, lovable and utterly devoted, a goddess in a temple more than Christian perhaps. I would burn incense to her. The deepest thing in Tom Eliot was perhaps a kind of loving irony. I was a terrible fool with him, and certainly provoked the irony, but Valerie somehow reassures me that he also sent in my direction some love. It is nice of her to feel that I deserved some love -- and I suspect she knows all the reasons for irony. Forgiveness."
The memory of Auden, and work on the poem "Auden's Funeral," sustain him against despair. In 1979, at the age of 70, he is still hoping as he rereads late Yeats to be "reborn as a poet -- an entirely different poet" in the the next four years. If this hope is, unsurprisingly, not fulfilled, it is not completely denied either: "I gave my lecture. Up to the last moment I was troubled by the conviction that nothing I could say was of the least interest to anybody. It we well. I wrote quite a long passage and draft of the poem about Auden's funeral. I am going to have a Final Phase." It is pleasing to report that this is the best new poem in the book, and quite possibly the best Spender has ever written.