Stephen Spender

A Life in Modernism

By David Leeming

Henry Holt. 320 pp. $27.50

Reviewed by Adam Kirsch

It is not uncommon for a writer's life to be fractured by contradictions. If he or she is a successful artist, those contradictions seem in retrospect more like a Gothic arch, the tension of their opposing forces holding up the edifice of the work: Emily Dickinson's confined life and expansive imagination, Henry James's delicate understanding and human coldness, are productive paradoxes. Only if the work is not a success do those contradictions come to seem like defects, results of a lack of self-knowledge or insufficient will.

The life of Stephen Spender, one of the most prominent English poets for most of the 20th century, was certainly not short on contrasts. The son and nephew of prominent Liberal politicians and journalists, he became one of the Communist Party's most famous recruits; a writer of sentimental, even naive poetry, he was a consummate networker and career-builder; married for 54 years, he continued to have love affairs with men throughout his life. An excellent biography could be built on the exploration of these seeming disconnects, and could explore their effect on Spender's verse, now much less read than during his heyday in the 1930s.

One obstacle to such a biography is that Spender himself got there first, in his wonderful memoir World Within World. Published in 1951, it is both a classic document of the '30s generation, torn between the private vocation of poetry and the urgent public needs of the interwar years, and a remarkably acute psychological portrait of a young man in search of his true nature -- poetic, emotional and sexual.

Ironically, this memoir, which became popular because it was the work of a renowned poet, is now perhaps better known than Spender's poetry, in large part because of the controversial publication of David Leavitt's novel While England Slept in 1993. As Bernard Knox was the first to show in Book World's pages, Leavitt based his novel on a section of Spender's memoir that describes his efforts to rescue "Jimmy Younger," his working-class lover, from the Spanish Civil War. The young man had volunteered out of anger at Spender's hasty marriage.

In his new biography, David Leeming shows how the Leavitt episode embittered Spender's last years. His outrage at what he saw as Leavitt's theft of his life was probably disproportionate -- "it might have been best if Spender had simply let a bad novel pass him by," Leeming says -- but it was of a piece with the poet's lifelong concern for his public image. In 1951, Spender's frankness about his relationship with "Jimmy" -- actually a Welshman named Tony Hyndman, as Leeming reveals -- was remarkable; though he didn't actually say that they were lovers, World Within World leaves little doubt about it. But the Spender who fought with Leavitt was in his eighties, and worried about his legacy; and Leavitt's attempt to make explicit what Spender had left vague infuriated him.

Leeming's biography is at its best in dealing with Spender's last years, which were also, not coincidentally, the time that Leeming knew him: The two were colleagues at the University of Connecticut during one of Spender's many money-making stints at American colleges. From his journals and correspondence, as well as his defensiveness about the Leavitt book and a biography by Hugh David that he claimed was inaccurate, one can see that Spender himself, in his last years, was by no means convinced that his poetic reputation would last. He worried that he had been "too much of a journalist, too impressed by the broad generalizations of public reasons . . . not having at the centre a core of unassailable private values."

Unfortunately, Leeming makes no effort to judge the accuracy of Spender's assessment, or indeed to evaluate his art in any way. He quotes sparingly and analyzes almost not at all. The logic of the book is weirdly additive, as one event -- a love affair, a publication, a voyage -- follows on the next with no indication of their importance or meaning for Spender's development. Sometimes this results in comic pile-ups, as when Leeming writes that, in one period, Spender "flirted with communism, attempted to live a homosexual life, wrote confessional novels and essays and poetry about revolution, and made imagery of such objects as pylons and express trains." Each clause is a chapter, at least; but Leeming does not explain or expand.

Leeming's subtitle, A Life in Modernism, promises to situate Spender in his milieu, but even this is done only superficially, mainly through endless lists of people with whom the poet went to lunches and dinners and conferences and weekends at country houses. Those lists are indeed impressive, since Spender was, as Leeming says, "a collector of the great." But his habit of cultivating celebrities -- Virginia Woolf and T.S. Eliot as a young man, Jackie Kennedy and David Hockney later on -- demands some scrutiny, since it seems unpleasantly singleminded; he often seems to fail the crucial test of a famous person's character, namely, whether they know anyone who is not famous. His most anthologized poem begins, "I think continually of those who were truly great," but it is less than clear whether those great were the immortal dead or the celebrities of the day.

More important still, Spender's obviously successful career as a cultural functionary -- a lecturer, journalist and attender of panel discussions -- has always seemed to his readers at odds with the persona he cultivated in his poetry and in his memoir, where he appears as a wide-eyed innocent, a pure seeker after truth and goodness. As Randall Jarrell wrote of him, "If he were as soft and sincere and sentimental as most of his poems make him out to be, the rabbits would have eaten him for lettuce long ago." Instead, he was knighted -- a fate that his lifelong friend W.H. Auden deliberately avoided.

Spender published his first collection of poems in 1933, at the age of 24, and he died in 1995. For all of those 62 years, he moved among the good and great, and eventually became a kind of elder statesman of poetry. Whether he was or remained a good or great poet himself is still an open question, and a frank assessment of his achievement would be a very interesting book. Unfortunately, it is not the book David Leeming has written.

Adam Kirsch is a writer living in New York .