Stephen Spender (1909 – 1995)
“All that you can imagine you already know.“
In the 1930s, London-born Spender was one of the young poets who gave a new direction to English literature by insisting that poetry was political. Spender published many volumes of poems, books of essays, plays and novels.
In 1930, tall, handsome Spender drew attention when his Twenty Poems was published; two years later, some of his poems, along with those by W. H. Auden and Cecil Day Lewis were included in New Signatures, an anthology published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf‘s Hogarth Press.
Spender often wrote about the world around him, which he observed with sorrow and exasperation. In 1934, he wrote Vienna, a long narrative poem about a Socialist uprising in that city. Later, during World War II, he wrote of his feelings about politics in a series of articles on books and the War. One piece starts:
“We are living in a political age. That is to say political beliefs and events play a part in the lives of contemporaries which religious and spectacular warnings of the working out of doom amongst the great used to play in the past. Poets are faced, then, with the problem of transforming into the comprehensive terms of the imagination the chaos of this politically obsessed world.”
He attended University College at Oxford where he met Christopher Isherwood, who became his friend, lover, and literary colleague. With the help of a small independent income, he left Oxford in 1931 to devote himself entirely to poetry writing. He lived for awhile in Berlin, where he spent time with Isherwood, whose experiences of that era led eventually to his The Berlin Stories, which included Goodbye To Berlin, later adapted to the Broadway play I Am A Camera (1951) by gay writer John Van Druten, which was made into the musical masterpiece Cabaret by gay songwriters John Kander and Fred Ebb. In a letter to Isherwood dated September 1934, he wrote:
“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.“
Strongly anti-fascist like many of his contemporaries, the Spanish Civil War was a searing experience for Spender. Ignoring a British ban on visas, he went to Spain in 1937 as a delegate to an International Writers’ Congress in Barcelona. Later that year, he edited Poems For Spain and in 1938 wrote Trial Of A Judge, a five-act verse play about Nazi Germany.
During World War II, Spender was a pacifist, serving as a fireman in London. He continued to publish as the war went on, including two collections of poems and his translations of work by other poets, including Bertolt Brecht, Rainer Maria Rilke and gay Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca.
In 1946, Spender’s book European Witness, included a look at German intellectuals under Hitler.
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.
Spender delayed publication of his first novel, The Temple, for 59 years, until 1988, when he was 79 years old. The male protagonist has same-sex encounters in pre-War Germany. In Spender’s real-life, including his time living in Germany, he had a series of affairs with men, after which he married twice and took to renouncing his queer past.
During his lifetime, he moved from being gay and in love with blond handsome ex-guardsman Tony Hyndman in 1933, living together for the next three years; to bisexual, married to novelist Inez Maria Pearn from 1936-1939; to homophobic straight guy married to Jewish concert pianist Natasha Litvin from 1941 until his death in 1995, taken by a heart attack in London.
Spender married Pearn just three weeks after breaking-up with Hyndman who journeyed to Spain in January of 1937 with the equally handsome journalist Giles Romilly.
Hyndman consumed Spender’s emotional life for several years. Spender’s disastrous “open” marriage to Pearn failed partly because of his reluctance to break things off with Hyndman. When he married Litvin, Hyndman was one of the witnesses in the wedding party.
Being married to Litvin was supposed to have ended Spender’s same-sex affairs. Six years into their marriage he was photographed semi-naked while reveling with Auden and Isherwood on Fire Island.
Many details of Spender’s relationship with Hyndman were used by writer David Leavitt in his novel While England Sleeps (1993). Charging unlawful use, Spender sued Leavitt and his publisher. Spender claimed that Leavitt’s book was based on his life and charged that the gay scenes were over-the-top pornographic. They settled out of court in 1994, and a year later, Spender was dead. The settlement specified that the “pornographic” material be deleted from subsequent editions of the novel, much to the dismay of Leavitt, who found examples of homophobia in the charges.
Spender had two children; his daughter Lizzie Spender married Australian “Dame Edna” (Barry Humphries) in 1990, and his son Matthew Spender wrote a memoir about his family, A House In St John’s Wood: In Search Of My Parents (2015), where he describes a party in post-World War II Paris where his mother, newly married to Spender, inquired about the elegant young man talking to her husband. A party guest said: “Don’t you know? That’s Stephen’s new lover“. Litvin fainted, and a few days later she tried to throw herself off a train.
In 1955, Matthew overheard his father telling his mother he wanted to leave her and live with a new boyfriend in Japan.
Spender took several male lovers during his marriage including painter Lucian Freud, Auden, and Bryan Obst, an American ornithologist who died from HIV-related illness in 1991.
Anxious to erase his gayness. Spender rewrote selected lines from his 18 books of poetry. He replaced “I shall always have a boy” with “I shall always have an affair” in a poem:
Whatever happens, I shall never be alone. I shall always have a boy, a railway fare, or a revolution.
Whatever happens, I shall never be alone. I shall always have an affair, a railway fare, or a revolution.
Nevertheless, he was a founding member of the “Homosexual Law Reform Society”, lobbying for the repeal of sodomy laws in Britain.
Of his gay life with Auden and Isherwood, Spencer wrote in 1994:
“Our ideal was always to make out of experience artifacts, verbal objects as poems or fictions, which within themselves would have transcended their origins whether these were politics or sex or history.
It is quite wrong to be nostalgic about the 1930s on the grounds that during that decade many young people felt there were political causes worth fighting and dying for. Auden’s description of the decade, sitting in a bar in New York in September 1939, as a ‘low dishonest decade’ at least deglamorizes it. The young should take the 1930s as a warning rather than as a cause for envy.”
Spender co-edited Horizon (1939-1941) and Encounter (1953-1967) magazines. He left Encounter when he discovered that it was being secretly financed by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). In 1965, he became the first non-American citizen to serve as Poet in Residence at the Library of Congress.
At a 1984 ceremony commemorating the 40th Anniversary of D-Day, homophobic President Ronald Reagan quoted from Spender’s poem The Truly Great:
“Gentlemen, I look at you and 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’.”
The Stephen Spender Prize is an annual competition for poetry in translation, with categories for young people as well as for adults. All entrants must be UK or Irish citizens or residents who then translate into English any poem from any language, from Arabic to Uzbek, from Danish to Somali, for cash prizes. The 2022 winners will be announced in May.