Magazine article The Spectator

Stephen Spender: The Authorised Biography

Magazine article The Spectator

Stephen Spender: The Authorised Biography

Article excerpt

A shrewd goose STEPHEN SPENDER: THE AUTHORISED BIOGRAPHY by John Sutherland Viking, £25, pp. 627, ISBN 0670883034

In the second paragraph of this biography, John Sutherland claims 'literary greatness' for his subject. This may at once cause the reader to pause. Spender once wrote, 'I think continually of those who were truly great'; but was he one of those truly great himself? Geoffrey Grigson, who always took pleasure in demolishing fellow writers even when they were friends, described him as 'the Rupert Brooke of the Depression'. But since, like Spender himself, Rupert Brooke has been cruelly underestimated in recent years, the judgment is less damning than Grigson clearly intended it to be.

Like Brooke at the outbreak of the first world war, so Spender in the troubled Thirties became an icon for the young; like Brooke's, the poems of his youth, so full of romantic ardour, will continue to be remembered and loved. But just as Brooke cannot be considered the equal of Wilfred Owen, so Spender cannot be considered the equal of Auden. When one reads the elegantly produced New Collected Poems one is all too often queasily aware of an awkward or banal line intruding into something otherwise inspired.

To read this book is rather like being handed a beautifully composed and impeccably focused photograph - such as Spender's brother Humphrey, a professional photographer, might have taken - from which an important area has been snipped out. This area belongs to the second half of the book, when the author deals with his subject's life both as a happily married man and as this country's most energetic and successful literary ambassador at large.

Before that watershed, perhaps because Spender himself was so frank about his early years, we learn as much about his private life as about his public one. After it, what happens is the exact reverse of what happens halfway through Peter Parker's recent biography of Isherwood. The second half of Parker's book threatens to weary the reader with its detailing of one sexual attachment after another; the second half of Sutherland's threatens to have the same narcotic effect with its detailing of every event in its subject's public life. Spender himself once wrote of 'the dark and ambiguous experiences which are the night side of my day'. Of those experiences this second half tells one virtually nothing.

Spender frequently decried the 'publishing scoundrels' determined to pry into the private lives of not merely the dead but also the living. In old age he had to endure Hugh David's inaccurate, ill-researched and venomous attempt at a biography, and David Leavitt's roman à clef, an important section of which the American author had based on Spender's own autobiography, surprisingly candid for its time, World Within World, in what Paul Johnson described at the time as 'saturnine cannibalism'. Spender summed up his attitude to books of this sort when he stated, 'The feelings of the living are more important than the monuments of the dead.' It may be that in touching so tangentially and so faintly - or sometimes not at all - on relationships vitally important to Spender during his married years, Sutherland was bearing this in mind. It may also be that he suffered the constraints endured by almost every 'authorised' biographer. …

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