Last modified on 12 October 2014, at 15:21

Stephen Spender

Since we are what we are, what shall we be
But what we are?
We are, we have
Six feet and seventy years, to see
The light, and then resign it for the grave.

Stephen Spender (February 28, 1909July 16, 1995) was an English poet and essayist who focused on themes of social injustice and the class struggle in his work.

QuotesEdit

Great poetry is always written by somebody straining to go beyond what he can do.
I say, stamping the words with emphasis,
Drink from here energy and only energy.
The spirit drinking timelessness;
Touch, love, all senses...
After the first powerful plain manifesto
The black statement of pistons, without more fuss
But gliding like a queen, she leaves the station...
They think how one life hums, revolves and toils,
One cog in a golden singing hive...
The dolphins write such Ideograms: with power to wake me prisoned in my human speech they sign: 'I AM!'
Let the wrong cry out as raw as wounds
This Time forgets and never heals, far less transcends.
At dawn she lay with her profile at that angle
Which, when she sleeps, seems the carved face of an angel...
My dream becomes my dream... come true...
  • The ultimate aim of politics is not politics, but the activities which can be practised within the political framework of the State. Therefore an effective statement of these activities — e.g. science, art, religion — is in itself a declaration of ultimate aims around which the political means will crystallise … a society with no values outside of politics is a machine carrying its human cargo, with no purpose in its institutions reflecting their care, eternal aspirations, loneliness, need for love.
    • Life and the Poet (1942)
  • Since we are what we are, what shall we be
    But what we are?
    We are, we have
    Six feet and seventy years, to see
    The light, and then resign it for the grave.
    • "Spiritual Explorations" from Poems of Dedication (1947)
  • Great poetry is always written by somebody straining to go beyond what he can do.
    • As quoted in The New York Times (26 March 1961)
  • I am very honoured by your wanting to write a life of me. But the fact is I regard my life as rather a failure in the only thing in which I wanted it to succeed. I have not written the books I ought to have written and I have written a lot of books I should not have written. My life as lived by me has been interesting to me but to write truthfully about it would probably cause much pain to people close to me — and I always feel that the feelings of the living are more important than the monuments of the dead.
  • There is a certain justice in criticism. The critic is like a midwife — a tyrannical midwife.
    • Lecture at Brooklyn College, as quoted in The New York Times (20 November 1984)
  • I'm struggling at the end to get out of the valley of hectoring youth, journalistic middle age, imposture, moneymaking, public relations, bad writing, mental confusion.
    • On turning 70 in Journals 1939-83 (1986), as quoted by R Z Sheppard in TIMEmagazine (20 January 1986)
  • History is the ship carrying living memories to the future.
    • As quoted in Peter's Quotations : Ideas for Our Times (1993) by Laurence J. Peter, p. 247
  • I say, stamping the words with emphasis,
    Drink from here energy and only energy
    • "Not Palaces" (l. 8–9).
  • Eye, gazelle, delicate wanderer,
    Drinker of horizon’s fluid line;
    Ear that suspends on a chord
    The spirit drinking timelessness;
    Touch, love, all senses
    ...
    • "Not Palaces"(l. 12–16). . .
  • No one
    Shall hunger: Man shall spend equally.
    Our goal which we compel: Man shall be man.
    • "Not Palaces" (l. 23–25)
  • Death to the killers, bringing light to life.
    • "Not Palaces" (l. 32)
  • After the first powerful plain manifesto
    The black statement of pistons, without more fuss
    But gliding like a queen, she leaves the station.
    • "The Express" (l. 1–3) in Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry (1988) edited by Richard Ellmann and Robert O’Clair
  • Ah, like a comet through flame she moves entranced
    Wrapt in her music no bird song, no, nor bough
    Breaking with honey buds, shall ever equal.
    • "The Express" (l. 25–27) in Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry (1988) edited by Richard Ellmann and Robert O’Clair
  • Death is another milestone on their way.
    With laughter on their lips and with winds blowing round them
    They record simply
    How this one excelled all others in making driving belts.
    • "The Funeral" (l. 1–4)
  • They think how one life hums, revolves and toils,
    One cog in a golden singing hive...
    • "The Funeral" (l. 13–14)
  • What I had not foreseen
    Was the gradual day
    Weakening the will
    Leaking the brightness away
    • "What I Expected Was" (l. 9–12)
  • For I had expected always
    Some brightness to hold in trust,
    Some final innocence
    To save from dust
    • "What I Expected Was" (l. 25–28). . .
  • Across this dazzling
    Mediterranean
    August morning
    The dolphins write such
    Ideograms:
    With power to wake
    Me prisoned in
    My human speech
    They sign: 'I AM!'
    • "Dolphins"
  • In railway halls, on pavements near the traffic,
    They beg, their eyes made big by empty staring
    And only measuring Time, like the blank clock.

    No, I shall weave no tracery of pen-ornament
    To make them birds upon my singing tree:
    Time merely drives these lives which do not live
    As tides push rotten stuff along the shore.

    • "In Railway Halls, on Pavements Near the Traffic"
  • Paint here no draped despairs, no saddening clouds
    Where the soul rests, proclaims eternity.
    But let the wrong cry out as raw as wounds
    This Time forgets and never heals, far less transcends.
    • "In Railway Halls, on Pavements Near the Traffic"
  • At dawn she lay with her profile at that angle
    Which, when she sleeps, seems the carved face of an angel.
    • "Daybreak"
  • Then, in a flush of rose, she woke and her eyes that opened
    Swam in blue through her rose flesh that dawned.
    From her dew of lips, the drop of one word
    Fell like the first of fountains: murmured
    'Darling', upon my ears the song of the first bird.
    'My dream becomes my dream,' she said, 'come true.
    I waken from you to my dream of you.'
    Oh, my own wakened dream then dared assume
    The audacity of her sleep. Our dreams
    Poured into each other's arms, like streams.
    • "Daybreak"

Poems (1933)Edit

I think continually of those who were truly great. Who, from the womb, remembered the soul's history through corridors of light where the hours are suns, Endless and singing
See how these names are fêted in the waving grass and by the streamers of the white cloud and whispers of the wind in the listening sky. The names of those who in their lives fought for life, Who wore at their hearts the fire's centre...
Born of the sun, they travelled a short while toward the sun
And left the vivid air signed with their honour.
  • What is precious is never to forget
    The delight of the blood drawn from ancient springs
    Breaking through rocks in worlds before our earth
    ;
    Never to deny its pleasure in the simple morning light,
    Nor its grave evening demand for love;
    Never to allow gradually the traffic to smother
    With noise and fog the flowering of the spirit.
    • "I Think of Those Who Were Truly Great"
  • Near the snow, near the sun, in the highest fields,
    See how these names are fêted in the waving grass
    And by the streamers of the white cloud
    And whispers of the wind in the listening sky.
    The names of those who in their lives fought for life,
    Who wore at their hearts the fire's centre.
    Born of the sun, they travelled a short while toward the sun
    And left the vivid air signed with their honour.
    • "I Think of Those Who Were Truly Great"
  • More beautiful and soft than any moth
    With burring furred antennae feeling its huge path
    Through dusk, the air-liner with shut-off engines
    Glides over suburbs and the sleeves set trailing tall
    To point the wind. Gently, broadly, she falls,
    Scarcely disturbing charted currents of air.
    • "The Landscape near an Aerodrome"
Larger than all the charcoaled batteries and imaged towers against that dying sky, Religion stands, the church blocking the sun.
  • In the last sweep of love, they pass over fields
    Behind the aerodrome, where boys play all day
    Hacking dead grass: whose cries, like wild birds
    Settle upon the nearest roofs
    But soon are hid under the loud city.
    • "The Landscape near an Aerodrome"
  • Then, as they land, they hear the tolling bell
    Reaching across the landscape of hysteria,
    To where larger than all the charcoaled batteries
    And imaged towers against that dying sky,
    Religion stands, the church blocking the sun.
    • "The Landscape near an Aerodrome"

The Still Centre (1939)Edit

What the eye delights in, no longer dictates my greed to enjoy...
  • A poet can only write about what is true to his own experience, not about what he would like to be true to his experience.
    Poetry does not state truth, it states the conditions within which something felt is true. Even while he is writing about the little portion of reality which is part of his experience, the poet may be conscious of a different reality outside. His problem is to relate the small truth to the sense of a wider, perhaps theoretically known, truth outside his experience.
    • Foreword
  • Our single purpose was to walk through snow
    With faces swung to their prodigious North
    Like compass iron.
    • "Polar Exploration"
  • Extensive whiteness drowned
    All sense of space.
    We tramped through
    Static, glaring days, Time's suspended blank.
    • "Polar Exploration"
  • What the eye delights in, no longer dictates
    My greed to enjoy
    : boys, grass, the fenced-off
    deer.
    It leaves those figures that distantly play
    On the horizon's rim: they sign their peace, in games.
    • "Experience"
  • There was a wood,
    Habitation of foxes and fleshy burrows,
    Where I learnt to uncast my childhood, and not alone,
    I learnt, not alone. There were four hands, four eyes,
    A third mouth of the dark to kiss. Two people
    And a third not either: and both double, yet different.
    I entered with myself. I left with a woman.
    • "Experience"
  • History has tongues
    Has angels has guns — has saved has praised —
    Today proclaims
    Achievements of her exiles long returned

    Now no more rootless, for whom her printed page
    Glazes their bruised waste years in one
    Balancing present sky.
    • "Exiles From Their Land, History Their Domicile"
  • The laurelled exiles, kneeling to kiss these sands.
    Number there freedom's friends.
    One who
    Within the element of endless summer,
    Like leaf in amber, petrified by light,
    Studied the root of action. One in a garret
    Read books as though he broke up flints.
    • "Exiles From Their Land, History Their Domicile"
Let your ghost follow the young men to the Pole, up Everest, to war: by love, be shot...
  • One, a poet, went babbling like a fountain
    Through parks. All were jokes to children.
    All had the pale unshaven stare of shuttered plants
    Exposed to a too violent sun.
    • "Exiles From Their Land, History Their Domicile"
  • Let your ghost follow
    The young men to the Pole, up Everest, to war: by
    love, be shot.
    For the uncreating chaos descends
    And claims you in marriage: though a man, you were
    ever a bride
    :
    • "The Uncreating Chaos"
  • Whatever happens, I shall never be alone,
    I shall always have a fare, an affair, or a revolution.
    • 'The Uncreating Chaos" — This poem was originally published in Poems (1933) where it reads: Whatever happens, I shall never be alone.
      I shall always have a boy, a railway fare, or a revolution.
Of course, the entire effort is to put myself outside the ordinary range of what are called statistics...
  • Of course, the entire effort is to put myself
    Outside the ordinary range
    Of what are called statistics.
    A hundred are killed
    In the outer suburbs. Well, well, I carry on.
    • "Thoughts During An Air Raid"
  • Yet supposing that a bomb should dive
    Its nose right through this bed, with me upon it?
    The thought is obscene. Still, there are many
    To whom my death would only be a name,
    One figure in a column. The essential is
    That all the 'I's should remain separate
    Propped up under flowers, and no one suffer
    For his neighbour. Then horror is postponed
    For everyone until it settles on him
    And drags him to that incommunicable grief
    Which is all mystery or nothing.
    • "Thoughts During An Air Raid"
  • You drive the landscape like a herd of clouds
    Moving against your horizontal tower
    Of steadfast speed.
    All England lies beneath you like a woman
    With limbs ravished
    By one glance carrying all these eyes.
    • "The Midlands Express"
  • Deep in the winter plain, two armies
    Dig their machinery, to destroy each other.
    Men freeze and hunger. No one is given leave
    On either side, except the dead, and wounded.
    • "Two Armies"
  • All have become so nervous and so cold
    That each man hates the cause and distant words
    Which brought him here, more terribly than bullets.
    • "Two Armies"
Under the olive trees, from the ground
Grows this flower, which is a wound.
  • The guns spell money's ultimate reason
    In letters of lead on the spring hillside.
    But the boy lying dead under the olive trees
    Was too young and too silly
    To have been notable to their important eye.
    He was a better target for a kiss.
    • "Ultima Ratio Regum"
  • His name never appeared in the papers.
    The world maintained its traditional wall
    Round the dead with their gold sunk deep as a well,
    Whilst his life, intangible as a Stock Exchange
    rumour, drifted outside.
    • "Ultima Ratio Regum"
  • Consider his life which was valueless
    In terms of employment, hotel ledgers, news files.
    Consider. One bullet in ten thousand kills a man.
    Ask. Was so much expenditure justified
    On the death of one so young and so silly
    Lying under the olive tree, O world, O death?
    • "Ultima Ratio Regum"
  • Under the olive trees, from the ground
    Grows this flower, which is a wound.

    It is easier to ignore
    Than the heroes' sunset fire
    Of death plunged in their willed desire
    Raging with flags on the world's shore.
    • "The Coward"
Your quicksilver declaiming eye had frozen to the stare of a straight line which only saw goals painted in its beam...
  • Your heart was loaded with its fate like lead
    Pressing against the net of flesh: and those
    Countries that crept back across the boundaries
    Where you had forced open the arena
    Of limelit France with your star at the centre,
    Closed in on you, terrified no longer
    At the diamond in your head
    Which cut their lands and killed their men.
    • "Napoleon In 1814"
  • Your quicksilver declaiming eye
    Had frozen to the stare of a straight line
    Which only saw goals painted in its beam
    And made an artificial darkness all around
    Which thickened into Allies.
    • "Napoleon In 1814"
  • To break out of the chaos of my darkness
    Into a lucid day is all my will.

    My words like eyes in night, stare to reach
    A centre for their light: and my acts thrown
    To distant places by impatient violence
    Yet lock together to mould a path of stone
    Out of my darkness into a lucid day.
    • "Darkness And Light"
  • My words like eyes that flinch from light, refuse
    And shut upon obscurity; my acts
    Cast to their opposites by impatient violence
    Break up the sequent path; they fly
    On a circumference to avoid the centre.
    • "Darkness And Light"
  • The iron arc of the avoiding journey
    Curves back upon my weakness at the end;
    Whether the faint light spark against my face
    Or in the dark my sight hide from my sight,
    Centre and circumference are both my weakness.
    • "Darkness And Light"
My single pair of eyes contain the universe they see; their mirrored multiplicity is packed into a hollow body where I reflect the many, in my one.
  • My single pair of eyes
    Contain the universe they see;
    Their mirrored multiplicity
    Is packed into a hollow body
    Where I reflect the many, in my one.'
    • "The Human Situation"
  • And if this I were destroyed,
    The image shattered,
    My perceived, rent world would fly
    In an explosion of final judgement
    To the ends of the sky,
    The colour in the iris of the eye.
    Opening, my eyes say 'Let there be light',
    Closing, they shut me in a coffin.
    • "The Human Situation"
I wear your kiss like a feather...
  • Here where I lie is the hot pit
    Crowding on the mind with coal
    And the will turned against it
    Only drills new seams of darkness
    Through the dark-surrounding whole.
    Our vivid suns of happiness
    Withered from summer, drop their flowers;
    Hands of the longed, withheld tomorrow
    Fold on the hands of yesterday
    In double sorrow.
    • "The Separation"
  • I wear your kiss like a feather
    Laid upon my cheek
    • "Two Kisses"
  • And then the heart in its white sailing pride
    Launches among the swans and the stretched lights
    Laid on the water, as on your cheek
    The other kiss and my listening
    Life, waiting for all your life to speak.
    • "Two Kisses"
  • Involved in my own entrails and a crust
    Turning a pitted surface towards a space,
    I am a world that watches through a sky
    And is persuaded by mirrors
    To regard its being as an external shell,
    One of a universe of stars and faces.
    • "The Mask"
  • The seen and seeing softly mutually strike
    Their glass barrier that arrests the sight.
    But the world's being hides in the volcanoes
    And the foul history pressed into its core;
    And to myself my being is my childhood
    And passion and entrails and the roots of senses;
    I'm pressed into the inside of a mask
    At the back of love, the back of air, the back of light.
    • "The Mask"
  • You stared out of the window on the emptiness
    Of a world exploding:
    Stones and rubble thrown upwards in a fountain
    Blasted sideways by the wind.
    Every sensation except loneliness
    Was drained out of your mind
    By the lack of any motionless object the eye could
    find.
    You were a child again
    Who sees for the first time things happen.
  • When you smiled,
    Everything in the room was shattered;
    Only you remained whole
    In frozen wonder, as though you stared
    At your image in the broken mirror
    Where it had always been silverly carried.
    • "To A Spanish Poet"

Selected Poems (1941)Edit

  • All the posters on the walls
    All the leaflets in the streets
    Are mutilated, destroyed or run in rain,
    Their words blotted out with tears,
    Skins peeling from their bodies
    In the victorious hurricane.
    • "Fall of a City"
  • All the lessons learned, unlearned;
    The young, who learned to read, now blind
    Their eyes with an archaic film;
    The peasant relapses to a stumbling tune
    Following the donkey`s bray;
    These only remember to forget.

    But somewhere some word presses
    On the high door of a skull and in some corner
    Of an irrefrangible eye
    Some old man memory jumps to a child
    — Spark from the days of energy.
    And the child hoards it like a bitter toy.

    • "Fall of a City"

Ruins and Visions (1942)Edit

  • Far far from gusty waves these children's faces.
    Like rootless weeds the torn hair round their paleness.
    • "An Elementary School Classroom In A Slum" in Modern British Poetry (1962) edited by Louis Untermeyer (1962) variant : Like rootless weeds, the hair torn around their pallor.
  • Surely, Shakespeare is wicked and the map a bad example
    With ships and sun and love tempting them to steal —
    For lives that slyly turn in their cramped holes
    From fog to endless night? On their slag heap, these children
    Wear skins peeped through by bones and spectacles of steel
    With mended glass, like bottle bits on stones.
    All of their time and space are foggy slum.
    So blot their maps with slums as big as doom.
    • "An Elementary School Classroom In A Slum"
History is theirs whose language is the sun.
  • Unless, governor, teacher, inspector, visitor,
    This map becomes their window and these windows
    That shut upon their lives like catacombs,
    Break O break open 'till they break the town
    And show the children green fields and make their world
    Run azure on gold sands and let their tongues
    Run naked into books, the white and green leaves open
    History is theirs whose language is the sun.
    • "An Elementary School Classroom In A Slum"

World Within World (1951)Edit

Within even a good social cause, there is a duty to fight for the pre-eminence of individual conscience....
The public is necessary, but the private must not be abolished by it; and the individual must not be swallowed up by the concept of the social man.
  • I am for neither West nor East, but for myself considered as a self — one of the millions who inhabit the earth... If it seems absurd that an individual should set up as a judge between these vast powers, armed with their superhuman instruments of destruction I can reply that the very immensity of the means to destroy proves that judging and being judged does not lie in these forces. For supposing that they achieved their utmost and destroyed our civilization, whoever survived would judge them by a few statements. a few poems, a few témoignages [testimonies] surviving from all the ruins, a few words of those men who saw outside and beyond the means which were used and all the arguments which were marshaled in the service of those means.
    Thus I could not escape from myself into some social situation of which my existence was a mere product, and my witnessing a willfully distorting instrument. I had to be myself, choose and not be chosen... But to believe that my individual freedom could gain strength from my seeking to identify myself with the "progressive" forces was different from believing that my life must be an instrument of means decided on by political leaders. I came to see that within the struggle for a juster world, there is a further struggle between the individual who cares for long-term values and those who are willing to use any and every means to gain immediate political ends — even good ends. Within even a good social cause, there is a duty to fight for the pre-eminence of individual conscience. The public is necessary, but the private must not be abolished by it; and the individual must not be swallowed up by the concept of the social man.

The Struggle of the Modern (1963)Edit

  • The prose method might be described as that where the writer provides a complete description of all those material factors in the environment which condition his characters. The poetic method sees the centre of consciousness as the point where all that is significant in the surrounding world becomes aware and transformed; the prose method requires a description of that world in order to explain the characteristics of the people in it. The hero of the poetic method is Rimbaud; of the prose method, Balzac.
    • Ch. 5
  • Critics of visual arts and of music describe in words — that is to say, a system of signs other than those made by brushes on canvas or chisels into stone or notes of music — those characteristics of painting or sculpture or music which can be described or analysed. Visual artists and composers can disregard critics on the ground that the medium of verbal criticism bears so indirect a relation to the medium in which they make something. Poets are in a different situation. With the development of so-called scientific methods of criticism they are made ever conscious that criticism of poetry is in the same medium of work as the art which they practise. “Close analysis” is useful to critics and readers. But for the poet there is the danger of disintegration of poetry into paraphrase, examination of technique, influences, all analysed in the language of criticism.
    • "Tradition-Bound Literature and Traditionless Painting"
  • The immediate reaction of the poets who fought in the war was cynicism... The war dramatized for them the contrast between the still-idealistic young, living and dying on the unalteringly horrible stage-set of the Western front, with the complacency of the old at home, the staff officers behind the lines. In England there was violent anti-German feeling; but for the poet-soldiers the men in the trenches on both sides seemed united in pacific feelings and hatred of those at home who had sent them out to kill each other.
  • Both Hopkins and Lawrence were religious not just in the ritualistic sense but in the sense of being obsessed with the word — the word made life and truth — with the need to invent a language as direct as religious utterance. Both were poets, but outside the literary fashions of their time. Both felt that among the poets of their time was an absorption in literary manners, fashions and techniques which separated the line of the writing from that of religious truth. Both felt that the modern situation imposed on them the necessity to express truth by means of a different kind of poetic writing from that used in past or present. Both found themselves driven into writing in a way which their contemporaries did not understand or respond to yet was inevitable to each in his pursuit of truth. Here of course there is a difference between Hopkins and Lawrence, because Hopkins in his art was perhaps over-worried, over-conscientious, whereas Lawrence was an instinctive poet who, in his concern for truth, understood little of the problems of poetic form, although he held strong views about them.
    • Pt. 2, Ch. 3

Quotes about SpenderEdit

  • You will be a poet because you will always be humiliated.
    • W. H. Auden as quoted in Spender's Journal entry for 11 April 1979, recalling conversations with Auden at Oxford. Published in Journals 1939-1983(1985), by Stephen Spender.
  • In 1960, Spender was renowned as a figure from the past — a poet of the nineteen-thirties — and his work was deeply out of fashion... Most of us had been told in school that of all the thirties poets Spender was the one whose reputation had been most inflated. He lacked the complexity of Auden, the erudition of Louis MacNeice, the cunning of Cecil Day-Lewis. He was the one who had believed the slogans — "Oh young men oh young comrades" — and, after the war, the one who had recanted most shamefacedly. He was the fairest of fair game...
    • "Spender's Lives" by Ian Hamilton in The New Yorker, (28 February 1994)

External linksEdit

Wikipedia
Wikipedia has an article about: