Spender, Sir, Stephen Harold
(1909 - 1995)
The Landscape near an Aerodrome
More beautiful and soft than
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.
Lulled by descent, the travellers across sea
And across feminine land indulging its easy limbs
In miles of softness, now let their eyes trained by watching
Penetrate through dusk the outskirts of this town
Here where industry shows a fraying edge.
Here they may see what is being done.
Beyond the winking masthead light
And the landing-ground, they observe the outposts
Of work: chimneys like lank black fingers
Or figures frightening and mad: and squat buildings
With their strange air behind trees, like women's faces
Shattered by grief. Here where few houses
Moan with faint light behind their blinds,
They remark the unhomely sense of complaint, like a dog
Shut out and shivering at the foreign moon.
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.
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.
A PAISAGEM PERTO DE UM AEROPORTO
Mais belo e macio que a mariposa
De antenas felpudas, sussurrantes, sondando o vasto curso
Pelo crepúsculo, o avião, de motores parados
Plana sobre os subúrbios e o rasto alto das mangas
Apontando o vento, Suavemente, amplamente, desce,
Quase sem perturbar as correntes de ar assinaladas.
Embalados pela descida, os viajantes, abandonando
Através do mar e da terra feminina os fáceis membros
A milhas de macio, deixam agora que os olhos, treinados de ver,
Penetrem por entre o crepúsculo nos subúrbios da cidade;
Aqui, onde a indústria mostra a bainha coçada,
Aqui, podem eles ver o que está a ser feito.
Para lá da luz, piscando na torre
E da pista de aterragem, observam os postos avançados
Do trabalho: chaminés como dedos magos e esguios
Ou figuras loucas e terríveis; e casas atarracadas
Atrás de árvores, com um ar estranho como rostos de mulher
Devastados pela dor. Aqui, onde poucas casas
Gemem com luz fraca por detrás das persianas,
Notam a inóspita sensação de queixa, como um cão
Ao relento, a tremer sob uma lua estrangeira.
No último impulso de amor, passam sobre os campos
Atrás do aeroporto, onde rapazes brincam todo o dia
Aos pontapés na erva morta; cujos gritos, tais pássaros selvagens,
Pousam nos telhados mais próximos
Para logo se perderem sob o ruído da cidade.
Depois, ao aterrarem, ouvem o sino a dobrar,
Atravessando a paisagem da histeria, chegando
Até onde, num estrépito maior do que as baterias todas
E torres de carvão contra esse céu que morre,
Se ergue a religião, e a Igreja bloqueando o sol.
Poems (1933): XXX
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.
- There is no
consolation, no, none
In the curving beauty of that line
Traced on our graphs through history, where the oppressor
Starves and deprives the poor.
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.
From Selected Poems by Stephen Spender, published by Faber
Too busy with
Ian Sansom finds milky plangency and sweet self-pity in Michael Brett's new edition of Stephen Spender's poems
Saturday June 12, 2004
New Collected Poems
by Stephen Spender
393pp, Faber, £30
In her justly famous two-punch poem "Poetry", Marianne Moore wrote: "I, too, dislike it. / Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in / it, after all, a place for the genuine." Moore's admission is a valuable insight and an important truth about poetry; Stephen Spender's New Collected Poems is the perfect illustration.
Spender might be described as a poet who was simply too busy doing other interesting things - writing plays, autobiography, journals, novels, translations and criticism, editing magazines, working for Unesco, teaching, lecturing, and making friends with the famous - to have actually got round to writing any great poetry. In a letter written to him in 1928, while they were still undergraduates at Oxford, his friend Auden told him, "Stephen, you are just not trying."
The truth is, he was probably trying too hard. Wading through the knee-deep
romanticism and the flood of poorly plumbed imitation Auden and Eliot in his
early verse, one eventually comes across a poem that stands out as a rock and a
marker above all the others, the poem which begins, "I think continually of
those who were truly great":
"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. Whose lovely ambition
Was that their lips, still touched with fire,
Should tell of the Spirit clothed from head to foot in song".
This is landfall, the first sight and clear sound of Spender's true home territory - a place of milky plangency, thick vowel-honey and sweet self-pity. It is also, notably, a vision of and desire for greatness rather than the thing itself.
The "truly great" haunt, taunt and eventually dement Spender's poetry, so that
he ends up sounding like the sad old man down the pub with no money who's always
talking about his rich and famous friends. In the poem "Matter of Identity", for
example, from what is probably his best collection, The Generous Days (1971),
Spender observes of an individual who may or may not be himself:
"Sometimes he had the sensation
Of being in a library, and reading a history
And coming to a chapter left unwritten
That blazed with nothing nothing except him
Nothing but his great name and his great deeds".
And probably his best early poem begins, tellingly: "After success, your little afternoon success, / You watch jealous perplexity mould my head / To the shape of a dark and taloned bird / And fix claws in my lungs, and then you pass / Your silk soothing hand across my arm / And smile."
He dreamt continually of greatness and success. In World Within World (1951), the book in which he came closest to achieving his dream (and which is without doubt one of the most important English literary autobiographies of the 20th century, comparable with Cider with Rosie and Osbert Sitwell's Left Hand, Right Hand! ), he wrote: "Within each there is a world of his own soul as immense as the external universe, and equal with that, dwarfing the little stretch of coherent waking which calls itself 'I'." Spender's own desire for immensity led to his constantly seeking out invites to meet the great and the good. Virginia Woolf, for example, recalls him writing, "saying he cares for my praise more than for that of any critic"; she later described him as having the "makings of a long-winded bore". In his typically adulatory poem "V.W. (1941)", Spender recalled: "That woman who, entering a room, / Stood, staring round at all, with rays / From her wild eyes, till people there / And books, pictures, furniture - / Became transformed within her gaze." It's possible she was just looking for a means of escape.
Most discussion and criticism of Spender's poetry concentrates on his work of the 1930s - Twenty Poems (1930), Poems (1933), Vienna (1934), The Still Centre (1939) - but of course most of us wouldn't wish to be judged merely on the writings of our youth, particularly if those writings contained lines such as "My parents kept me from children who were rough / And who threw words like stones and who wore torn clothes", or "Pylons, those pillars / Bare like nude, giant girls that have no secret".
The two books in fact that clearly stand out in Michael Brett's beautiful, crisp, clean edition of New Collected Poems are Poems of Dedication (1947), and the much later The Generous Days (1971), the book in which Spender admits to and makes the most of his failings. He was always an awkward poet but in these later poems he becomes, one might almost say, a poet of awkwardness (Louis MacNeice described him as a "towering angel not quite sure if he was fallen"). Far removed in place and time from the overstatements and fey rhetorical inversions of his 30s verse, these later poems are full of stumblings, hauntings, shame and confusion.
"Sleepless", for example, begins: "Awake alone in the house / I heard a voice /
Ambiguous - / With nothing nice." And it ends, with a nod perhaps to Hardy and
to Tennyson's "In Memoriam" ("He is not here; but far away / The noise of life
begins again, / And ghastly through the drizzling rain / On the bald street
breaks the blank day"):
"Let me in! Let me in!",
Tapping at the pane.
Him I imagine,
Twenty years in the rain".
John Sutherland's recently published biography of Spender portrays him as a charming innocent, a big man with huge enthusiasms, with opinions and ideas on just about every fashionable theme and topic, who wrote about art, literature and the life of the mind in his voluminous autobiographical writings, and in his criticism and in essays for just about every high-toned magazine going - from the New Statesman to Horizon to Partisan Review, and the Saturday Review, the Nation, Kenyon Review, Atlantic Monthly and all the others. Spender's poetry is best read as a footnote and adjunct to these other achievements; but this is hardly to condemn. In "Spiritual Explorations" from Poems of Dedication, he writes: "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." New Collected Poems attests to the value of this bleak observation.
Ian Sansom's Ring Road is published by Fourth Estate
More on Stephen Spender
When Stephen met Sylvia
Stephen Spender: The Authorised Biography
Natasha Spender: 'I was never in the faintest doubt of his devotion to me'