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Sir  Stephen Harold Spender (1909–1995), by Humphrey Spender, 1932Sir Stephen Harold Spender (1909–1995), by Humphrey Spender, 1932
Spender, Sir Stephen Harold (1909–1995), poet, was born on 28 February 1909 at 47 Campden House Court, London, the son of (Edward) Harold Spender (1864–1926), a journalist and author, and his wife, Violet Hilda, née Schuster (1878–1921), daughter of Ernest Joseph Schuster (1850–1924), barrister, and his wife, Hilda Weber, daughter of Sir Herman Weber, physician.

Origins, childhood, and university

Stephen Spender sprang from a mixed English Liberal and richly cosmopolitan stock. His father was, with his brother J. A. Spender (1862–1942), a well-known political journalist. The Spenders were a long-established professional family in Bath and Stephen's paternal grandmother, Lily Kent Spender (1835–1895), was a fluent Victorian novelist. Of the Spender brothers, ‘J. A.’ enjoyed the better career, becoming editor of the influential Westminster Gazette. Harold's Liberalism was more radical and his career less steady. In January 1904 he married Violet Schuster. She was university educated, a published poet, and rich. The Schusters emigrated to Britain in 1866 and set up a bank that became the National Provincial in 1919. ‘That we were of Jewish as well as German origin’, Spender recalls in World within World, ‘was passed over in silence or with slight embarrassment by my father's family’ (Spender, World within World, 13).

The Spenders' first child, Michael (1907–1945), was followed by Christine (1908–2001), Stephen, and Humphrey [see ]. After a distinguished university performance, Michael made his name as an explorer and scientist and was a leader in the field of photo-interpretation during the Second World War. Humphrey went on to become a distinguished photojournalist.

In 1913 the Spenders moved to The Bluff, Sheringham, on the Norfolk coast, where they sat out the First World War. Here it was that Stephen's parents ‘kept me from children that were rough’ (S. Spender, Poems, 1933). The family's financial circumstances were (thanks to the Schusters) comfortable, but Stephen's childhood was unhappy. He felt overshadowed by Michael. His father (overshadowed by his brother) felt himself a failure and Violet Spender was a chronic invalid. The family regime was one of ‘Puritan decadence’—evangelical, but culturally oppressive. Oppression was relieved by a pair of servants, Bertha and Ella Mills (nicknamed Berthella), and enlivened by the occasional sight of Zeppelins over Sheringham. It was on a family holiday in 1917, in the Lake District, that eight-year-old Stephen had his ‘first sustained experience of poetry’ and decided to become a poet (Spender, World within World, 87).

Spender was sent to Gresham's preparatory school in 1918. There he was bullied by schoolfellows and comforted by the music teacher, Walter Greatorex, who predicted (accurately) that Stephen would be unhappy until ‘you are about to go to University’ (Spender, World within World, 334). In 1920 the Spenders moved to 10 Frognal, Hampstead, and in October of that year Stephen was returned from Gresham's as unteachably ‘backward’. His misery at this trying period of his life is recorded in his novel The Backward Son (1940). Greater misery followed. He and Humphrey were dispatched to Charlcote boarding-school in Worthing where they were bullied by their classmates as ‘Huns’ (as Schusters). Their suffering here ended in December 1921 with domestic tragedy, the death of their mother, during a routine surgical operation. The boys were brought back to Frognal. Being a day boy suited Stephen. He joined University College School in October 1922 where he thrived in the ‘liberal’ atmosphere (as the opening paragraph of World within World indicates, Spender's definition of ‘liberalism’ was idiosyncratic). At this period (when he was most at odds with his ‘Victorian’ father) he came under the beneficent influence of his maternal grandmother, Hilda Schuster, who introduced him to modern art and literature. Spender published his first poems (influenced by Humbert Wolfe) for the University College School magazine, The Gower. He was introduced to socialism and D. H. Lawrence (both would be lifelong allegiances) by one of the masters, Geoffrey Thorp.

Harold Spender died on 13 April 1926. Stephen summed up his complex filial emotions in a later poem, ‘The Ambitious Son’ (1939), with its Oedipal opening, ‘Old man, with hair made of newspaper cutting’. On Harold Spender's death, the Schusters decided to keep the three younger children (Michael was now at Oxford) at Frognal, under the care of a housekeeper, Winifred Paine (called Caroline in World within World). This arrangement lasted until 1933. Spender left school in 1926. Before going to university, he spent some unhappy months in Nantes, followed by an interlude at Lausanne, where—as his first published short story, ‘By the Lake’, records—he had a significant sexual experience with another English boy resident there. He went up to University College, Oxford, in October 1927 enrolling for the politics, philosophy, and economics degree.

Spender disliked Oxford's public-school ethos and took refuge in an intense friendship with Gabriel Carritt (Tristan in World within World). In his first year Spender was also embroiled in a love affair with another undergraduate, John Freeman (Marston in World within World), for whom he wrote good poems, unavailingly. In summer 1928 he had his momentous first meeting with W. H. Auden, then a finalist at Christ Church, and through him Spender met Christopher Isherwood. These older comrades later enthused him with the idea of living in Germany.

Over the 1928 summer vacation Spender printed his first collection (Nine Experiments) and a booklet of Auden's poems on a small hand press of a kind used for printing chemist's labels. In his second year, with Auden gone, Spender formed what became a lifelong friendship with Isaiah Berlin.

Spender spent the long vacation of 1929 in Hamburg, an experience memorialized in his novel The Temple (1989). Particularly formative was his friendship with the photographer Herbert List and his connection with the eminent German critic Ernst Robert Curtius through whom he cultivated a passion for Rilke, Hoelderlin, Schiller, and Goethe.

Lyric poet of the 1930s

In May of his final year at Oxford Spender published Twenty Poems, which was well received. T. S. Eliot invited him to contribute to The Criterion. Having spectacularly failed his final exams he left for other education in Hamburg in June 1930. Over the next few years he wrote and rewrote his Bildungsroman, The Temple. Its frank depiction of homosexual love rendered it unpublishable in the UK. Eliot, meanwhile, urged him to write poetry. On a visit to England at Christmas 1930 Spender met John Lehmann, and embarked on a long and often vexed friendship. Early in 1931 he moved from Hamburg to Berlin, to be with Isherwood; this was a relationship which, if not always harmonious, was important to both men until after the Second World War.

Spender's reputation was lifted by the appearance of his poems (notably ‘I think continually of those who were truly great’) in Michael Roberts's New Signatures in February 1931. Late in 1932 Spender returned to England to see his Faber collection (Poems, 1933) through the press. A temporary rift with Isherwood led to a withdrawn dedication. On publication in January 1933 the book was a huge success confirming Eliot's verdict that ‘If Auden is the satirist of this poetical renascence, Spender is its lyric poet’ (dustjacket).

Late in 1933 Spender embarked on a permanent love relationship with a Welsh former guardsman, Tony Hyndman (1911–1980) (Jimmy Younger in World within World). Settled in Maida Vale, Spender cultivated relations at this period with the Bloomsbury set. Among his younger friends were J. R. Ackerley, William Plomer, Cecil Day Lewis, and the Lehmanns (Rosamond and John).

Early in spring 1934, holidaying with Hyndman near Dubrovnik (and working on his study of Henry James, The Destructive Element, published in 1935), Spender met Muriel Gardiner (1901–1985). She was American, rich, a divorcee, and studying to be a psychoanalyst. When Hyndman, a few weeks later in May, fell ill with appendicitis she arranged for treatment in Vienna. The Austrian capital was seething with street battles between the communists and the fascists. Gardiner was involved with the leftist underground smuggling of refugees to safety. She and Spender became lovers. ‘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’, Spender informed a disapproving Isherwood (MS letter, 14 September 1934, Huntington Library). Spender's relationship with Gardiner was complicated by the presence of Hyndman and ended when, in spring 1935, she fell in love with the Austrian socialist Joseph Buttinger, whom she later married.

Spender finished The Destructive Element in July 1934 and went on to publish his long political poem Vienna for Faber in November. This eminently unlyrical work pleased neither T. S. Eliot nor the reviewers, but his critical writing was well received and led to a lifelong friendship with Cyril Connolly.

Between November 1935 and March 1936 Spender embarked on an experiment in communitarian living in Cintra, Portugal, with Christopher Isherwood, and their partners Hyndman and Heinz Neddermeyer. The experiment failed. In April 1936 Faber published Spender's book of short stories The Burning Cactus, to mixed reviews (Rosamond Lehmann found them brilliant, but ‘terribly cranky’).

Germany had collapsed into fascism and Spain was embroiled in civil war. Spender seized the moment with a ‘political book’ for Victor Gollancz's Left Book Club, Forward from Liberalism (1937). In September 1936 Spender broke with Hyndman and the two men ceased living together. A few weeks later, early in October, he fell in love with Inez Maria Pearn (1914–1977), a modern languages postgraduate at Oxford. They married on 15 December. In the same month Hyndman joined the International Brigade in Spain.

Forward from Liberalism brought Spender to the notice of the Communist Party. They needed, as Harry Pollitt put it, ‘their Byron’. Spender was disinclined to lay down his life, but he agreed to undertake an investigatory trip to southern Spain. On his return, in February, he announced in the Daily Worker that he had joined the party, but he almost immediately let his membership lapse. In April 1937 he went to Spain again, ostensibly to work for a republican radio station in Valencia. He was increasingly concerned about the fate of Hyndman who, after the battle of the Jarama, had deserted and was in custody. Spender's experiences in Spain were profoundly disillusioning. They produced the finest of his (anti-)war poems: ‘The Coward’ and ‘Ultima ratio regum’. He finally succeeded in extricating Hyndman in July 1937. His marriage during these months came under strain. Spender made one last trip to Spain in July 1937 as a delegate to the second international congress of writers in Madrid. It led to his total severance from the Communist Party.

On his return to Britain, Spender studied painting with the Euston Road group and undertook a course of psychoanalysis with Karen Stephen. He worked with J. B. Leishmann on a translation of Rilke, published as Duino Elegies in 1939, and joined Rupert Doone's Group Theatre as literary director. In March 1938 the company produced his verse play, Trial of a Judge. His long-awaited second collection of verse, The Still Centre (1939), established him as the leading poet of his generation still in Britain, Auden having left for America.

War, peace, and America

The strains in Spender's marriage climaxed in August 1939 when Inez eloped with the poet Charles Madge, whom she later married. The Second World War broke out a fortnight later. Out of this period of breakdown Spender produced his confessional September Journal. At the same time he completed his novel The Backward Son (published in April 1940) and joined with Connolly, and the rich patron Peter Watson, to set up the literary magazine Horizon.

In summer 1940 Spender met the 21-year-old concert pianist Natasha Litvin [see below], whom he subsequently married on 9 April 1941. Slightly over-age and wholly unfit for military service, he failed his medical exam twice and spent the winter of 1940 teaching at Blundell's School in Devon. By ‘pulling strings’ he finally contrived to get himself in the Auxiliary Fire Service and began his basic training in September 1941. In slack periods over the next three years' service he wrote poetry, reviewed extensively, and organized educational programmes for his fellow firemen. His publications include Ruins and Visions (1942, chronicling his recent breakdown and recovery), the sonnet sequence Spiritual Explorations (1943), and the manifesto Life and the Poet (1942).

In July 1944 Spender transferred to the Foreign Office's political intelligence department. In March 1945 he and his wife had their first child, Matthew, and moved to the house in St John's Wood which was their home for the next fifty years. On 11 May 1945 Squadron Leader Michael Spender was killed in a flying accident. A deeply affected Stephen wrote the elegy ‘Seascape’ for a brother with whom his relationship had always been difficult.

With peace, Spender took up service with the control commission—charged with restoring civil order to Germany. Out of his work in 1945 for this body he wrote his reportage volume European Witness (1946). His personal life was meanwhile darkened by the lingering death of his brother Humphrey's wife, Margaret, from Hodgkin's disease, at Christmas 1945. His ‘Elegy for Margaret’—an ambitious sequence—headed Poems of Dedication, was published in 1947.

On leaving the control commission late in 1945 Spender was appointed literary counsellor to the newly established UNESCO in Paris. He held this post until early in 1947 when he accepted an invitation to teach (from September 1947 to July 1948) at Sarah Lawrence College in New York State. After teaching ended Spender undertook an extensive travel and lecturing itinerary across the US. Through Auden he met Frieda Lawrence in Taos, New Mexico, and she invited him to use the remote ‘Lawrence Ranch’ for writing. This he did, from September to October 1948, producing the first drafts of World within World and his political memoir for Arthur Koestler's and Richard Crossman's collection The God that Failed (published in January 1950). World within World (published in April 1951) is candid about his relations with his father, his brother Michael, his friends Auden and Isherwood, his wives, and—most controversially—Tony Hyndman. The book was a best-seller, clearing 50,000 copies in its first year.

In December 1949 Spender brought out The Edge of Being and the critical tide turned against him. He resolved ‘not to run the gauntlet of another volume of poetry ever again’ (unpublished journal). Over the next years Spender would undertake numerous international trips for the British Society for Cultural Freedom, the Congress for Cultural Freedom, and PEN.

In 1952, following a trip to Israel, Spender published a book on the new state, Learning Laughter, and from February to June 1953 he occupied the Elliston chair at the University of Cincinnati giving the lectures on modernism published as The Creative Element (1953). Later in 1953 he accepted (from the CCF) the invitation to serve as ‘English editor’ for the new monthly magazine Encounter. His co-editor was the American Irving Kristol. The first issue of the magazine came out in October 1953 and for the fourteen years of his co-editorship, Spender was hoodwinked as to the financing of the journal.

International man of letters; last years

Spender's Collected Poems (stringently winnowed down to seventy-five lyrics) came out in 1955. In that year he wrote in his journal, ‘things I do other than writing seem to take up a larger and larger place in my life’. In 1958 Spender enjoyed considerable success with his translation from Schiller Mary Stuart, which was performed at the Edinburgh festival and the Old Vic. In 1959 he took a sabbatical from Encounter to take up the Beckman chair at the University of California at Berkeley. There he wrote The Struggle of the Modern (1963). His relationship with his colleagues at the magazine became increasingly difficult. In 1963, following allegations about the funding, Spender successfully had the management of Encounter transferred to a visibly British proprietor, Cecil King. In the same year he distanced himself from direct control of the magazine by accepting a three-year, one-semester teaching appointment at Northwestern University, in Chicago. He was, thereafter, a ‘corresponding editor’.

Spender's absence from the UK was extended by his accepting the post of poetry consultant to the Library of Congress (effectively the US laureateship) from April 1965 to June 1966. In February 1966 he gave the Clark lectures in Cambridge on British and American literature, later published as Love-Hate Relations (1974). In April 1966 the crisis at Encounter exploded with the allegation in the New York Times that the magazine had been the ‘indirect beneficiary’ of CIA funds. When these allegations were substantiated by Ramparts Magazine in April 1967 Spender resigned. In January 1968, following an open letter from Pavel Litvinov in The Times about the legal persecution of writers in the USSR, Spender launched a campaign which in October 1971 resulted in the setting up of Index on Censorship, to monitor oppression of writers. In March 1968 he gave a series of Mellon lectures on painting and literature in Washington, but was, at this period, as interested in what was happening in the streets as in the lecture halls. Following a trip to Paris, New York, Berlin, and Prague he published in May 1969 The Year of the Young Rebels.

During the late 1960s Spender was a frequent academic visitor to the University of Connecticut at Storrs, which he later claimed had the ‘most congenial teaching faculty’ he had encountered in America (Spender, Journals, 259). In October 1970 Spender accepted a chair of English at University College, London (UCL). In 1971 his volume of poems The Generous Days was published to mixed reviews. Spender confided to a colleague that ‘reviewers don't know they are killing you bit by bit’. In summer 1972, through Auden, he formed a close friendship with the exiled Russian poet Joseph Brodsky. With the death of Auden in September 1973, a chapter in Spender's life closed. Connolly died in 1974 and Spender wrote elegies for both men. His memorial collection of essays, W. H. Auden: a Tribute, appeared in 1975. The UCL years also produced a monograph on T. S. Eliot (1975) and a symposium entitled D. H. Lawrence: Novelist, Poet, Prophet (1973). The autobiographical The Thirties and After (1978) blazed a trail for the collected Journals, 1939–83 (1985). Spender's translation of Sophocles' Oedipus trilogy was published (and performed) in 1983 and a second Collected Poems was also published. His belated and much revised 1930s novel The Temple appeared in 1989. Spender's last collection of new verse, Dolphins, came out in 1994.

Spender's last years were troubled by the publication of an unauthorized biography by Hugh David (Stephen Spender: a Portrait with Background, 1992) which he tried and failed to suppress. He was successful in having David Leavitt's novel While England Sleeps (1993) withdrawn after its publication in the UK, on the ground that it borrowed illegitimately from the Jimmy Younger (that is, Tony Hyndman) episode in World within World.

Spender received numerous honours. He was awarded a CBE in 1962, made a companion of literature by the Royal Society of Literature in 1977, and knighted in 1983. Four honorary doctorates were also conferred on him. He retired from UCL in 1975, but continued to teach in America. Spender was much photographed, and had his portrait done by, among others, Lucian Freud, Wyndham Lewis, Robert Bückler, William Coldstream, Henry Moore, and David Hockney. He was tall, handsome in youth, and looked distinguished in later life. His hair silvered early, adding to the distinction. His personality is often described as ‘enigmatic’: famously Cyril Connolly (reviewing World within World) discerned ‘two Spenders’, one naïve, one calculating. Spender's mobility was curtailed by a serious accident in 1980, and a collapse of health in 1994, after which he did not travel again.

Stephen Spender died at his home, 15 Loudoun Road, St John's Wood, London, of heart failure, on 16 July 1995; he was cremated and his ashes were subsequently buried at St Mary's, Paddington Green, on 21 July. Although he was subjected to more satire and sarcasm than most famous modern poets (particularly by the followers of F. R. Leavis), few who knew him well seem not to have loved him.

Natasha Spender

Spender's second wife, Natasha Gordon Spender [née Litvin,] Lady Spender (1919–2010), pianist, was born on 18 April 1919 at 72 Edith Road, Fulham, London, the daughter of Rachel (Ray) Litvin (1890–1977), actress. She did not meet her father, the music critic Edwin Evans (1874–1945), until she was twelve (when, as she recounted later, she was sent to him to beg for money). Although she maintained contact with her mother, she spent two years with a foster family in Sussex then nine years with another in Maidenhead, Berkshire. She was later taken under the wing of George Macaulay Booth (son of the social reformer Charles Booth) and his wife Margaret, who encouraged her musical talents. With support from her father she attended the Tobias Matthay Piano School and the Royal College of Music. During the early part of the Second World War she gave recitals at the National Gallery and elsewhere, and she continued her career after her marriage, giving recitals for ENSA and the BBC Home Service. In 1945 she played on a three-work tour of Germany, which included a concert for survivors of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. She made her Wigmore Hall debut in 1944. She premiered Samuel Barber's piano sonata in 1947, toured Australia in 1954 and the United States in 1956–7, and in 1957 played Beethoven's second piano concerto at the Proms with the London Symphony Orchestra. She was forced to abandon her career as a professional pianist following treatment for breast cancer (which affected her arm muscles) in 1964. She had already begun to study psychology and philosophy at University College, London, and after graduating in 1968 she taught psychology at the Royal College of Art from 1970 to 1984. She was a staunch and even fierce defender of her husband both before and after his death. In response to Hugh David's hostile biography of him in 1992 she wrote an article for the Times Literary Supplement calling for a code of professional standards for biographers. In 2009 she created the Stephen Spender Memorial Trust to perpetuate his memory. In the early 1960s she and her husband had bought a ruined farmhouse near Arles in Provence, which she rebuilt and named Mas St Jerome. She also cultivated a renowned garden, which she wrote about in the sumptuously illustrated An English Garden in Provence (1999). Two months after the book's publication the farmhouse was destroyed in a forest fire. With indomitable determination she rebuilt the house and replanted the garden. She died at her home in England, 15 Loudoun Road, St John's Wood, on 21 October 2010 following a stroke, and was survived by her son, Matthew, and daughter, Lizzie (who was married to the Australian entertainer Barry Humphries, better known as Dame Edna Everage).

John Sutherland


S. Spender, World within world (1951) · S. Spender, Journals, 1939–1983 (1985) · S. Hynes, The Auden generation: literature and politics in England in the 1930s (1976) · S. Spender, The thirties and after (1978) · C. Isherwood, Christopher and his kind (1976) · D. Leeming, Stephen Spender: a life in modernism (1999) · N. Page, Auden and Isherwood: the Berlin years (1998) · [S. Spender], Letters to Christopher, ed. L. Bartlett (1980) · The Times (23 Oct 2010) · Daily Telegraph (25 Sept 2010) · The Guardian (25 Sept 2010) · The Independent (25 Oct 2010) · b. cert. [Natasha Litvin] · d. cert. [Natasha Spender]


BL, Stephen Spender xerox archive of occasional writings, journalism, and essays · BL PES, address on European unity · Harvard U., Houghton L., corresp., literary MSS, and papers · Ransom HRC, notebooks · Stephen Spender Memorial Trust Archive, London · Virginia Polytechnic Institute, Blacksburg, corresp. and literary MSS |  Bodl. Oxf., letters to Jack W. Lambert · Georgetown University, Washington, DC, Lauinger Library, letters to Elizabeth Jennings · Hunt. L., corresp. with Christopher Isherwood · King's AC Cam., letters to G. H. W. Rylands, incl. some draft poems · NL Scot., corresp. with J. B. Singer · Rice University, Houston, Texas, Woodson Research Center, corresp. with Sir Julian Huxley · Tate collection, Tate Gallery archive, corresp. with Lord Clark · U. Leeds, Brotherton L., letters to the London Magazine · U. Sussex, corresp. with Leonard Woolf · U. Sussex, corresp. with Virginia Woolf and Leonard Woolf · U. Warwick Mod. RC, corresp. with Victor Gollancz · University of Bristol Library, corresp. and statements relating to trial of Lady Chatterley's Lover  



BFINA, South Bank Show, ITV




BBC WAC · BL NSA, documetary recordings · BL NSA, performance recordings


H. Spender, photograph, 1932, NPG [see illus.] · photographs, c.1940–1975, Hult. Arch. · B. Brandt, photograph, 1941, NPG · I. Penn, photograph, 1947, NPG · D. Low, chalk drawing, c.1952, NPG · D. Moore, photograph, 1992, NPG · F. Topolski, portrait, NPG

Wealth at death  

£1,521,673—Natasha Spender: probate, 10 Aug 2011, CGPLA Eng. & Wales · £355,540—Natasha Spender: administration with will, 2 Dec 2011, CGPLA Eng. & Wales