Stephen Spender (February 28, 1909 – July 16, 1995) was an English poet and essayist who focused on themes of social injustice and the class struggle in his work.
Born: February 28th, 1909
Died: July 16th, 1995
Quotes: 76 sourced quotes total (includes 3 about)
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Great poetry is always written by somebody straining to go beyond what he can do.
At dawn she lay with her profile at that angle Which, when she sleeps, seems the carved face of an angel.
When a child, my dreams rode on your wishes, I was your son, high on your horse, My mind a top whipped by the lashes Of your rhetoric, windy of course.
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.
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.
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.
History is the ship carrying living memories to the future.
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!'
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, 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.
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.
I say, stamping the words with emphasis, Drink from here energy and only energy
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
I simply had to get there.
Death to the killers, bringing light to life.
I wear your kiss like a feather Laid upon my cheek
You will be a poet because you will always be humiliated.
They think how one life hums, revolves and toils, One cog in a golden singing hive...
What I had not foreseen Was the gradual day Weakening the will Leaking the brightness away
Extensive whiteness drowned All sense of space. We tramped through Static, glaring days, Time's suspended blank.
There is a certain justice in criticism. The critic is like a midwife — a tyrannical midwife.
No one Shall hunger: Man shall spend equally. Our goal which we compel: Man shall be man.
Far far from gusty waves these children's faces. Like rootless weeds the torn hair round their paleness.
For I had expected always Some brightness to hold in trust, Some final innocence To save from dust
Our single purpose was to walk through snow With faces swung to their prodigious North Like compass iron.
Whatever happens, I shall never be alone, I shall always have a fare, an affair, or a revolution.
Eye, gazelle, delicate wanderer, Drinker of horizon’s fluid line; Ear that suspends on a chord 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.
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.
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.
'''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.''''
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"But do you really think I'm any good?" a nervous Stephen Spender asked WH Auden, some six weeks after they'd met. "Of course," Auden said. "Because you are so infinitely capable of being humiliated." Humiliation was Spender's lifetime companion. Few poets have been more savagely reviewed. And none has nurtured a greater sense of inadequacy. This is the man who, having dismissed John Lehmann as a potential lover because he was a "failed version of myself", adds: "but I also regarded myself as a failed version of myself." With Spender, self-deprecation reaches comic extremes of self-abasement.
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...
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.
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.
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.
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.