Sunday 18 February 2018

Poetry: Poet of the Left quoted by Reagan

Stephen Spender
Stephen Spender

Ulick O'Connor

Next month will be the 20th anniversary of the death of Stephen Spender. He was a leading writer of the Left in the 1930s in England, and I think he was also the best of the English poets around at that time.

His only rival was Dylan Thomas, who had such a burst of language at his disposal that he didn't need to worry about ideas.

Spender took his socialism seriously and fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil War. When he came back to England during World War II, he edited, along with Cyril Connolly, what must be the best literary magazine in the English language, Horizon.

He was widely popular in America despite his left-wing views. The ease by which he succeeded in academic life there was to some extent his undoing. The pressure on him was to produce academic work in prose and not develop his poetic powers.

When I met Spender in London in the mid-1980s, I was struck by his lack of self-importance. He was tall, 6ft 4in, and would talk about anything except his own poetry. His Oxford accent, like Evelyn Waugh's, had a light touch of cockney in it. I remember at that time the size of a rugby ball was undergoing a change, and he questioned me at some length on the matter.

In June 1984, at the 40th anniversary of the Normandy Invasion, right-winger President Ronald Reagan could quote from Spender's poem: "Gentlemen, I look at you and I think of the words of Stephen Spender's poem. You are men who in your 'lives fought for life . . . and left the vivid air signed with your honour.''

The very fine poem below takes us to the singing fields of the imagination, which it is the poet's function to reveal.

I think continually

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.

And who hoarded from the Spring branches

The desires falling across their bodies like blossoms.

Near the snow, near the sun, in the highest fields

See how these names are feted by the waving grass

And by the streamers of white cloud

And whispers of 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 towards the sun,

And left the vivid air signed with their honour.

Stephen Spender 1909-1995

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