Stephen Spender's Jewish Roots

The Poet Was a Mensch First and a Writer Second

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By Benjamin Ivry

Published December 01, 2012, issue of December 07, 2012.
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For most of his life, London-born poet Stephen Spender (1909–1995) felt close ties to the Jewish people; he himself was one-quarter Jewish (his mother, Violet Schuster, was from a Jewish family originally from Frankfurt), but his 1941 marriage to Natasha Litvin, a pianist from a Lithuanian Jewish refugee family, strengthened the connection. This is affirmed in Spender’s “New Selected Journals, 1939–1995” recently published by Faber and Faber. Containing some of Spender’s best writing, the new book is a much augmented version of an earlier edition, published in 1986, that shed light on his 1951 memoir, “World Within World.” The 1986 work has achieved semi-classic status. That’s a lot of prose for a poet, without counting a noteworthy 1978 compilation, “The Thirties and After: Poetry, Politics, People, 1933-1975”. In all the aforementioned works, Spender expresses acute awareness of the deadly rise of fascism in prewar Europe, and the subsequent fate of fascism’s victims.

In the early 1930s, Spender presciently penned a novel, “The Temple,” about a young English poet vacationing in Hamburg in 1930 and 1932. In it he clearly outlined the Nazi threat. Left in draft form, this novel would not be published until in 1988.

In 2009, David Aberbach, a professor of Hebrew and comparative studies at McGill University, wrote an essay for the Times Literary Supplement, “Stephen Spender’s Jewish Roots,” pointing to the poet’s belief that the “greatest art is moral,” an idea that hearkens back to the “biblical prophets, for whom poetry was a tool for social change,” according to Aberbach. This applies to Spender’s prose, as his friend, the historian of ideas Isaiah Berlin realized, writing to a friend to state that Spender’s writings used the “moral vocabulary of the Victorians… words like good and bad, right and wrong, kind and cruel,” thereby re-establishing their “moral currency.”

Many friends saw Spender as naive but also shrewd, and he easily became a target of irony. At a 1930 luncheon, T.S. Eliot asked Spender about his future plans. Spender’s reply, “Be a poet,” caused Eliot to object: “I can understand you wanting to write poems, but I don’t quite know what you mean by ‘being a poet.’”


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