29 December 2006

Stephen Spender

[from Stephen Spender's Poetry Since 1939, published in 1946]


First of all, it is necessary to note the conditions in which poets have worked during the war.

In principle, everyone in Britain was mobilised to take part in the war effort (this mobilisation is, in fact, likely to extend far beyond the war). Certain people were, however, exempt from mobilisation, on account of age, illness, or because they were in reserved occupations. Although some painters were reserved to paint war pictures, no poet was reserved for the purpose of writing war poetry or any other kind of poetry.

It would be impossible, of course, for a poet to enter into an undertaking to write poetry about war in the same way that a painter can paint scenes of war. It would also have been impossible for a government in conducting total war to give poets complete freedom without any obligation to write propaganda or, indeed, to write anything: for these are the conditions of freedom which most poets require. Therefore poets have no grievance that they were “called up” like everyone else. Yet a deplorable waste and misuse and destruction of poetic talent is inevitably part of the expense of modern warfare, and it is hardly compensated for by the fact that the war stimulated much indiscriminate writing and publishing of poetry.

An inevitable result of the call-up was that the best poems written were by older men and women whom the war effort almost passed over, if it did not entirely do so. (T. S. Eliot was a part-time Air Raid Warden, Edwin Muir an administrator in Edinburgh of the British Council.) Some of the best poems written in these years were by T. S. Eliot, Edith Sitwell, Edwin Muir and Laurence Binyon.

W. H. Auden went to America in the autumn of 1938 and stayed there. His two books, New Year Letter and For the Time Being, show, if one compares them with the work of his contemporaries in England, that his American freedom enabled him to improve his technique enormously, so that he is now the most accomplished technician writing poetry in the English language.

The practical effect of the war on other English poets has been to turn them into administrators, government officials, soldiers, sailors, pilots; and to single out a few as pacifists and rebels.

The generation of poets who attracted much attention in the 1930’s, Cecil Day Lewis, Louis MacNeice, William Empson, Spender and others, have tended to become officials: Day Lewis was employed in the Minsitry of Information; William Plomer in the Admiralty; Louis MacNeice was a script writer in the B. B. C.; William Empson worked in the Far Eastern section of the B. B. C.; Arthur Waley, the distinguished translator of Chinese poems, worked in the Far Eastern section of the Ministry of Information. Spender was for some years a fireman, and later became a small hack of a war-time branch of the Foreign Office. Dylan Thomas was employed in documentary films.

Then we come to the many poets in the Forces. Some of the most talented of these were killed, notably Sidney Keyes and Alun Lewis. In quantity, the poets in the Forces produced far more work than anyone else, and, apart from the writing of distinguished poets such as Vernon Watkins, F. T. Prince, Roy Fuller, Henry Treece, Alan Rook, Keidrych Rhys, Francis Scarfe, this poetry is the most difficult to judge at the present time while we are so close to it.

Women poets fall into a rather special category. Apart from Miss Edith Sitwell, four outstanding women writers, Kathleen Raine, Anne Ridler, Ruth Pitter and E. J. Scovell, produced books during the war. When I come to review their work, it will be seen that their strength lies in their developing that peculiar branch of extremely sensitive and perceptive writing in which women can excel.

The pacifist poets have produced a small but vociferous literature which is too full of protest and self-justification to have much value. The most notable pacifist writer is Alex Comfort, who is one of the most striking young talents in Britain.

The paper shortage and the situation in publishing play an important part in the conditions of writers in war time. After June 1940 paper suddenly became very scarce, newspapers were cut down to one-eighth of their size before the war, and publishers were limited to a quota of paper based on a small percentage of their pre-war consumption. Paper rationing was a hardship, but its results were not altogether bad. Most publishers behaved with a sense of responsibility towards literature and produced books of high quality, denying themselves paper for more popular work. Despite paper rationing, the sales of poetry increased, and even less-known poets could reckon their sales as between 2,000 and 4,000 instead of in hundreds, as would have been their circulation before the war.


  1. Happy New Year to you, Carol! I hope '07 finds you in a good place. If I were making more resolutions (I'm only making one or two, it's all my addled brain can keep track of), one of them would be to read at least half as much -- and with at least half as much awareness -- as you do. Thanks for all you post here on your blog; you've tipped me off to a number of poets/writers I want to follow up on!

  2. Totally fascinating thank you.