Stephen Spender

Spender on Political Poetry in the 1930s and Auden’s Poetic Brinksmanship

The reality of the time meant entering into its nature, imagining the actions of the dictators in terms of the victims they acted upon, the actual real living victims, trying to imagine what that meant. And once I’ve said that, I think you’ll see that the very act in our time of imagining the human reality of victims, those acted upon by politics, is politically speaking, anti political. The politician can’t really think about the victims, he has to get along with his policy. For one description of politics might well be to say that politics is the art of ignoring the effects of policies on those acted upon by them. That is one thing today’s Russian nuclear armers and American nuclear armers would be in total agreement about.

But of course, it’s always possible that a poet might attempt to imagine political ideas rather than political effects. And this is what the poets of the 1930s, to a great extent, did and where I think one of them, W.H. Auden, saw very clearly that he was quite wrong to try to write theoretical political poetry and the result of this was he turned his back on politics and poetry for the rest of his life, really. And he did this after he’d written his poem called “Spain,” which is about the Spanish Civil War, and which is an exercise of interpreting Marxist theory about the view of the Spanish Civil War, Spanish conflicts in Spain, into terms of that fighting itself. I think “Spain” is a famous example of what might be called “poetic brinkmanship,” a poet going as far as he possibly can towards writing about politics and disregarding the effects of politics, writing theoretically about it and then becoming terrified and turning back and discovering that his imagination had led him to places which he didn’t really want it to go to.


Excerpt from a lecture by Stephen Spender, delivered April 19, 1983 in the Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress


Stephen Spender (February 28, 1909 - July 16, 1995) served as U.S. Poet Laureate from 1965 - 66, the only British citizen awarded this honor. Spender was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1962. He published numerous books of poems, drama, fiction, essays, and a memoir, World Within World (1951). His books of poems include Dolphins (1994), The Generous Days (1971), and Vienna (1934). He was a Professor of English at University College London from 1970 to 1977.