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Richard Eder : Journals: 1939-1983 by Stephen Spender (Random House: $19.95; 488 pp.)

January 19, 1986|RICHARD EDER

To be a minor poet, Stephen Spender reflects in his "Journals," is to be like minor royalty. "No one--as a former lady-in-waiting to Princess Margaret once explained to me--is happy as that," he adds.

It is not that this perennial Englishman of letters strips himself naked. He is, he insists, "impelled not to be totally candid." He began the "Journals" in a state of depression in 1939, and for the first 10 years or so, they remained stiff and distant.

Then, something happened; it is hard to say what. Perhaps, as with others of his countrymen, it took at least a decade for Spender to unburden himself with anyone or anything. In any case, his "Journals" were his companion for nearly 45 years until, like the proverbial worn tweeds, they became more like himself than he was.

The "minor poet" reflection reveals a great deal. After charter membership in what he calls "The Thirties Racket" began to pall--one wrote proletarian poems with Oxford diction, was passionate about other young men, and did not get killed, if possible, fighting in Spain--Spender was marooned in a sense of literary inadequacy. Despite figuring as middle peak in the Auden-Spender-MacNeice Parnassus, he never grew very high. (The Parnassus has come to seem shorter itself, for that matter.) All his life he kept hoping. At 70, he records a scheme to write four really important poems.

As for the lady-in-waiting quote, it is also revealing. Spender, essentially a shore bird, kept making light tracks to wherever the wave was breaking. From '30s radical he became an establishment critic, professor, panelist, symposium chairman, traveler in literary politics and, finally, Sir.

That is the unkind version, if you like. But Spender's "Journals" take us past questions of kindness or unkindness. He explored himself and his times for nearly half a century with wit, sensitivity, malice and an oddly open heart and eye. By the end, he is perfectly willing to quote a Seattle airline attendant who remarks: "Gee, a near-celebrity."

This is fair disclosure for a man who confesses himself to be a sucker for seeing his name in print. "My heart really does do something journalistic--stop a beat, give a jump--if my eye hooks on to the printed word 'Spender' or even--now I am getting a bit astigmatic--any conformation of letters like it. ('Spring' for example.)"

As a founder of "Horizon," and later as an editor of "Encounter" and "Index" magazines, Spender was in the thick of Britain's steadily thinning literary life. He knew everyone. Arguing with a friend as to whether the protagonist in T. S. Eliot's "Family Reunion" had committed real or only symbolic murder, it was a matter of course to hop a cab over to Faber and Faber after lunch to ask the author. The Great Man replied in high Eliotese that "he did not think it important to know."

Spender's connections were international. He writes about walking past the Payne-Whitney clinic in New York and seeing "a woebegone man with a look on his face which combined suffering with gentleness and sympathy, sitting on a trash can at the edge of the sidewalk." It was Robert Lowell. The two chattted about Lowell's suicide attempt until two nurses came and collected him. There is a piquant encounter with Louis Aragon, a fellow-guest at the Rothschild estate at Mouton. Aragon, one of the last cultural figures reliably available to the French Communist Party, confided that he really detested the Communists because they were liars.

At another lunch, Spender asked Jacqueline Onassis what she considered her major achievement; an intrusive question that elicited a modestly eloquent reply: "I think it is that after going through a rather difficult time I consider myself comparatively sane. I am proud of that."

Auden appears throughout. There was a bond, but a good deal of prickliness, as well. Visiting him in Italy, Spender asked for lire in exchange for a pound note so he could buy cigarettes. Auden consulted the pound exchange rate in the paper, and announced triumphantly that it had gone down in his favor. The meanness stunned and infected. Spender remembered Auden coming and drinking up his wine; and a previous time when it was he who had drunk up Auden's champagne.

Spender ended up ahead, of course. To support his family, he spent years crisscrossing the United States, giving lectures and poetry courses. It was, to some extent, a matter of "Have Auden Will Travel." Spender realized that part of his value was the anecdotes. "People want to know from me about other people, mostly dead," he writes.

It could be painful as well as remunerative, but he seems to have been a perceptive and conscientious teacher. He grew warily fond of the United States but he could be caustic. Hearing a Bible Belt radio discussion about the kind of government Christ would run if he were President, Spender remarks that "it sounded extraordinarily like the present American administration."

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