Commentary Magazine

Love-Hate Relations, by Stephen Spender

Culture and Country

Love-Hate Relations: A Study of Anglo-American Sensibilities.
by Stephen Spender.
Random House. 246 pp. $8.95.

Stephen Spender's Love-Hate Relations can be taken in at least two ways. First it may be seen as a rather winding and idiosyncratic survey of the ever-changing stresses of the Anglo-American cultural dilemma, a survey more convincing, perhaps, in fine detail than general analysis. (And significantly, Spender, the translator of Schiller and Hölderlin, cannot always contrive to keep England and Europe apart.) The unexpected metaphors make up for a certain carelessness and impatience which the lyric poet has always shown when writing prose. Second, the book may be viewed as a summation of the author's own critical attitudes and doubts, as the personal statement of a poet who—since the death of Louis MacNeice, Cecil Day Lewis, and W. H. Auden—remains the last prestigious survivor of the committed Oxonian poetic generation of the 30's.

The first part of the book, which examines what Emerson at one stage saw as England's cultural advantage over America, covers territory which has already been well explored. Henry James appears as Spender's key figure, “center of the English-American language.” For James, despite his awareness of the pros and cons on both sides, conceived the English-American world as “a big Anglo-Saxon total,” and aspired to write in such a way that an outsider would be unable to tell whether he were an American writing about England or an Englishman writing about America.

This civilized ambiguity was, of course, an ideal which not even James himself could realize, an ideal which inevitably receded as the Anglo-Saxon element ceased to predominate in the United States. Besides, if T.S. Eliot, royalist and Anglo-Catholic though he was, could be called (with revealing ignorance) an overeducated American who should have “stayed in Louisville, or wherever he came from,” W. H. Auden was not exactly convincing as an American either, and returned to Oxford at the last. The charm for the reader, wherever he is placed, surely lies in the subtle (and not so subtle) differences between English and American authors, rather than in any cultural cross-breed, or Amereng (Spender's happy coinage).

Spender's account of Pound and Eliot (despite its indebtedness to American writers) assumes a very English tinge. Following James in quest of the civilization they felt to be lacking at home, they arrived in the England of the Georgian poets at a moment that could only lead to their own disillusion. The point of Anglo-American division was, in Spender's opinion, the 1914-18 war: the American pair succeeded in disturbing English complacency, but they remained essentially spectators while poets like Wilfred Owen, whom they never appreciated, were fighting and dying in the trenches. Spender who (with Auden) has always cared deeply for Owen's poetry, movingly illuminates its prophetic insight. He also challenges with vigor Pound's influential lines on soldierly sacrifice for an old bitch gone in the teeth, a botched civilization, suggesting that the English war poets saw themselves as fighting for “gentleness” rather than civilization, for values that were internal rather than external.


From poetry, Spender passes to a familiar juxtaposition of his, the “poet-novelists,” including Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, D.H. Lawrence, as compared with those novelists who merely reflect prose life (Arnold Bennett, Upton Sinclair). He considers how the “poet-novelists” examine the condition of the English in terms of his favorite quotation from Auden's The Orators: “What do you think about England, this country of ours where nobody is well?” Thence he proceeds, by way of the American expatriates of the inter-war years, to weigh the post-1945 American cultural advantage, which finds many an English intellectual attracted to American vitality and fascinated by American writers whose reach is often greater than their grasp. (This infatuation, it is true, has faded somewhat in the light of the Vietnam war and Watergate.)

It may well be that Spender's tendency to interpret English and American literary conditions as a kind of strenuous cultural tennis match, with the advantage passing from one side to the other, derives from the impact of the sensational departure of Auden and Isherwood for America in 1939. The question for Spender was: could they produce better work in the United States than in England? Ten years after, in an essay in Horizon, he found that the English writer was still enjoying several advantages over his American colleague. Clearly, since then, he has changed his mind.

So, the situation with which Spender began, where English writers like Matthew Arnold could find nothing of cultural interest in the former colony, is now ironically reversed when American poets and critics can regard current English literature, epitomized by the poems of Philip Larkin, as provincial and as small beer. However, it ought to be said that much fine—and pleasurable—creative work has often been accomplished in Britain by isolated figures who do not choose to throw their hats into “the heavyweight ring” (A. Alvarez's Maileresque phrase). One thinks of poets from Cowper to R. S. Thomas.

The logic of Spender's twists and turns, though not always immediately obvious, may be sought in the fact that the literary territory he explores here is very largely the one he has been traversing and re-traversing since his first work of criticism, The Destructive Element, in 1935. His criticism, with an occasional backward glance to Elizabethans or Romantics, often seems to radiate from family or personal experience. A relative of his was acquainted with Henry James, we are told. He himself knew the Georgian poets through his uncle, J. A. Spender, editor of the Westminster Gazette, who published their work. His own idea of poetry, before he fell under Auden's influence at Oxford, was not dissimilar to that of the Georgian poets, since he felt then that there existed a poetic world separate from the real world. He met Yeats at tea at Lady Ottoline Morrell's, lunched with Eliot, dined with Virginia Woolf, and later visited Pound in his Washington hospital with Robert Lowell. Spender's continuing interest in the same writers, especially Virginia Woolf, Lawrence, and Eliot, dates from his undergraduate days.

So does his declaration of love for the gentle English countryside shaped by the action of many centuries. Picnicking with Auden on a hilltop near Oxford, on “the most English day of our relationship,” he perceived that the landscape looked “polished by innumerable suns rising in the island sky, which seemed to have preserved intact through many centuries such a day as this, where two undergraduates lay in a high field, talking about poetry, as they might have done in Elizabethan times.” This conscious Englishry, which underlies many of his literary judgments, may well have been intensified by the strains arising from his mixed ancestry, Danish and German-Jewish as well as British.

Certainly the word “life,” so important in his critical vocabulary—he published an essay with the highly romantic title “Life and the Poet” in 1942—implies the writer's awareness of a connection between his own existence and his country in its history, landscape, and people. In this sense, the country is the “patria,” the ideal England or United States by which the writer judges the official nation and the existing society. Without a correct relation to the “patria,” the writer's work becomes either peripheral or excessively introspective, alternative fates he has long sought to avoid. “Life,” which Spender recognizes as a vague and even dangerous term, is therefore linked in his mind with the sense of the past as a living continuity in the present. Once characterized as a “Romantic of the wildest sort,” Spender still retains a pretty romantic conception of the past and its values. Plainly, he loathes the present-day cult of the detached present, regarded as a particularly American contribution to the modern outlook.

In the last section of the work, Spender's perplexity becomes increasingly evident. He is unhappy about many current literary developments on both sides of the Atlantic, some of which are, in reality, wild extensions of his youthful position. What he calls the “orgasmic culture,” for instance, goes well beyond the tenets of his own liberator, D. H. Lawrence, and beyond Spender's own early injunction to young comrades to count their “valued sex” and

advance to rebuild and sleep with
    friend on hill
advance to rebel. . . .

Since the days of his own revolt against a debased puritanism and his flirtation with Communism, rebellion has both gotten out of hand and become commonplace.

Spender's conclusion, which considers possible English positions in the present unfavorable literary climate, reminds us that this book arose out of Clark lectures delivered at Cambridge. None of the positions suggested—whether studied provincialism, in the style of Larkin or Betjeman; the role of exile belonging to neither country, after Auden; or some vague Lawrentian concept of “life” which is dearer to Spender's own heart—seems particularly inspiring. That the pursuit of “life” may also lead to the extreme, to madness and self-destruction, is nonetheless clear to him. “Perhaps the English can maintain distance and sanity,” he concludes. That has often been their role, but he does not sound too sanguine about the prospect.

Whether it is entirely satisfactory to generalize about national attitudes to the past (or to anything else), and to discuss English (or European) and American cultural relations in terms of two hundred years of literature, especially poetry and the novel—even within the context of a belief in the social value of the creative imagination—remains questionable. Maybe a longer view, taken for argument's sake from Milton's A reopagitica—with its conviction that truth must prevail over falsehood in any “free and open encounter”—might produce a less disjunctive picture of the cultural scene. Still, a book constructed upon Robert Frost's touching remark about his friendship with Edward Thomas—“We were very close. His mockery was my mockery, and we felt the same about war and peace”—would scarcely prove as stimulating as Spender's provocative study. Certainly, it is a work rich enough to provide hints for explorations by others.

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