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Spender, Sir Stephen (1909-1995)  
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Born February 28, 1909, in London, Stephen Spender devoted his career of over sixty years to writing poems, essays, novels, and dramas, as well as to translating and teaching. In recognition of his contribution to literature, he was knighted in 1983, and he received numerous awards for his writing.

Despite the occasional frank discussion of his early homosexual attractions and experiences, his writings are much more concerned with liberal political causes and aesthetic issues such as the relationship between literature and society than it is with homosexuality.

Orphaned in his early teens, Spender recounts in his memoir World within World (1966) that he was taught from childhood to "be ashamed of his body." In a passage that helps explain the title, Spender characterizes his father as a "Puritan decadent" who taught him that the human body "is a nameless horror of nameless desires which isolate him within a world of his own."

The liberation from this attitude figures prominently in Spender's autobiographical novel The Temple, written in 1929 but not published until 1988. The reworked novel traces many of the lines drawn in World within World.

Set in 1929 near the end of the Weimar Republic, it celebrates the innocence and hedonism of a group of young men in Germany. Conflicted by puritanical images of sin and guilt, Paul Schoner nonetheless discovers that he can experience his physical body as a "source of joy" and can see it as a "temple."

Little of this new-found freedom, however, characterizes Paul's first homosexual encounter: He engages in mutual masturbation with Ernst, whom he finds physically repulsive, reaches orgasm quickly, then feels obligated to see Ernst achieve an "arid climax." Immediately afterward, Paul goes swimming, as if to wash away any traces of this experience. Just as abruptly, he meets a woman named Irmi, with whom he has exhilarating sex on the beach.

Although noted for its open discussion of sexuality, the novel may disappoint readers who are searching for evidence of Spender's orientation: Such scenes of sexual awakening in the novel are few, and they are fully subordinated to the central theme of creative and intellectual freedom in Germany before the advent of Nazism.

As a student at University College, Oxford in 1928, Spender came under the influence of W. H. Auden, whom he regarded with fear and trembling. Determined to be a poet, he submitted drafts of his poems for criticism and received instruction on the few contemporary poets Auden admired. More important, however, Auden taught him that "guilt and inhibition stood between oneself and the satisfaction of one's needs."

Also in 1928, he began a friendship with Christopher Isherwood, whose criticism and support he found invaluable. Their relationship was initially that of mentor and disciple, but it eventually evolved into mutual friendship and respect.

Writing in his journal for 1939, as Europe prepared for war, Spender reviewed the heady days of 1929 and defined his ideal as Freundschaft, the "friendship" of two young men who experienced life together and "were happy in each other's company." This friendship was not necessarily exclusively homosexual; indeed, many young Germans Spender knew were bisexual.

Having left Oxford in 1931 without completing his degree, he traveled extensively and lived for a time in Barcelona with Hellmut, the apparent subject of a notably erotic poem entitled "Helmut." (Originally published in the 1934 edition of Poems as "Alas when he laughs it is not he," the poem was not included in Collected Poems 1928-1953, though it is reprinted in Collected Poems 1928-1985.)

In September 1933, Spender met Tony Hyndman ("Jimmy Younger" of World), with whom he lived for the next three years. Their relationship was stormy and ultimately unsatisfying for Spender, who felt an emotional and intellectual imbalance, as suggested by his giving the name "Younger" to his friend, despite his claim that characters in this autobiography have "their real names and attributes." Suddenly in 1936, he announced their breakup and his plans to marry Inez Pearn, to whom he was engaged for only three weeks.

(Many details of Spender's relationship with Hyndman, as recounted in the autobiography, were adapted by David Leavitt in his novel While England Sleeps [1993]. Charging unlawful use, Spender sued Leavitt and his publisher Viking Press, but in February 1994, the case was resolved out of court. The settlement specified that the "pornographic" material be deleted from subsequent editions of the novel, much to the dismay of Leavitt, who saw latent in the charges.)

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A portrait of Sir Stephen Spender by Stathis Orphanos.
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