Poems Written Abroad: The Lilly Library Manuscript

Indiana Univ. Jul. 2019. 154p. ed. by ed. by Christoph Irmscher. ISBN 9780253041678. $35; ebk. ISBN 9780253041708. POETRY
In 1927, the aspiring British poet Stephen Spender, then just 18 and not yet acquainted with his mentor W.H Auden, took a three-month vacation in France and Switzerland where he composed 36 pages of poems by hand in a notebook. Reproduced here in facsimile with facing-page transcriptions, this Lilly Library edition marks the first appearance of all but two of these poems in print. Manifestations of the political and social concerns that would later bring him literary fame are all but nonexistent, but Spender’s sexual anxiety (“the loving is my joy, the lust my fear”) and 20th-century fatalism (“youth sings, and hears,/ and then must cease to be”) surface often throughout his classically deployed odes and Shakespeare-shadowed sonnets on beauty and desire. Like any apprentice, Spender sought to master the inherited forms of the trade, so it’s not surprising to encounter the occasional awkward rhyme, syntactic inversion, or overwrought image (“swift hail flayed/ The earth in hissing shafts of splintered light”).
VERDICT Of primary interest to Spender scholars, this long-lost volume also offers poetry lovers a glimpse of a budding modernist mind fully engaged with “the anguish of beauty and the anxieties/ of pleasure.”
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