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This review is taken from PN Review 162, Volume 31 Number 4, March - April 2005.

A BIGGER SPENDER STEPHEN SPENDER, New Collected Poems, edited by Michael Brett (Faber) £30

Spender's poetic career - unlike his more public one as a sort of cultural ambassador at large - can be seen as a falling-off from precocious beginnings. His first collection, the Poems of 1933, in which, like Auden's Poems of 1930, individual works are given numbers rather than names, already contains a good few of the poems by which he was subsequently to be remembered and anthologised. This poetic dé but, however, promised more than he was finally to deliver. Though he was to continue to write memorable poetry (albeit intermittently) throughout his life, this first youthful set of poems remains his single most sustained poetic production. After The Still Centre (1939) he is already in poetic decline.

His first collection evokes a period already under the shadow of war, an England of road-drills, crossing-sweepers, pylons, gasworks, aerodromes and unemployment queues. If he carries his modernity and his social conscience somewhat defiantly on his sleeve, he achieves nonetheless some of his most clear-cut and penetrating writing. However, along with the explicitly con-temporary subject-matter there come hints of the romantic mush that it is to mar so much of his work - the harps, the mystic Ones, the swarms of stars and flowers, the dazzling crystals that make occasional guest appearances here are later to meet the emotional vagueness of 'O love / Surrounding my life with violet skies.'

The modernism in Spender was skin-deep. So, it might be said, was the case ...

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