World Within World, by Stephen Spender

This autobiography by the well-known British poet was completed in 1950, when he was 41. He meets the objection that he was too young to sum up his life by explaining that “events both public and private tended to make my pre-war life seem complete in itself”, the public event being the end of WWII. John Bayley, in his introduction calls the book “the best autobiography in English written in the twentieth century.”

I have not read widely enough to assess that claim, but it is certainly very fine. I like autobiographies and memoirs because I am always curious about other people's solutions to the problems of living. Admittedly I read these books, not just to learn something, but because they are written in a fascinating voice, such as Angela's Ashes, or tell a compelling story, such as The Glass Castle. However, judging by the books published and the best-seller lists, we also read to learn about the lives of celebrities or about historical events or famous people. Meeting those criteria as well, Spender knew literary celebrities like Auden and Virginia Woolf, earned fame himself as a poet and describes major historical events such as the Spanish Civil War and WWII.

However, the appeal of this book lies in his openness. Spender gives us simultaneously the story of his emotional, intellectual, political and poetic journeys during the years 1928-1939. He brings out the inner conflicts of his time, when Freud opened new ways of understanding ourselves while the Puritanical British society denied them. “As a child, even, I wanted to know someone who saw himself continually in relation to the immensity of time and the universe: who admitted to himself the isolation of his spiritual search and the wholeness of his physical nature.”

Spender pursues his goals first of trying to discover his real self and then to find a right relation to the world. He says: “My difficulty was to connect my interior world with any outward activity. At what point did my inner drama enter into relation with the life which surrounded me?” He is concerned with the relationship between our inner and outer lives, “the conflict between personal life and public causes”.

As a corollary, he addresses the issue of whether poets should avoid politics in their writing, as his friend Auden maintained, or if events of the time were of a magnitude that they could not be ignored. There are many wonderfully insightful critical assessments of the writers of his time, most of whom were his friends, along with anecdotes about them which illuminate them wonderfully, such as an account of one of Virginia Woolf's dinner parties. I most enjoyed reading about Berlin in the early 1930s, when he lived there with Isherwood and other friends.

I should explain that the book in is five parts. The first is a short section about childhood, intended to lay the groundwork for the rest of the book. The second part is about his time at Oxford where he became friends with Auden, Louis MacNeice and Isaiah Berlin, among others, and began his vocation as a poet. The third section is an account of his time in Weimar Germany after leaving Oxford, beautifully describing the sense of freedom, ferocious life, and creativity before moving into the darker forces which would result in Nazism. This section also includes his life in London when he became intimate with the Bloomsbury Group. The Spanish Civil War dominates the fourth section, and the final section is about London during WWII before tying the whole back to the themes discovered in childhood.

I've described these sections by outer events, but Spender presents them with his own emotional and creative responses and the cultural currents that run alongside and mesh with the political ones.

Then there are the short, vivid descriptions written out of his poetic sensibility. Serving as a fire fighter in London during the war, he describes standing in the middle of a fire, training his hose on the flames, as peaceful, “as though . . . standing in the centre of the pine forest at Sellin with a sound of crepitating pine needles and oozing gum, more finely etched than silence itself upon the burning copper wall of the day.” Or this description of visits to country houses of Bloomsbury friends such as Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Harold Nicolson and Victoria Sackville-West:

In my mind these houses in the south and south-west of England, belonging to people who knew one another and who maintained approximately the same standards of living well, talking well, and believing passionately in their own kind of individualism, were connected by drives along roads which often went between hedges. At night the head-lamps would project a hundred yards in front of us an image of what looked like a luminous grotto made of crystal leaves, coloured agate or jade. This moved always in front of us on the leaves and branches. Delight in a vision familiar yet mysterious of this kind was the object of much of their painting, writing and conversation, so that when we drove in the country at night, and I watched that moving brilliant core of light, I felt often that I was looking into the eyes of their sensibility.

I love this partly because it reminds me of my own drives through English hedge-bound roads, but also because of its insightful summary of the group of people who became my first models of what an ideal life would look like.

What memoirs or autobiographies have you loved?

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