Editor’s Note

Sir Stephen Spender will soon publish his Collected Poems 1928-1985, a re-presentation and in many cases a thorough re- working of the poetic output of a lifetime. Revision of one’s early work is a time-honored yet much-debated poetic prac- tice. To examine this latest example of poetic second sight, The Paris Review is printing the old and new versions of four im- portant Spender poems with Sir Stephen’s comments on the processes involved. The old versions, which appear on the left- hand pages, come from Stephen Spender’s Collected Poems 1928-1953, and are reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.


Author’s Note

Readers often appear to be irritated with poets for rewriting their poems. Causes of annoyance are —

a) when a poet changes a poem to make it conform with beliefs different from those which he held when he wrote it;
b) when changes consist of a poet smoothing away some original roughness which the reader may prefer to a later more polished surface.

Also, readers may resent changes in a text simply through their conservatism, because they are familiar with an earlier ver- sion and feel that it is being taken away from them. Out of consideration for this feeling I have made only miniscule changes in poems which have been much anthologized. These poems no longer belong to me.

My justification in rewriting considerably less noticed poems is that I do not feel they were satisfactorily completed when I first abandoned them for publication. In rewriting them I go back to the idea I had when I first conceived these poems and try to carry it out.

With many of my poems I have the sense of total recall of the idea I had when I first wrote them: just as today if I pick up an old notebook and find there a rough draft for a poem, I can remember exactly the circumstances from which it arose and the idea of the projected poem and, sometimes, 1 find that I can go on writing it.

"The Sign Faehre nach Wilm " is an example of what I mean. The poem, which I wrote in the early thirties, seemed to me completed in 1952 when I first published it. Christopher Isher- wood and I had taken a summer holiday on the Island of Ruegen in the Baltic, at the end of which we returned to Berlin. The night before doing so I could not sleep and had the sensations described in the poem. But after it had been published I did not feel that the poem succeeded. In the 1983 version I go back to the original feelings which are only noted down in the 1932 version.


At the end of two months’ holiday there came a night
When I lay awake and the seas’ distant fretless scansion
By imagination scourged rose to a fight
Like the town’s roar, pouring forth apprehension.
I was on a train. Like the quick spool of a film
I watched hasten away the simple green which can heal
Sadness. The signpost painted FERRY TO WILM
And the cottage by the lake shone, vivid, but unreal.

                    Real were iron rails, and, smashing the grass.
Real these wheels on which I rode, real this compelled time.
Unreal those cows, those wave-winged storks, that lime
Painted on enamel behind the moving glass.
                    Those burned in a clear world from which we pass
Like ROSE and LOVE in a forgotten rhyme.The Sign Faehre nach Wilm

The Sign Faehre nach Wilm

At the end of our Ruegen holiday, that final night,
I lay awake. Waves’ ceaseless fretful scansion
By imagination scourged, rose to the height
Of the town’s roar, trafficking apprehension.
I was in a train . . . On a film’s re-played spool
I watched speeding backwards things that heal
Angst. The sign FAEHRE NACH WILM,
The pink cottage by the lake, shone brilliant, yet unreal.
Real were iron lines, track smashing the grass.
Wheels on which we rode, and, on our wrists, the time.
Unreal were cattle, wave-winged storks, green lime.
These glowed in a lost planet seen through glass.
Like ROSE or FRIEND in a forgotten rhyme.


The explosion of a bomb
The submarine —a burst bubble filled with water—
The Chancellor clutching his shot arm (and that was Perhaps
a put up job for their own photographers)
the parliament their own side set afire
and then Our Party banned
And the mine flooded —an accident, I hope.
motor-cycles wires aeroplanes cars trains
converging on that same town Geneva
top-hats talking at edge of silk-blue lake
then, the mountains.
We know things from rotating machines
from flanges stamping, cutting, unrolling sheets from rolls.
Newsmen are points of compass: their arms are
the four winds carrying printed legends.
Our eyes, fish wrapped in newspaper.
In his skidding car, the King wondered
watching the bayoneted landscape rush at him:
"Is it the enemy? (I cannot grasp it) or is it
at peace with its own peace I cannot touch?"
Was that final when they shot him? Did that war
lop off dead branches? Are the young men splendid?
Is it The Shape of Things to Come, that revolution
nosing whale-like at Antarctic edge?
Only Perhaps. Maybe that we grow smaller
donnish and bony, shut in our racing tombs:
these headlines are sides that shake and close
the dry dice rattled in their wooden box.
Maybe deception of things merely changing. Out there
Perhaps it is the dead above the plain
who grow; not our time bombs but Time
monstrous with stillness like that Alpine range.


 The explosion of a bomb —
The submarine —a bubble pricked by water—
DoUfuss clutching his shot arm —
The Reichstag that the Nazis set on fire-And then our Party forbidden —
Motorcycles wires aeroplanes cars trains
Converging on that town Geneva—
Top hats plotting at the lake’s edge
And the Alps beyond —
Headlines pour from rotating cylinders
Sheets from paper rolls.
Newsboys spread in compass points across
Maps, the four directions of the winds.
Was that final when they shot him? Did that war
lop off dead branches? Are we the bright new shoots?
Is it Leviathan, that revolution
Nosing through icebergs of the Arctic wastes?
Only Perhaps. It may be we are withered
Those headlines only walls around our coffin
Dry dice rattled in a bony box
Can be illusion of things merely changing
Perhaps some Unknown God is newly risen
Beyond the lake, or crucified
Perhaps our time is
Monstrous with stillness like that Alpine range.

The Uncreating Chaos

To the hanging despair of eyes in the street, offer
Yout making hands, and your liver, on skewers of pity.
When the pyramid sky is built with clouds of sand which the
Sun trumpets above, respond to that day’s judgment
With a headache. Let your spirit follow
The young men to the Pole, up Everest, to war: by love, be 

For the uncreating chaos descends
And claims you in marriage: though a man you were ever a 
Ever beneath the supple surface of summery muscle.
The fountain evening talk cupping the stars.
The student who chucks back the lock of his hair in front of 
        the glass
You were only anxious that your despair should last.

That engine in you, anxiety.
Was a grave lecher, globe-trotter, one
Whose moods were straws, the winds that bore them, aero-
"Whatever happens, I shall never be alone,
I shall always have a fare, an affair, or a revolution."
Without your buttressing gesture that yet so leans;
Is glad as a mat
When stamped on; blood that yearns to give suck to a
        Vampire bat;
And heart fretted by storms like the rocks at Land’s End;
Without some mortal enemy who’s your best friend;
"You’d stand alone in a silence that never muttered
Face to face with your emptiness in an empty room.

The Uncreating Chaos iDouble Portrait in a Mirror)


To the meeting despair of eyes in the street, offer
"Your eyes on plates and your liver on skewers of pity.
When the Jericho sky is heaped with clouds which the sun
Trumpets above, respond to Apocalypse
With a headache. In spirit follow
The young men to the war, up Everest. Be shot.
For the uncreating chaos
Claims you in marriage: though a man, you were ever a bride.
Ever among the supple surface of summer-brown muscle
The fountaining evening chatter under the stars.
The student who chucks back his forelock in front of a glass.
You only longed for your longing to last.

The engine in you, anxiety.
Is a grave lecher, a globe-trotter, one
With moods of straw, the winds that blow him, aeroplanes.
"Whatever happens, I shall never be alone,
I shall always have a fare, an affair, or a revolution."


I am so close to you
I will confess to you
I do all you do.
At night I’m flooded by a sense of future
The bursting tide of an unharnessed war.
Drowning the contours of the present.
In thoughts where pity is the same as cruelty
Your life and mine seem one. Whether
What flows and wavers is myself—
Yout thoughts in mine or mine in yours—or all
The thoughts crammed in this town—we are the same.
Beyond the windows of a waking dream.
Facts snort their hundred miles an hour
In iron circles on the iron plain.
Speed-bikes and tracks are real: and yet the riders lose
Their sense of place; they’re ridden by
Their speed. The men are the machines.
All I can foresee now—more I shall learn —
Is that these fears invent their opposites.
Our peace causes war.
\bu’re coined into a savage when you flee
The crystal civilization dangles.
And when you choose a lover like a mirror
Yout own reflection changes to a gunman.
’You are a ghost amid wild flares of guns.
Less living than
The shattered dead whose veins of mineral
We mine for now.
                              Alter your life.


 I am so close to you
I will confess to you
I am all that you do.
In thoughts where pity is the same as cruelty
Yout life is mine. Whether
What floods and falters is myself
Or yourself—all
The apprehension of this time,
We are both one.
At night I’m flooded by the future
Incoming tide of the unharnessed war.
Beyond the blacked-out windows of our nightmare
Facts race their hundred miles an hour
In iron circles on an iron plain.
The riders of those race-cars lose
All sense of where they are.
Ridden by their speed, the men
Are their machines.


Dissection of Empires, multiplication of crowns
By secret treaty. Pigeons scatter
Shot off the pavements by the fatal shot.
Heads bounce down the stone steps

Meagre men shoot up. Rockets, rockets,
A corporal’s flaming tongue wags above flaming parliament.
The tide of killers now, behold the whip-masters!
Breeches and gaiters camouflage mud.
O visions of a faltering will—
Disintegrating patterns!

History roars. The crowds in towns.
Cerebral frontiers of nations, over mountains.
Actors in flesh and death and matter.
Dance to a gripless orchestra of masses
. . . Thoughts in a dying Chancellor’s brain.


 All I can foresee now—more I shall learn—
Is that our fear creates its opposite.
Our peace is war.
When you choose a mirror for a lover
It shows you your own image as a gunman.
You are a ghost amid the flares of shellfire
Less living than
The last war dead whose veins of mineral
We mine for here.

Shall I never reach
The field guarded by stones
Rare in the stone mountains
Where the scytheless wind
Flushes the swayed grasses:
Where clouds white without rain
Add to sky and sun
Their lucid sailing shine?
The simple machinery is here
Clear day, clear room, the plain desk.
The hand, symbols of power.
Here the veins may pour
Into the deed, as the field
Into the standing corn.
Meanwhile, where nothing’s pious
And truth no longer willed.
Nor the intellect conscious.
Holy is lucidity
And the mind that dare explain.


Shall I ever reach
The field enclosed by stones
In the high mountains
Where the scytheless wind
Flushes the swayed grasses?
Where clouds without rain
Add to the sun
Their mirroring shine?
The simple machinery is here
Clear room clear day clear desk
And the hand with its power
To make the heart pour
Into the word, as the sun
Moves upward through the corn.
Meanwhile, where nothing’s sacred
And love no longer willed
Nor our true purpose conscious.
Holy is lucidity
And the mind that dare explain.


To a Spanish Poet
        to Manuel Altolaguirre

You stared out of the window on the emptiness
Of a world exploding;
Stones and rubble thrown upwards in a fountain
Blown to one side by the wind.
Every sensation except being alone
Drained out of your mind.
There was no fixed object for the eye to fix on.
You became a child again
Who sees for the first time how the worst things happen.

Then, stupidly, the stucco pigeon
On the gable roof that was your ceiling,
Parabolized before your window
Uttering (you told me later!) a loud coo.
Alone to your listening self, you told the joke.
Everything in the room broke.
But you remained whole.
Your own image unbroken in your glass soul.

Having heard this all from you, I see you now
—White astonishment haloing irises
Which still retain in their centres
Black laughter of black eyes.
Laughter reverberant through stories
Of an aristocrat lost in the hills near Malaga
Where he had got out of his carriage
And, for a whole week, followed, on foot, a partridge.
Stories of that general, broken-hearted
Because he’d failed to breed a green-eyed bull.

But reading the news, my imagination breeds
The penny-dreadful fear that you are dead.

Well, what of this journalistic dread?


To Manuel Altolaguirre

 stared out of the window at the emptiness
Of a world exploding
—Walls hurled upwards in a fountain
Dust blown sideways by the wind.
Every sensation left you
But that of being alone
With no fixed object for the eye to fix on.
%u were a child again
Seeing for the first time how things happen.
Stupidly then the stucco pigeon
Stuck on the gable above your ceiling
Pirouetted outside your window
Uttering, as it did so, a loud coo.
Then everything in the room broke
Only you stayed whole
Wondering if you’d turned into your soul.
And no one with you there to share the joke.

The blood! The blood! It streamed down frorn your
\bur fingers felt to see if you were dead.
\bu weren’t. Proud of your wound you went
To show that golden medal to your neighbours.
But when you got to the next Hoor,
Through their wide open door
Beyond the bannisters
%u saw them all spread out on chairs.
Grandparents, father, mother, children.
All twelve of them in bandages.
And two in splints and one on crutches.

What could you do except go back upstairs
Back to your room alone?
"Vbu ask me in your letter which I read
In London next the newspaper outspread
— Panic—street fighting—thousands fled —
Perhaps it is we —the living—who are dead
We of a world that revolves and dissolves
While we set the steadfast corpse under the earth’s lid.
The eyes push irises above the grave
Reaching to the stars, which draw down nearer.
Staring through a rectangle of night like black glass.
Beyond these daylight comedies of falling plaster.

Your heart looks through the breaking ribs —
Oiled axle through revolving spokes.
Unbroken blood of the swift wheel,
"Vbu stare through centrifugal bones
Of the revolving and dissolving world.



Bringing this day each day my daily bread
The penny dreadful fear that you are dead.

But still your stories go on running through my head.

For example, in Valencia, of the funeral
Of your uncle, the great general
To which reluctant-nephewly you went.
With downcast sober eyes you watched your aunt
In black from head to foot, kneel down in front
Of the great coffin where her husband lay
In uniform, his medals all displayed.
Then from a corner of the room, you saw
A troop of ants that marched across the Hoor
Climb up a table leg and vanish in
The nearest corner of the coffin.
Then pass diagonally right through it
Out through the corner opposite
And down that table leg, each with
A morsel of the general in its teeth.
And then you saw your aunt rise from her prayers
Leaving behind a small black pool, her drawers.
As final tribute to her husband’s wars.

And then . . . and then . . . there was that aristocrat
Lost for five days in the hills near Malaga
Because, abandoning his carriage.
He had been following a partridge.
And then—was it his brother who
Died broken-hearted
Having failed to breed a green-eyed bull?

It’s not so much the words I hear, in memory.
As see your black eyes laughing through each story
And now, imagining your world, its ruins
Seem hurled to a circumference
The whirling of a Catharine wheel.
In whose center the unburning axle
Is your attic room where all you see
Is broken, but you stand there smiling at me.