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Sir Stephen and Wystan

When Wystan Hugh Auden was an undergraduate, he intimidated the hell out of all his classmates at Christ Church and Oxford, including a fellow by the name of Stephen Spender, later known as “Sir.”

On Sunday, April 5, 1981, I was sent by my editor to the Roethke Humanities Festival at Lafayette College, to photograph Spender and other literary luminaries, including May Swenson, Philip Larkin, and Derek Walcott. Before Spender arrived I was approached by a young man named Janek, who described himself as a visiting Polish national, an aspiring poet and journalist. Would I consent to introduce him to the great man?

My immediate impressions of Spender: His shock of silver-white hair and ice-cold and aristocratic blue eyes conveyed his disdain for the common, the vulgar. His enormously swollen ankles covered by white socks were among the afflictions of his advancing age. He clearly was in pain, and had difficulty walking.

Afterward we three went to the faculty dining room. I asked Spender to take a seat at a table while I went to the buffet and filled a plate for him. We sat and talked--after a fashion--while all the professors in their tweed jackets and pipes kept glancing over at our table, wondering who the two with Spender were. Janek peppered Spender with questions and praise for his work, but Spender gave him only short answers.

We drank several glasses of sherry. I thought that might cheer him up. But no.

I had hoped to question Spender closely about literature. Like, for instance, about his comments that in his art James Joyce was trying to push his way into an imagined reality, one entirely more real than the real. A world that was entirely made up of his imagining and imagined self.

“And this is what Ulysses and Finnegans Wake are,” Spender had written. “They are whole worlds into which everyone and everything Joyce knew has changed into Joyce himself, and yet they continue to retain the very real quality of his literal-mindedness.”

But Spender sipped his sherry in a bored imperial silence, and looked into the distance. He appeared to be in no mood to be interrogated. But I had to offer up something, didn’t I?

“By now these academic gatherings must be quite a bore to you,” I said.

He glanced at me, then looked away.

“Yes,” he said. “At any moment someone will come over and demand that I relate an amusing anecdote. About Wystan. Good Lord!”

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You lost me. I'm not familiar with Wystan.

I should have spelled out his name fully at the beginning...See his bio here.

I should have made the connection. Good story!

(Deleted comment)
Glad you liked it, thanks. The great benefit of being a photojournalist is that I can preserve these moments to savor later...

i enjoyed reading this! he looks wonderful in your photos.

He may have been in pain, but there sure as hell was nothing wrong with his mind. He was fully aware.

That is a terrific story. And a terrific photo portrait. (I would have been one of the masses clamoring for Wystan stories -- Auden is my favorite poet.)

When I was a boy, I saw Spender on "The Dick Cavett Show" on PBS. We don't see things like that, even on PBS, anymore. He made a huge impression on me. I learned that there was a whole different kind of poetry, and a whole different kind of life.

Thanks for the reminder.

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