The Early Life of an OG Poet
Stephen Spender was born in the last few months of the reign of Edward VII, the ‘Indian summer’ of Edwardian England. His parents, writer and journalist Harold and the beautiful but ‘delicate’ Violet, moved their family of four out of London in 1913 to a large house ‘The Bluff’ high on the Sheringham cliffs. For the next six years young Stephen enjoyed long walks on the common, shooting rabbits and beach combing with his father and siblings.
Stephen became fascinated with wildlife and decided to become a naturalist. The idyll of a rural childhood was soon to shatter, though, when in 1914 a bomb fell in a garden behind the Spender’s house. The young boy remembered watching the Zeppelins assembling before their attack on England in 1916. Stephen’s father became a volunteer helping to patrol the Norfolk coastline and held sing-songs to entertain the troops at his home.
In an early poem entitled ‘Rough’ Stephen describes how local boys would taunt him and throw mud at him for his physical frailty and speech defect. Already seen as the pampered younger son, he experienced feelings of gauche inadequacy that were to haunt him throughout his life. Strangely, given his sensitive nature, he opted to follow his older brother Michael to boarding school in 1918. It was a decision he was to regret almost immediately, though, as unlike his brother, Stephen was homesick and unhappy at Gresham’s. His brother refused to speak to him and he came last in a general knowledge test, scoring half a percent.
Unprepared for public school life, with its regime of cold showers, dormitories and discipline, Stephen longed to run away back to his considerable home comforts. In one story Stephen describes how he was punished for taking too much bread at tea, being branded a ‘Food Hog’ by his housemaster. He also recalled how on one occasion he was locked in a hole beneath the assembly hall stage into which scraps of food including rotting fish heads were dropped. Going directly from the ‘Bloater Hole’ to a music lesson, the quiet and shy boy at last received some sympathy and understanding. Music master Walter Greatorex dried his tears and assured the boy that he would not always be unhappy.
Seen as being ‘backward’, round shouldered, and failing to emulate his brother, Stephen was removed from Gresham’s in 1919. In his autobiography ‘World Within World’ he referred to schools in general as prison camps, although he later admitted that by the time he left Gresham’s he did not actually want to go. It was only once the family had moved back to London after the War when he was able to attend school as a day boy that the youngster finally found his feet.
During a family holiday to the Lake District Stephen had decided to become a poet. His domineering father, who had political ambitions for him, suggested he should stop wasting his time writing poetry and reading books. By the age of 17 Stephen had lost both parents to illness. Throwing himself into School life writing for the magazine, he felt liberated, free to paint, to write and to enjoy himself in readiness for accepting a place at Oxford in 1927.