Spender on Woolf

In The Listener, April, 1941, there is a tribute by Stephen Spender on the death of Virginia Woolf. Below is the full text.


 Vanessa Bell’s Portrait of Virginia Woolf

In these dark times, the death of Virginia Woolf cannot strike her circle of friends and admirers except as a light which has gone out. Whatever its significance, her loss is irreparable. Her strength-and perhaps also her weakness lay in her rare mind and personality. Moreover, the quality of what she created had the undiluted purity of one of those essentially uncorrupted natures which seem set aside from the world for a special task by the strangest conjunction of fortune and misfortune.

Yet when one thinks of what Virginia Woolf achieved, her life appears far more a wonderful triumph over many difficulties than in any sense a defeat. In a different time or in different circumstances, she might well have died far younger and with far less finished. As it is, although she died at the height of her powers, she had completed the work of a lifetime. The history of other writers who have suffered from ill-health shows how much there is here to be grateful for.

Her best novels, or prose poems in the form of fiction, are The Voyage Out, Jacob’s Room, Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando, The Waves. Although all of these novels have tn common the qualities which distinguish her writing, they differ not merely in portraying different material, but in having different artistic aims. Indeed the artistic aims in Virginia Woolf‘s novels are far more varied than the material, which is somewhat narrow and limited.

Most novelists having achieved, by about their third novel, a mature style, continue to write novels in that style, but covering different aspects of experience. With Virginia Woolf, however, style, form and material are indivisible. With every new novel she was ‘trying to do something different’, especially with time. For example, the whole action of Mrs. Dalloway takes place in one day: the first long section of To the Lighthouse describes a scene lasting for perhaps an afternoon ; this is followed by a very short section describing the passage of several years, illustrated by the decay of an empty house. Orlando is a fantastic account of someone who lives for several hundred years. beginning as a man and turning into a woman. The Waves is a poetic account of people seen through each other’s minds through all their lives, speaking their thoughts in poetic imagery to each other. A new way of writing a book was simply a new way of looking at life for Virginia Woolf : she held life like a crystal which she turned over in her hands and looked at from another angle. But a crystal is too static an image; for, of course, she knew that the crystal flowed.

It is a well known device of composers to take a theme and write variations on it. The same tune which is trivial in one light passage in a major key is profound in a minor key scored differently; at times the original tune seems lost while the harmonies explore transcendent depths far beyond the character of the original theme; now the tune runs fleetingly past us; now it is held back so that time itself seems slowed down or stretched out. This musical quality is the essence of Virginia Woolf ’s writing. The characters she creates – Mrs. Dalloway, Mrs. Ramsay, Mr. Ramsay are well defined to be sure, but they are only the theme through which she explores quite other harmonics of time, death, poetry and a love which is more mysterious and less sensual than ordinary human love.

A passage from To the Lighthouse will illustrate the ’ beauty which she could achieve Mr. Ramsay, who is a philosopher – almost a great Victorian – faces the sense of his own an failure: and what are two thousand years? (asked Mr. Ramsay ironically staring at the hedge). What, indeed, if you look from a mountain top down the long wastes of the ages? The very stone one kicks with one’s boot will outlast Shakespeare. His own little light would shine, not very brightly, for a year or two, and would then be merged in some bigger light, and that in a bigger still. (He looked into the darkness, into the intricacy of the twigs.) Who then could blame the leader of that forlorn party which after all has climbed high enough to see the waste of the years and the perishing of stars, if before death stiffens his limbs beyond the power of movement he does a little consciously raise his numbed fingers to his brow, and square his shoulders, so that when the search party comes they will find him dead at his post, the line figure of a soldier. Mr. Ramsay squared his shoulders and stood very upright by the urn. This passage has all Virginia Woolf ’s virtues, and perhaps some of her defects. It starts off by being very faithful even in its irony to the thoughts of Mr. Ramsay. She takes one of those plunges beyond the present situation of her character into the past and the future which strikes one often in her writing as a night of pure poetic genius. But then the focus shifts and the writer has forgotten her character’s thoughts, or perhaps she is regarding him from the outside. But the image of the leader of the expedition in the snow is a little too general, and one begins to wonder whether she hasn’t strayed too far from the particular.

As with the impressionist painters, there are opposing tendencies in her novels. The one is centrifugal, the tendency for everything to dissolve into diffused light and in the brilliant detachment with which their surroundings flow through her characters’ minds. The other is centripetal-the tremendous preoccupation with form which nevertheless holds her novels together and makes them far more significant than if they were just the expression of a new way of looking at life. This doubtless reflects an acute nervous tension in her own mind between a two great sensitivity which tended to disintegrate into uncoordinated impressions, and a noble and sane determination not to lose hold of the central thread.

To have known Virginia Woolf is a great privilege, because it is to have known an extraordinary and poetic and beautiful human being. Some critics describe her as forbidding and austere. Her austerity was not that of a closed-in or a prudish mind. As with all genuinely intelligent people, one could discuss anything with her with the greatest frankness; she was far too interested in life to make narrow moral judgements. Perhaps she was a little too impatient towards stupidity and tactlessness; it is a gift to writers to suffer fools gladly. To be with her was a joy, because her delight and her awareness of everything around her communicated themselves easily and immediately to her friends. What was written on her beautiful unforgettable face was not severity at all, though there was some melancholy; but most of all there was the devotion and discipline which go with the task of poetic genius, together with the price in the way of nervous strain and physical weakness which doubtless she had to pay.

Moore’s Encounter

Following my post on Henry Moore’s cover for Poetry London, here is another cover Moore did, this time for Stephen Spender’s Encounter Magazine – The 100th Edition. As a magazine cover I think this rather futuristic for 1962. Pink with blue ink over and a wax resist for the text. Sadly this isn’t worth as much as Poetry London – it’s not lithographically printed for one, also Encounter had a larger audience and thus a bigger print run.


The magazine is full of illustrations and poetry, in this post I have picked out Auden and Spender’s poems below with some of the illustrations.


 A drawing by Andre Masson

A Change of Air by W.H.Auden

Corns, heartburn, sinus headaches, such minor ailments
Tell of estrangement between your name and you,
Advise a change of air: heed them, but let
The modesty of their discomfort warn you
Against the flashy errands of your dreams.

To grow a sailor’s beard, don monkish garb,
Or trade in an agglutinative tongue
With a stone-age culture would be mollycoddling:
To go elsewhere is to withdraw from movement;
A side-step, a short one, will convey you thither.

Although its chaffinches, maybe, have learned
The dialect of another river-basin,
A fault transformed the local building stone,
It has a priest, a post-mistress, an usher,
Its children know they are not to beg from strangers.

Within its average elsewherishness
Your name is as a mirror answers, yourself
How you behave in shops, the tips you give :
It sides with neither, being outside both,
But welcomes both with healing disregard.

Nor, when you both return (you will, of course)
Where luck and instinct originally brought you,
Will it salute your reconciliation
With farewell rites or populate your absence
With reverent and irreverent anecdote.

No study of your public re-appearance
Will show, as judgement on a cure demands,
A sudden change in love, ideas or diet :
Your sojourn elsewhere will remain wordless
Hiatus in your voluble biography.

Fanatic scholarship at most may prove
That you resigned from a Committee, unearth
A letter from the Grand Duke to his cousin,
Remarking, among more important gossip,
That you seem less amusing than you were.


 A drawing by Eduardo Paolozzi

The Generous Days by Stephen Spender.
His are the generous days that balance
Soul and body. Should he hear the trumpet
Behind the sun that sends its thinning ray
Penetrating to the marrow –
At once one with that cause, he’d throw
Himself across some high far parapet,
Body die to soul down the sheer way
Of consummation in the summons.

His also are the days when should he greet
Her who goes walking, looking for a brooch
Under broad leaves at dusk beside the path
 – And sidelong looks at him as though she thought
His smile might hide the gleam she sought –
He would run up to her and each
Find the lost clasp hid in them both,
Soul live to body where they meet.

Body soul, soul body, seem one breath,
Or the twined shadows of the sun, his will,
In these his generous days, to prove
His own true nature only is to give.
Wholly to die, or wholly else to live!
Body to soul, and let the bright cause kill,
Or soul to body, let the blood make love.
Giving is death in life and life in death.

After, of course, will come a time not this
When he’ll be taken, stripped, strapped to a wheel
That is a world, and has the power to change
The brooch’s gold, the trumpet scarlet blaze
 – The lightning in the bones those generous days –
Into what drives a system, like a fuel.
Then to himself he will seem loathed and strange
Have thoughts yet colder than the thing he is.


 A drawing by Ghika


 A drawing by Sidney Nolan


 An advert for Guinness by Edward Bawden to the left


 An advert for the Everyman series with the logo, designed by Eric Ravilious

A Talk with John Piper.

I want to believe the internet is a nice utopia of thought and freedom for people, so this is really why I type up obscure interviews and articles on people for this blog. So far this has been limited to Paul Nash, Frans Masereel and Eric Ravilious but I have many others earmarked from niche publications that I own that seam far too expensive to buy. I hope they are of interest to you all and here is another on John Piper, at this time aged 60. It has a long introduction by Spender but I think it’s nice to read Piper expressing himself about his work, mid career.

A Talk with John Piper by Stephen Spender.
From Encounter #116. May 1963.

When I first knew John Piper, in the ‘thirties, he was one of several painters (Ben Nicholson was another) who resisted the turning of Coldstream, Moynihan, Pasmore, and the Euston Road painters towards portraits, landscapes and still lifes. These were artists who, a bit fastidiously, pushed representation towards a frontier where it began to turn into near-abstract drizzly lines (Coldstream), pure colour (Pasmore), rich lumpiness (Moynihan).


John Piper has a lean and hungry look and a lank cheek, like Caesar’s idea of Cassius, and was perhaps also a bit quixotic, as though he might suddenly appear in armour. Although he supported all the virtuous left-wing causes and conscientiously attended every director’s meeting of the Group Theatre, he went on painting abstracts about the size of windmills. During the war he became a War Artist, a position for which his love of architecture, ruins, and an atmosphere of drama admirably qualified him. His paintings of burning churches and barns form, with Moore’s shelter drawings, Sutherland’s iron foundries, the best part of the artistic record of the war.

Before the was, as though to prepare himself for events, Piper has started doing collages of Welsh villages and landscapes. He also did the set for the Group Theatre’s production of ‘Trial of a Judge’. After the war he established a new reputation as a topographical artist, with his series of water colours of Windsor Castle, Renishaw, and other famous houses. He continued with Welsh landscapes – pen-and-ink scratched,with texture like that of cracks in slate, slopes of shale, enclosed in golden washes.

He went on working in the theatre (doing the sets among others for Billy Budd) and painting abstracts. Recently he has done a whole series of oils and water colours of Venice and Rome. Piper is in fact an extremely prolific painter, branching out into many different styles and activities, but at the same time with a very marked consistency which makes a Piper, whether it is a water colour two inches by four, or a stained-glass window the size of a battleship,  immediately recognisable. All the same, his work is (it seems to me) very uneven on account of the tension in his nature between the almost oriental richness of some of his water colours, and the extreme dryness which shows in many of his oils, even when they are theatrical and garish. His achievement is absolutely honourable: a fusion of a life-long search for a contemporary idiom with a passion for tradition. He is one of the few English artists whose reputation is more likely to increase than to decline.

To-day tape-recorders have had an effect on interviewing like that of photography on drawing. A printed interview appears a transcript a tape-recording, a bad imitation of one, or a fictitious intervention of the interviewer. Since I hate tapes, and anyway do not know how to use them, I will leave my notes (made in the course of a day spent at the delightful stone farmhouse in a sheltered valley near Henley, where the Pipers live) much as they were written.

Some of them are taken from conversation, some of them were written for me by John Piper before I arrived. It is John Piper speaking:


The Eye.
There isn’t a difference between “abstract” and “topographical” in the sense that one might consider “abstract” as purr invention, and “topographical” as imitation. The reason for this is that nothing comes out of a visual consciousness that has not already been received by the eye. All visual invention is the result of visual experience and observation. Everything is drawn out of the stock-pot of visual impressions. Abstraction is a way of inventing variations on the visual experiences one has had, but these may not prove enough to make a decent painter. There have been very few abstract masterpieces apart from those by Mondrian and Rothko. So when one looked into one’s heart and asked “Where do we go from here?” one looked at one’s own nature. I found I was English and Romantic, so I looked at Cotman, Turner, Blake, Palmer and painters in that in that tradition and tried to draw the things I seemed born to love.

Topography is a branch of Romantic art, and it is also a branch of particularisation. For Romantic art consists in seeing the wing of a bird – a tower – a hop field – and interpreting all nature through the particular. Topography at its best is the interpretation of the world as a vision of the place. The best topographical paintings have spirit of the place in the time, not just the representation of the place, as Cotman expresses the atmosphere of places in Norfolk in the 19th century. Giorgione’s La Tempesta is the epitome of every virtue topographical art should have.


Photography us useful because it makes one’s vision ridiculous. It proves that what one has seen is in literal fact a cliché. I never take photographs of anything I draw, unless I think the photographs may be useful as something to react against.

Abstraction is much more difficult for English artists than some of them realise. By habit, certainly,  and probably by temperament m most English people are literary before they are visual – they have to go through some process, some ritual almost, before they see at naturally and simple. Everything is wrapped in a known idea of itself, a concept. And then, when they do begin to see a thing directly, more or less for what it is, half the time they want to reinterpret the experience in words. Intensity!  Intensity is all – but the intensity is made of something, experiences, love, hate, fears: and the natural progress for an Englishman is to explain himself in words before he sings or scribbles.

Nobody can possibly have more than two or three original ideas to bring to any craft, without renewing himself by working with his hands all by himself in the studio. The rest is tinkering, improving, tidying, untidying, and doing variations. People think that they can be original stage designers, and can go on being original indefinitely. All they’re doing is turning round on the same spot and facing different ways, using the same two or three little ideas they had when they were twenty: unless, of course, stage designing is simply another form of interior decorating, which it is often thought to be by the public and producers, and especially by music critics, who like everything beige and grey so not to interfere with the music. As for stained glass, there had not been any new ideas in that – not even little ones – for 200 years until Léger and Matisse came along (preceded by a herald or two like Miss Geddes and Miss Hone).


Stained Glass and Real Painting.
The bogey of stained glass is its recent history, like the bogey of English painting fifty years ago. You have to steer through all the crafty “traditions.” But in fact the proper rules of the craft (as opposed to the acquired traditions) help a lot by providing an artificial discipline, so that you don’t have to invent one of your own. That’s the horror of crafts. In other words, the limitations of the medium itself, the craft, make half the troublesome decisions for you before you start, and set the pace, and then the craftsman, if he is a good craftsman, takes the strain of a lot more decisions – tensions – all those that have to be made from minute to minute during the work. It is a rest, really, for the designer,  except for the enormous area of a window he has to cover. First-class interpretive craftsmen like Patrick Reyntiens or like Charles Bravery, the scenic painters, take nearly all the strain anyway.

No, what is really difficult is to create a masterpiece on paper or canvas all by yourself in the studio with no artificial discipline of the craft that can offer ingenious solutions, no outside help at all. That’s what’s difficult. Loves, hates, fears: those are what painting is about. It is very difficult to paint love and hate without bringing in the things they are about. Abstraction can be achieved, and complete abstraction, without total loss of richness and intensity. I do belie that. Only, as I say, it is much more difficult than most people make out. People pretend that they’re born into it these days. They aren’t, any more than Mondrian was. He achieved it though a long, lonely sweat, like anyone else.

Twenty-five years ago I painted purely abstract paintings for five years, mixed with some collages (which we weren’t allowed to call collages by the galleries, because they said the name suggested that they might come unstuck). – which were done, more or less, from nature. I did actually go out with a big sketch book full of scraps of grey and brown-coloured paper, and a pair of scissors and a bottle of gum or glue. I tried to keep these going side by side with the oils, which were purely abstract-schematic arrangements of shapes and colours I wanted, even then, some of the natural energy and fecundity of nature to get into them, even at second hand. It got into Mondrian through his early works, and through his post-cubist pictures.  All this time I had a feeling that-while one was learning a great deal (by putting one colour in a positive shape against others) about the mutual reactions of positive colours and positive shapes, which is the right stuff – at the same time one felt that the things one was producing lacked the richness, the fullness, and the ripeness of life: which, of course, they did, because one wasn’t rich, full or ripe enough; and still one isn’t but you can’t go on waiting till you die.