28 November 2009

Stephen Spender, Poet as Printer 1

W. H. Auden, Poems, S. H. Spender, Hampstead, 1928
Current Selling Prices
$50,000 /£30,000

Stephen Spender, Nine Experiments, S. H. Spender, Hampstead, 1928
Current Selling Prices
$40,000 /£25,000

The story of how the 19 year old Stephen Spender, after just one year at Oxford, printed what would turn out to be two of the most elusive ( and expensive ) slim volumes in the history of modern English literature is a romantic one. Of Spender’s Nine Experiments and W.H.Auden’s Poems—both the size of a pocket diary and containing a handful of leaves--are now so sought after that the appearance of either for sale would probably make the national press. In the story of the Auden Generation Spender’s first collection is of negligible interest, but Auden’s poetic significance began with Poems, which contains several pieces that would reappear in the Faber Poems of 1930.

‘ The sprinkler on the lawn
Weaves a cool symmetry,
And stumps are drawn….

This fragmentary offering was not one of them, but the unmistakeable Auden voice is detectable in it. The wonderful 'Taller Today' was included, as were ‘The Watershed’ and ’The Secret Agent.’

Spender had only known Auden for a few months before the older man decided to entrust him with the poems in his possession. Others were obtained from A. S. T. Fisher, a contemporary who also wrote poems and who had frequent late night discussions with Auden on religion. But before Auden’s work could be printed Spender decided to print a selection of his own work, which he entitled Nine Experiments. So back home at Frognal, near Hampstead village, early in the long vacation, having spent £7 on ' a very primitive printing press' ( an 'Adana' label printer ) he set to work on the somewhat challenging task of laboriously producing a slim volume on a machine totally unsuited to the task. As an example of amateur printing Nine Experiments is a brave effort, but after seeing his work in book form for the first time Spender may have wondered why he’d bothered. There is a juvenile jokiness about these scraps of verse and the echoes of P. B. Shelley are obvious:

‘ Blow forever in my head !
And ever let the violins, tempest-sworn
Lash out their hurricane…’

Looking back 36 years later Spender remarked that the volume contained nothing ‘ worth preserving ‘. And sure enough not a single poem in it appeared in the Twenty Poems brought out by Blackwell’s in 1930. Spender could hardly fail to compare his sorry offerings with those of Auden and he hunted down all the 30 or so copies he could locate, which is perhaps why a copy of Nine Experiments today will fetch around £25,000,though in 1990 a enthusiastic collector ( funny to think anyone would be that enthusiastic about Spender’s poetry ) is reported to have shelled out £40,000 for one of the remaining 15 or so copies.

The degree of physical stress the Adana must have undergone in performing its unusual task can be imagined, and Spender’s physical maladroitness didn’t help. By the time he came to print Auden’s Poems Spender possibly suspected that the machine was unfit to complete the task, although the amateur printer must have been reasonably pleased by the first few pages he produced.

B.C.Bloomfield, Auden’s bibliographer, analysed Spender’s printing methods and identified various problems, including mis-alignment of impression and uneven inking in the two copies he examined . In one of these Spender's amateurishness as a printer is apparent on just about every page, and it is hard to determine whether the failure of certain type to take up ink was due to wear and tear, poor inking, or Spender's carelessness in setting down type ( or all three ). At any rate, when the 'h' in three successive lines of poem IV refused to print correctly Spender was obliged to ink in the letter by hand ! Similarly with a 't' and an 's' in the following line and a 'b' in the next. By page '18' it is quite apparent that around a third of the type used wasn't doing its job and though pages '19' and '20' showed some improvement, the situation seems to have reached a crisis point by the printing of page '22', when, after correcting three further letters, Spender must have come to the painful conclusion that, with only just over half of Auden's poems printed, a completion of the project was beyond him.

And so Spender was obliged to ask the well known Holywell Press in Oxford to complete the printing in a similar style. He also asked for the book to be inexpensively bound and provided with a wrapper. If we examine pages 23 to 37 of one copy the change of font and the higher quality of printing are quite obvious, but there are still errors. It would seem that for all their printing expertise, the professionals at Holywell were at a disadvantage to Spender when it came to deciphering Auden's handwriting. In the end 5 words were corrected by hand, possibly by Auden himself.

There is some dispute over the number of copies of Poems issued. Spender told Bloomfield that he had no exact memory of the edition size. 'About 45 copies ' is what appears opposite the dedication page, but in World Within World (1951), Spender mentions a figure of thirty. A copy inscribed by him to D. G. O. Ayerst and dated February 1929 bears the number ' 24--about', and Bloomfield supposes that by this date most of the copies would have been distributed. He guesses that the figure of 45 made no allowance for wastage in the printing and binding process, and that therefore Spender's 1951 figure of 30 was probably nearer the mark ...[continued]

pic at top is Wystan and Stephen (tall guy) and 'Herr Issyvoo' right (Isherwood)

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