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‘Because I love you so’

 Stephen Spender and Oxford Poetry

Six solitary numbers of the oldest dedicated poetry magazine sit in the Erich Alport Collection. They echo with traces of Alport’s relationship with its one time editor, Stephen Spender.

The Magazine
Oxford Poetry was started in 1920 by the University’s undergraduates. It was published by Basil Blackwell, son of the first owner of Blackwell’s bookshop in Broad Street. The Alport Collection includes copies for the years 1917-19, 1923, 1929, 1930, 1931 and 1932.

Oxford Poetry 1930

Begina from the Norrington Room at Blackwells reads Stephen Spender’s poems published in Oxford Poetry 1930 ; Cover and contents page of the same volume.

Oxford Poetry from the 20s-30s is a simple yet striking production. A white rectangle of card bears the title in dark blue ink. This is pasted onto board and blue paper covers, punctuated by a cream spine.  Inside thick paper pages sewn together hold verses by young writers such as Louis MacNeice and Laurence Whistler.

The Relationship
It seems strange that Alport should have collected only six volumes from seemingly random dates in the early twentieth century, especially as his collection contains longer runs of other literary magazines. The marks of ownership in each volume create a trail of clues, but a little external information is needed to understand their possible significance.

In January 1930, Stephen Spender signed a copy of Oxford Poetry 1929, which he co-edited with Louis Macneice. He dedicated it to “Erich Alport with best wishes from Stephen Spender”.

Oxford Poetry and inscription to Erich Alport from Stephen Spender

Oxford Poetry 1929 with inscription from Stephen Spender to Erich Alport; Stephen Spender in 1932 from his autobiography.

Spender and Alport met in 1929, introduced by University College’s Dean, John Maud. Maud had read one of Spender’s Marston poems, about his admiration for another student at Univ, and passed it on to Alport. For his part, Alport took an immediate interest in Spender and invited him to stay at his parents’ house in Hamburg over the summer. Spender seized the opportunity to experience Germany’s more tolerant social scene, but their relationship that summer was not a happy one.  Alport was in love with Spender; Spender was not attracted to Alport. Spender eventually left Alport’s company to go travelling with new friends.

Alport’s collection of Oxford Poetry suggests that he retained a fondness for Stephen Spender after the summer of 1929. He acquired the 1930 magazine containing five poems by Spender, who was again co-editor. On the contents page, Alport wrote ‘Ernst’ and ‘Arnold’ next to the titles of two of Spender’s poems: ‘Now You’ve no Work, Like a Rich Man’ and ‘Because I Love You So’, perhaps in reference to Ernst Curtius and a Hamburg boy called Arnold, both of whom Spender formed friendships with in 1929.

Erich Alport's annotations on the contents page of Oxford Poetry 1930

Alport also got a copy of the magazine in 1931 and 1932, and obtained second-hand copies from 1923 (in which he pencilled ‘E.A. 1931’) and 1917-19 (which has a humorous book plate belonging to a former owner).

Bookplate of John Douglas Errington Loveland from Alport's copy of Oxford Poetry 1917-19

Perhaps these later acquisitions were out of an attachment to Oxford Poetry rather than Spender, but why then didn’t Alport buy the 1933 edition or any subsequent ones?

In 1932 T.S. Eliot sent Alport the manuscript of Spender’s new novel, The Temple, which he was considering for the publisher Faber & Faber. The novel was based on Spender’s experiences, including an unflattering portrait of Erich Alport as the character Ernst Stockman. An infuriated Alport replied to Eliot that he would sue for libel anyone who published the book. The Temple was not published until 1988. Did Spender’s cruel caricature dampen Alport’s interest in Oxford Poetry with its personal associations? It’s speculative, but other Spender material in the Alport collection also bears marks of their relationship.

Because I love you so

I cannot taste, even the taste of care.

I may not lie with you, and I must go

Far from this town to-morrow. – Stephen Spender (From ‘Because I love you so’, Oxford Poetry 1930)

More Univ Connections
Other Univ contributors in Alport’s six volumes of Oxford Poetry include E. R. Dodds, later Regius Professor of Greek, President of the Society for Psychical Research and literary executor of Auden and MacNeice; R. M. S. Pasley, who went on to be a Headmaster in Barnstaple and Birmingham; E.E. Smith; Geoffrey Curtis, who became an Ecumenical Monk and friend and confessor of T.S. Eliot; Paul Lucas, a Scholar of the College 1928-32 who died in 1935, aged 25; and Stephen Spender himself who came up to Univ. in 1927 but left, without taking a degree, to seek Germany’s more tolerant social scene. In 1974, he renewed his links with the College, becoming an Honorary Fellow and a regular visitor.

E.R. Dodds' poem 'Measure' published in Oxford Poetry 1917-1919.

E.R. Dodds’ poem ‘Measure’ published in Oxford Poetry 1917-1919.

You can read Stephen Spender’s poems in the Library:

Spender, S., Brett, M. (ed.). New collected poems. 2004 (London : Faber). [YIO/SPE]

You can also listen to him reading his poems at poetryarchive.org

More information about Stephen Spender can be found in the Library:

David, H. Stephen Spender: a portrait with background. 1992 (London : Heinemann). [YIO/SPE, D]

Leeming, D. Stephen Spender: a life in modernism. 1999 (London : Duckworth). [YIO/SPE, L]

Spender, S. The Temple. 1988 (London : Faber and Faber). [YIO/SPE]

Spender, S. World Within World: the autobiography of Stephen Spender. 1951 (London: Hamish Hamilton). [YIO/SPE Alport Collection]

Sutherland, J. Stephen Spender: the authorized biography. 2004 (London : Viking). [YIO/SPE,S]

All images on this page are copyright of University College.


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Welcome to Oxford

Erich Alport was an Oxford fresher in 1926. He arrived at Univ as an international student from Germany.

Oxford, in those days, was still a city of aquatint…her autumnal mists, her grey springtime, and the rare glory of her summer days…exhaled the soft vapours of a thousand years of learning. – Charles Ryder (Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh, 1945)

Zuleika Dobson
Before his journey to Oxford, Alport was given a copy of Max Beerbohm’s novel Zuleika Dobson, a fantastic distillation of Beerbohm’s time at Merton College in the 1890s. Fr. Hanepen or R. Hanepon (the unidentifiable giver with an illegible signature) may have wanted to give an aspiring student an idea of the University he was joining. It would have been a strange one

In Beerbohm’s only novel, Zuleika, the supernaturally attractive heroine pays a fatal visit to an Oxford where the University’s undergraduates drown themselves en masse in the Thames for unrequited love of her. The novel opens at Oxford station where Zuleika’s grandfather, the Warden of Judas College, welcomes her to Oxford. As they proceed by carriage to his College they pass the “high, grim busts of Roman Emperors” outside the Sheldonian Theatre. The stones sense the impending tragedy.

A moment later, a certain old don emerged from Blackwell’s, where he had been buying books. Looking across the road, he saw to his amazement great beads of perspiration glistening on the brows of these Emperors. – Max Beerbohm (Zuleika Dobson, 1911)

Zuleika Dobson montage

Verity, Univ’s Academic Officer, reads “Zuleika Dobson” on Broad Street; inscription in Alport’s copy; part of title page; excerpt from Alport’s copy (note that the Ashmolean referred to in the passage was housed in the building that is now the Museum of the History of Science).

Whether or not Zuleika Dobson was good preparation for Alport’s first year at Oxford, Zuleika waltzed back into his life in 1952 when he was invited to the opening of The Randolph Hotel ballroom freshly painted with 12 scenes from the novel by the cartoonist Osbert Lancaster.

Brideshead Revisited
Alport did not fall foul of any real life femmes fatale, instead he met Stephen Spender who arrived at Univ in 1927 to read PPE. When Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited was published in 1945, Alport may well have found resonance with Charles Ryder who meets the mesmerising Sebastian Flyte during his third term in Oxford. (Waugh was a near contemporary of Alport’s at Oxford, matriculating from Hertford College in 1922).

I was in search of love in those days, and I went full of curiosity and the faint, unrecognised apprehension that here, at last, I should find that low door in the wall, which others, I knew, had found before me, which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden, which was somewhere, not overlooked by any window, in the heart of that grey city. – Charles Ryder (Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh, 1945)

Alport’s well-read copy of Brideshead Revisited has his name pencilled inside the front cover.

Brideshead Revisited

Bruce, Univ’s Head Gardener taking a short break from his work in the Master’s Garden to read Alport’s copy of Brideshead Revisited; Alport’s signature in his copy; the contents page of the novel.

Letter to Oxford
It is difficult to tell whether Alport read his copy of T.H. Harrison’s polemical, self-published, Letter to Oxford. He may have picked it up on the streets of Oxford where its author sold copies from a barrow (wearing sandals with his toenails painted red).

Letter to Oxford

Cambridge University refugee and Oxford resident, Tom Harrison at 21 years old berated Oxford undergraduates for their lack of action and risk taking. This after the Oxford Union voted against the motion that the house would fight for king and country, twice. Harrison’s 1933 pamphlet accuses undergraduates of preferring masturbation to sex, indolence to activity and cowardly intolerance to full bloodied hatred.

It is unthinkable that these vile boys in Univ. should beat up Stephen Spender…But I am for intolerance. I am for beat ups. I am for good red hate. Put the miserable little man in the river. Put everyone in the river.– T. H. Harrison (Letter to Oxford, 1933)

Harrison would have approved of the actions of Zuleika Dobson’s admirers. After penning this damning piece of social observation, Harrison continued his career in an anthropological vein, founding the Mass Observation Project and gaining notoriety as The Barefoot Anthropologist.

The Masque of Hope
Univ appeared in a better light in Neville Coghill’s The Masque of Hope which was performed in Radcliffe Quad to H.R.H. Princess Elizabeth when she visited in 1948.

The Masque of Hope montage

David, one of Univ’s Porters holds the Masque of Hope in Radcliffe Quad where it was first performed; Costume designs for Fear and Gloom; Dedication in Alport’s copy from the Author.

Hope and her children overcome Fear and its minions (including Gloom, Rumour and Black Market), in action that is strangely resonant with today’s popular concerns, particularly those about the economy.  Notable among Hope’s children is Health; the NHS was founded the same year the masque was performed.

Though I’m their mother, do not be surprised

I took good care to have them nationalised.

– Hope (The Masque of Hope, Neville Coghill, 1948)

The Masque of Hope programme

The Masque of Hope programme front cover and acknowledgements.

In Alport’s copy, an excited Coghill exclaims, “Wishing you could have seen it!” Perhaps it’s time for Univ Players to give The Masque of Hope a revival. It might be a tough job to source the pigeons though unless the Oxford Premier Flying Club still exists (see picture of acknowledgements from the programme above).

Welcome to Oxford!
The Alport Collection boasts other Oxoniana. Here are some of the most colourful:

Oxford Folly and Pi in the High

The library has reading copies of some of the novels mentioned:

Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm (YIK/BEE)

Bridehead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh (YIO/WAU)

All images on this page are copyright of University College.

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