Friday, November 23, 2012


***********************Bernard Spencer with unknown singer


Translations & Selected Prose.

Edited by  Peter Robinson





At the time of his death in September 1963, Bernard Spencer had published three books Aegean Islands and Other Poems (1946), The King of Asine and Other Poems, a translation of the poetry of George Seferis (with Nanos Valaoritis & Lawrence Durrell) and With Luck Lasting (1963). He had also sent ten recently completed poems to Alan Ross at the London Magazine, which were published either just before or after his death, it was Ross who first collated Spencer’s work and published them in 1965 as Collected Poems. This volume contained  the 1946 and 1963 poems and “Poems from Vienna”  his last poems, it didn’t include any of his translated work, and did not search out any uncollected or unpublished work.

Charles Bernard Spencer was born into one of the branches of the Spencer-Churchill family in Madras, India (1909), the second son of Sir Charles Gordon Spencer, a high court judge. In 1911 he was sent to England to be brought up by relatives alongside his elder brother John & sister Cynthia. He attended a couple of schools before, in 1923, he followed his brother to the traditional family school of Marlborough College , where he was a contemporary of Anthony Blunt, and also where he met the more senior John Betjeman and Louis MacNeice, although at this period of his life his interest was more with the art club than the literary society. In 1928 he went to Corpus Christi College, Oxford,  where he formed friendships with Isaiah Berlin, Humphrey House, Arthur Calder-Marshall and Stephen Spender, the latter co-edited Oxford Poetry with Spencer in 1930, a position filled by Richard Goodman when Spencer edited it again in 1931. In the summer of 1932 he graduated with a second glass degree in greats. Also during this period he came across W. H. Auden, although he was not involved to any great degree with the poets who became known as the Auden Group.

A Hand. (pre 1940)

The human hand lying on my hand

(The wrist had a gilt bangle on)

Wore its print of personal lines

Took breath as lungs and leaves and

Tasted in the skin our sun.


The living palm and near-to-bone:

Fine animal hairs where the light shone.


The handed mole to its earth, the stoat to the dark

And this flesh to its nature nervously planned;

To dig love’s heart till everything is shown,

To hunt, to hold its mark

-- This loved hand.


The period after leaving university is marked by signposts, as the knowledge of his whereabouts are not clear, for example a letter sent to Rosamond Lehman  has survived in her archive at King’s College (Cambridge). In 1934 his father died, and in-between he helped Geoffrey Grigson edit New Verse, and in 1936 he married Norah Kathleen Gibbs. The Poet Bernard Gutteridge  opens a slight window into this period in his condolence letter to Spencer’s 2nd wife (1963).

11-12Extract from Letter 

“Bernard, Dylan (Thomas) and Louis MacNeice were the first poets I ever knew; and of them Bernard was always the closest – especially in those two last gloomy years before the war when he was always one of the gay reliefs. I first met him in Geoffrey Grigson’s  house in Hampstead for dinner. Just the three of us and Norah. It must have been twenty seven years ago this autumn. He wore green corduroys, a red and white checked cotton shirt and a bowtie and a gay jacket and was, as he remained, one of the best-looking people I had ever met. I was entranced by them both and was with them once or twice every week from then on, I believe. Supper in Soho at Durands (a bombed hole opposite York Minster); drinks on the red plush and the marble tables at the Cafe Royal with Ernest Copplestone; parties at a flat off the Bayswater road which had dark reddish-purple cocoanut matting all over the floors; dancing in a pub on Haverstock hill; and then the war…….”


Spencer’s own summing up of this  period is “a year at film making, then a living scratched up out of school mastering and advertising” this sentence covers working at several schools as a classics teacher, working as a copywriter for an advertising agency and co-writing the biography of a Victorian politician (1938).

In 1940 being unfit for military service (congenital heart condition), Spencer joined the newly formed British Council and travelled by train with his wife to Salonika in Greece, where he became a teacher at the Institute of English Studies, where he also acted as the librarian. Norah returned home to England for a holiday before the fall of France and seems to have been refused permission to return to Greece and would spend the war years working at the ministry of supply. On October 28th (1940) the Italians invaded  Greece and in that month air raids began on Salonika. The hotel in which the poet was staying was hit and his room was demolished, the institute was also damaged in several of the bombardments and subsequently closed.Spencer_Bernard

 During World War II, Spencer continued working for the British Council with a posting to Egypt (Cairo), where he was joined by several other exiles from the war in Greece, (the likes of Lawrence Durrell, Robert Liddell - evacuated with- and also at this time he was to meet  Keith Douglas). It was here that with Lawrence Durrell, &  Robin Fedden  they set up the Personal Landscape magazine, which featured not only their own work but also  the work of poets such as Terence Tiller , G. S. Fraser & Keith Douglas. In 1942 Rommel had reached El Alemein & the British Fleet withdrew from Cairo & Spencer spent some time in Palestine before returning to Cairo, it was during this period (1944) that he collaborated with Nanos Valaoritis and Durrell on translating  George Seferis’ s  poetry (The King of Asine and other poems, 1948). In the early months of 1945 he was joined by his wife Nora, but by August they had returned to England due to ill health. The following year found Spencer out of Britain once again to take up a posting in Sicily  & then to southern Italy the following year, during the winter of that year Nora became ill with TB, and would die of heart failure in Rome (June 1947).

Part of Plenty.


When she carries food to the table and stoops down
--Doing this out of love--and lays soup with its good
Tickling smell, or fry winking from the fire
And I look up, perhaps from a book I am reading
Or other work: there is an importance of beauty
Which can't be accounted for by there and then,
And attacks me, but not separately from the welcome
Of the food, or the grace of her arms.

When she puts a sheaf of tulips in a jug
And pours in water and presses to one side
The upright stems and leaves that you hear creak,
Or loosens them, or holds them up to show me,
So that I see the tangle of their necks and cups
With the curls of her hair, and the body they are held
Against, and the stalk of the small waist rising
And flowering in the shape of breasts;

Whether in the bringing of the flowers or of the food
She offers plenty, and is part of plenty,
And whether I see her stooping, or leaning with the flowers,
What she does is ages old, and she is not simply,
No, but lovely in that way.


By September Bernard Spencer was in Turin and the following year, (May 1948) he had returned to England, as he had developed TB himself, which involved a trip to Switzerland for surgery. By December he was back in Britain doing light duties for the British council, also at this time The King of Asine and other poems was published to rave reviews (fourteen) and congratulations from T.S. Eliot.

This pretty much characterized Spencer’s life as a delegate of the British Council. Spencer lived in various locales such as  Thessaloniki, Turin, Madrid, Ankara, Athens, Vienna and Cairo, although by 1949 it steadied slightly with his posting to Madrid and yet by 1955 he was in Athens, if only for a short spell as  Cyprus erupted after the deportation of  Archbishop Makarios (March 1956). Back in England, at the Council’s headquarters, then 1958, a temporary appointment in Ankara, Turkey and then a return to Madrid, where he would meet his second wife Anne Marjoribanks, in September 1961 they got married and in July left Spain for Vienna. On the 7th February 1963 they had a son, (Piers Bernard Spencer), the same year whilst on holiday in Italy Spencer suffered a health breakdown and they returned to Vienna. Although deliriously ill and with a high fever, for some unexplained reason he was allowed to leave the clinic where his  medical condition was being investigated. His body was found at 5am on the 11th of September 1963 beside the suburban railway lines, the state of his shoes suggested he had walked a considerable distance, and with head injuries suggesting that he’d been hit by a train, his widow wished to ask questions relating to his leaving the clinic, but the Council were not willing to risk straining relations with Austria. Various suggestions have arisen concerning his mental & physical state ranging from undiagnosed brain tumour, to an enlarged prostate causing ureic acid infecting the brain, although the autopsy ruled out alcohol. He was cremated in Vienna and his ashes were returned to England.


Sometimes you meet someone, who has been around you your whole life, and yet you had no knowledge of them. Sometimes you’ve circled around this person, you have been to the same parties, have had the same friends, almost at the same table, at those special occasions, weddings, christenings, all the big events and yet………

This is how I feel about Bernard Spencer, a poet I had not heard of until recently, or to be more accurate a poet whom, by his absence has now at this moment in time started to haunt me, has me puzzled, bemused and has raised my curiosity up to a factor before this I’d have thought not possible. How could I not know of his existence and yet know all who circled him? Just look at the names above, they contain some of my favourite writers, one of my favourite WWII poems Vergissmeinnicht” by Keith Douglas shows knowledge of and was possibly inspired by Spencer’s “Death of an Airman” & “Letters”. My poetic trips aboard via the works of  Eugenio Montale, George Seferis, and Odysseus Elytis were aided by translations by this writer. Going back to my original metaphor of the known stranger, this book has allowed me to know Bernard (first name terms now), and has finally sat us at the same table at a mutual friends christening, and it turns out we share similar tastes, and have that same curiosity for the world circling us. 

This isn’t  just a collection of  Spencer’s Poetry, it also contains his translations of the above mentioned poets & a selection of his prose writing,  as such it opens up a window into this writers work, and in the process gives us an understanding of a poet that although almost forgotten was considered a central figure of the Cairo poets and a distinctive voice in 20th century English poetry. Lawrence Durrell compares him  to Edward ThomasOlivia Manning, said of him that:

“His poems are in the direct tradition of English poetry, and are marked by sincerity, exact observation, and a deep feeling for nature. They are patient, honest, individual, and always come out of the life he is living,”

           Delicate Grasses.

Delicate grasses blowing in the wind,
grass out of cracks among tiered seats of stone
where a Greek theatre swarmed with audience,
till Time's door shut upon
the stir, the eloquence.

A hawk waiting above the enormous plain,
lying upon the nothing of the air,
a hawk who turns at some sky-wave or lull
this way, and after there
as dial needles prowl.

Cool water jetting from a drinking fountain
in crag-lands, miles from any peopled spot,
year upon year with its indifferent flow;
sound that is and is not;
the wet stone trodden low.

There is no name for such strong liberation;
I drift their way; I need what their world lends;
then, chilled by one thought further still than those,
I swerve towards life and friends
before the trap-fangs close.


Bernard Spencer (Wiki)

Bloodaxe publishers

Sample -

New Verse -

Nanos Valaoritis A Memoir -


A Treasury of British Poetry -


George Seferis on Translation

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