Notoriously, Auden dropped ‘Spain’ from the selections and collections of his verse that he made in the 50s and 60s. Poetry, he felt, was true or false, first, before being effective or ineffective. He came to despise the complacency of verses (which he also dropped) such as:

 

Time that with this strange excuse

Pardoned Kipling and his views,

And will pardon Paul Claudel,

Pardon him for writing well.

 

from ‘In Memory of WB Yeats’ (February 1939) which assume that Kipling’s and Claudel’s right wing views must be wrong whereas those of the poet and his bien-pensant friends, with History on their side, can continue to create the glow of righteousness in which they so pleasantly bask.

 

When the Auden-Isherwood play, ‘On the frontier’, received its first performance at the Cambridge Art Theatre on 14th November 1938,

 

Rehearsals soon revealed it as an amazingly feeble Marxist pastiche on anti-war themes […][1]

 

Maynard Keynes’s wife, Lydia Lopokova, formerly of the Ballet Russe, had apprised him of Stalin’s network of concentration camps a decade before Sartre’s unhappy rejection of the revelations and consequent break with Camus. Keynes himself

 

realised it [the play] was out of touch with the post-Munich mood. ‘Do you think you can go ahead with it in precisely its present form without feeling at all silly?’ he asked Christopher Isherwood.[2]

 

And

 

TS Eliot wrote to Keynes grimly: ‘I’m afraid that Hitler is not the simpleton the authors make him out to be.’[3]

 

On this view, then, Auden headed for America in 1939 at the height of his fame not, as others since, to a newly declared republic of homosexuality, but for the sake of artistic conscience, so as not to

 

[…] ruin a fine tenor voice

For effects that bring down the house.

 

In this deepening and sobering of talent, ‘Spain’ was dropped altogether and never reprinted by Auden. Such works were “trash” of which he had become ashamed.

 

Yet ‘Spain’ is the most reluctant of political poems and still compels by its potency. Spain is mentioned only once; Madrid once. The struggle is mentioned five times, positioned between past and future. Our own human hopes and fears and faces turn, on both sides, into bombs and battalions. The poem ends weakly and prosaically by pointing out that all prizes in this contest go to the winner. That the struggle is political is suggested only indirectly and unsympathetically:

 

          Today the expending of powers

On the flat ephemeral pamphlet and the boring meeting.

 

Denise and David L-N own a magnificent early pamphlet edition of ‘Spain’ that is anything but boring and ephemeral. A Faber and Faber second impression, it has been reprinted in July 1937, two months after the first impression, and

 

All the author’s royalties from the sale of this poem go to Medical Aid for Spain.

 

In his 1979 edition of WH Auden Selected Poems for Faber, Edward Mendelson claims that

 

The texts are those of first publication in book form, modified only by the rare minor revisions Auden made within a few months of publication, and by the correction of misprints.[4]

 

Of these, I can find only three, none of them examples of the Bowdlerising hand of middle age: 

 

Stanza 6:

 

Yesterday the belief in the absolute value of Greece,

 

becomes

 

Yesterday the belief in the absolute value of Greek,

 

(i.e. the language).

 

Stanza 15:

 

Many have heard it on remote peninsulas,

On sleepy plains, in the aberrant fisherman’s islands […]

 

becomes

 

the aberrant fishermen’s islands

 

(the singular becomes plural).

 

Stanza 16:

 

They clung like birds to the long expresses that lurch

Through the unjust lands […]

 

becomes

 

They clung like burrs […]

 

(a likely candidate for a misprint in the earlier edition).

 

The poem’s thrilling power, it seems to me, proceeds from a confluence of three sources. First, there is the poem’s resolute particularity, its Anglo-Saxon celebration of the practical markers of progress:

 

                                  […] the diffusion

Of the counting-frame and the cromlech;

 

[…] the invention

Of cartwheels and clocks, the taming of

Horses.

 

A Marxist view of history can be seen here, of the kind first anatomised in Miłosz’s The Captive Mind (1953), but one can sympathise with what are portrayed as the religious strivings of

 

[…] the poor in their fireless lodgings, dropping the sheets

Of the evening paper: “Our day is our loss, O show us

History the operator, the

Organiser, Time the refreshing river.”

 

These prayers, or supplications, eventually elicit “the life” to respond, though with Anglo-Saxon diffidence:

 

“O no, I am not the mover;

Not to-day; not to you.

 

[…] Yes, I am Spain.”

 

History has been recapitulated and, rolling back, has revealed the existential choice, the field of conscience, the Spanish Civil War. But if abstraction ultimately became Auden’s vice as a poet, in ‘Spain’ his supple exposition is fed by imagery of uncompromising concreteness. For a confident moment,

 

Our thoughts have bodies; the menacing shapes of our fever

 

Are precise and alive.

 

Secondly, we find more than a few passing touches of European surrealism. In Anglo-American poetry, this vein expressed itself, at most, as symbolism, the adoption of imagery into whose gulfs of personal meaning one hardly dare look, as Eliot said of his imagery in ‘Journey of the Magi’. In ‘Spain’ the surrealism is of a fuller, more Eluardian kind, with “the poets exploding like bombs”:

 

To-morrow the rediscovery of romantic love, 

The photographing of ravens; all the fun under 

          Liberty’s masterful shadow […]

 

Here it is hard not to feel that Auden has become for a moment, that most un-English thing, a prophet.

 

Thirdly, ‘Spain’ seems to float on a thermal of lucid mysticism. We may now regret, as Auden came to do, the elevation of the initiated on one of modern history’s many agonised crests, but the poet has achieved an integrity of vision that, in its lofty confidence, permits infinite understatement. The passing characters in the poem express a yearning for significance; this the poet gives them. Far from retreating into the cloud of the blessed, where minds are made up and facts are in suspension, the poem engages almost exclusively with the particulars of life. This is the fabric of life, it seems to say; this is our step-by-step evolution, our painful medical progress, our science and engineering. These are our joys, our fearful predicaments, our domestic fulfilments:

 

The walks by the lake, the weeks of perfect communion;

Tomorrow the bicycle races

Through the suburbs on summer evenings.

 

And, after the struggle is over, they will be once again.

 

Auden does not use slogans, but ‘Spain’ has brisk repetitions – Yesterday … Tomorrow … the struggle – that give a sharp rhetorical effect. Though the poet came to regret these, and the easy, unexamined assumptions that he felt were false and dangerous to readers, we can afford, today, when the attractions of communism have reduced to zero, to be more generous.

 

Indeed, it may be precisely because poems such as ‘Spain’ convey the feeling – the flair – of their contemporary history that, far from eschewing them, we derive from them their eager interest, their nobility and excitement. It may be, too, that such a poem clearly believed in its own power, its ability after all to make things happen, to influence its readers, and this belief was shared by the later Auden and our still more mature selves.

 

2nd April 2001


[1] Robert Skidelsky, John Maynard Keynes vol. III: Fighting for Britain 1937-1946. London: Macmillan, 2000, p. 38.

[2] Skidelsky, op. cit., p. 38.

[3] Skidelsky, op. cit., p. 38.

[4] Edward Mendelson (ed), WH Auden Selected Poems, London: Faber, 1979, p. xx.

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