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October 18, 2017

Auden, Orwell, Spain

On this day in 1937 W. H. Auden's Spain was published in England; the proceeds from sales of this pamphlet-length poem went to the Spanish Medical Aid Committee, one of a number of international organizations supporting the anti-Franco cause, and a group which Auden had tried to join as an ambulance driver in Spain just months earlier. One who would have had need of such aid was George Orwell: also on this day in 1937, and also in Spain while fighting for the Republican cause, George Orwell was shot in the throat in front-line fighting.

These two were among many writers and intellectuals provoked into action or art by the Spanish conflict. Pablo Neruda's Spain in the Heart poems were published in 1937, and the documentary The Spanish Earth, on which Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Lillian Hellman and others collaborated, was being screened at fund-raisers in the U. S. at this time. Auden's Spain was part of the general debate -- raised again recently -- over the West's moral responsibility and military role in countries suffering under a despot. His poem was clearly on the side of doing more than talk, a plea to his contemporaries that "Our moments of tenderness blossom / As the ambulance and the sandbag; / Our hours of friendship into a people's army":
    "What's your proposal? To build the just city? I will.
    I agree. Or is it the suicide pact, the romantic
    Death? Very well, I accept, for
    I am your choice, your decision. Yes, I am Spain."
As Auden saw it, there would be plenty of time for guilt and politics later, "But today the struggle":
    Today the deliberate increase in the chances of death,
    The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder;
    To-day the expending of powers
    On the flat ephemeral pamphlet and the boring meeting.

    To-day the makeshift consolations: the shared cigarette,
    The cards in the candle-lit barn, and the scraping concert,
    The masculine jokes; to-day the
    Fumbled and unsatisfactory embrace before hurting.

    The stars are dead. The animals will not look.
    We are left alone with our day, and the time is short, and
    History to the defeated
    May say alas but cannot help or pardon.
Orwell praised Auden's Spain as "one of the few decent things that have been written about the Spanish war," but he objected strongly to the idea that those who intervened on the Republican side should have any "guilt in the necessary murder," saying that the line could only have been written by someone "to whom murder was at most a word." He despaired over the collapse of the Republican cause from within and without -- Orwell had to flee Spain himself when he found himself caught in the crossfire of rival socialist factions -- but he wrote Homage to Catalonia and spent a lifetime speaking out for a better socialism, in whatever genre or forum he could command.

Auden had also promoted socialism, but he now went in other directions. He would eventually revise, renounce and try to suppress Spain, feeling that its (or perhaps any) politics were juvenile, its poetry as bad. When he left England for America at the beginning of WWII, many criticized him as a deserter; looking back from his new vantage point on the day Germany invaded Poland he responded with "September 1, 1939," one of his most famous poems:
    I sit in one of the dives
    On Fifty-second Street
    Uncertain and afraid
    As the clever hopes expire
    Of a low dishonest decade:
    Waves of anger and fear
    Circulate over the bright
    And darkened lands of the earth,
    Obsessing our private lives;
    The unmentionable odour of death
    Offends the September night....

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