December 18, 2017
Auden, Orwell, SpainOn 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":
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."
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.
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:
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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