Spain by W. H. Auden: Critical Analysis

This is perhaps the most celebrated of all the poems of the 1930s, for it gave striking artistic form to the natural sentiments of a whole generation of young men and women. Its effect was comparable to that of the French Revolution on young writers such as Wordsworth and Coleridge. The poem originally sold as a pamphlet at a shilling, the author's royalties being given to 'Medical Aid for Spain'. It was one of those rare occasions in the twentieth century, when an important poet found popular expression for the public feelings of his age.

W.H. Auden (1907-1973)

As Auden did not have any specific mastery over the style, he moved rapidly from one type of verse to the next, now preaching dogmatically with naive fervor, now composing exquisite lyrics to mirror his own uncertainties. 'Spain 1937' does not completely solve these problems. The refrain ‘but to-day the struggle' is a little too melodramatic, and the images are unequal in their effects. Some are very successful. The lines:

On that arid square, that fragment nipped off from hot

 Africa, soldered so crudely to inventive Europe,

On that tableland scored by rivers,

 Our fever's menacing shapes are precise and alive

are generally reckoned to be among the best that Auden has written. Instead of treating Nature in a romantic, Wordsworthian manner, he perceives the importance of geographical patterns, and how these are relevant to economic, political or social problems. Spain, 'that arid square', is African in temperament and climate, yet here must be fought out the conflicts of the West. But after this stanza there are many unsatisfactory images. 'The shared cigarette', 'the masculine joke', and `the fumbled and unsatisfactory embrace before hurting' are all banal. We feel that Auden is trying to share the temperament of the ordinary soldier, but that his mind cannot escape from clichés. The whole poem is written in different tones of voice. Some parts, particularly the central section, are quite difficult to understand, and could never have a wide appeal. At other times the rhetoric is strained, and we do not feel that this voice speaks confidently for a large community.

Yet the poem is full of vitality and energy. The first six stanzas create a vivid sense of the abundance of human activities in the past. We feel the power of the human race, the force and intelligence that make civilization, spreading out along the trade-routes, extending its control of the environment through the advances of science. But the images are not all taken from the bustling world of commerce and exploration. We are reminded in a most striking image of warfare—`The fortress like a motionless eagle eyeing the valley'—and of superstition. In the opening stanza, 'the counting-frame and the cromlech' symbolize the conflict that the Spanish Civil War may resolve. Science and superstition have developed together. All these illustrations are intended to provide objective pictures of the past, and so they offer little in themselves to practical analysis; but as a whole they sum up Auden's view of the significant conflicts of his time. It is perhaps a sign of his insight that he ends this section pessimistically with 'the prayer to the sunset, and the adoration of madmen.'

The next eight stanzas are very unequal. The poet longs for his vision, the poor for some escape from their distress. The nations together, cry to the life force that in the past created great advances in civilization. The people long for someone to intervene, God as the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, God as what Freud made him, a father figure, or the spirit of science (a mild engineer). But life replies that there is no exterior force that can solve the people's problems: ‘I am whatever you do'. You yourself must choose what is to be. You may build the Just City; you may commit suicide. This is the choice Spain offers.

The images of gulls and seeds evoke a sense of the multitude of people who respond to this challenge and who come from all parts of the world. The verbs 'clung', `floated' and 'walked' are full of energy and movement. People flock to this center of crisis, where our sickness may be healed now, or not at all.

The picture of the future have not this sense of purpose, and often appear unreal. We cannot imagine a world without conflict, and the description of the bicycle races, the summer evenings and the walks by the lake are like a dream. But in the final stanza, Auden's theatrical rhetoric at last is completely successful. We can no longer discover meaning in the universe by studying the stars. We are not in tune with Nature, for the animals are unconcerned by our fate. Human beings are alone, and have the power of choice, he may choose, and if he wins, the Just City will arise.

'Spain' takes its form from a theory of history. Auden begins with a long perspective view of the process of historical change. He starts where European economic history starts, with 'the language of size/Spreading to China along the trade routes', and moves through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Counter—Reformation, to nineteenth-century science and engineering, seeing the European past as a record of consciousness altered by economic change.

At the fourth stanza the present begins to enter contrapuntally: 'Yesterday the Sabbath of witches; but to-day the struggle.' Struggle is a heavily, ideological word, but in the poem, it carries a meaning that is more general, and less specifically polemical, than simply class–struggle; it is rather the struggle or moral choice that goes on occurring every today, because in the present in which men live they must choose and act: the present is the point of intersection in time where Freedom becomes Necessity, and Choice becomes History. Though individuals (the poet, the scientist, and the ordinary poor) and nations invoke the life-force to intervene and act for them, life only replies: '0 no, I am not the mover, Not to-day; not to you...I am whatever you do...I am your choice, your decision.' In 1937, that determining decision would be a decision about Spain, but the conception is one of general morality, not of particular politics.

 In Auden's terms, every moment is a border-situation in time, a frontier between the known past and 'perhaps, the future'— perhaps, because the future depends on the decision made now as the frontier is crossed. The future is therefore rendered in the poem in random images of peace, some solemn, some rather comical or ironic: the rediscovery of romantic love, the photographing of ravens, the bicycle races through the suburbs on summer evenings. They are random, because the future is composed of unselected options. It is perfectly free, because it is not yet history. There is no implication in the poem that the future will take any particular political form, or that it will be different in details from the present and the past; it will simply be people doing what they like.

But between past and future lies today, and today's choice, which waits in Spain to be made. The Spanish war in psychological, not political, terms is an eruption, of the sickness of modern society: in Spain, the enemy is us-our fears and greed and the people's army are psychological, too, a sort of metaphor for loving feelings. It is more than a metaphor, though; in Spain 'our thoughts have bodies', what was mental has become physical, and therefore mortal.

The struggle, then, is a struggle between sickness and health, and Spain is a case. The treatment is immediate choice, a commitment to some form of action. A chance of death, guilt, wasted time, boredom—these are random, unheroic, and not explicitly political. At the end of the poem Auden returns to that abstract theme, to restate it as directly and bluntly as the moral of a fable:

‘The stars are dead. The animals will not look.

 We are left alone with our day, and time is short, and

History to the defeated

May say, Alas but cannot help nor pardon. ‘

Auden has since condemned this passage as 'wicked doctrine', on the grounds that it equates goodness with success. But in fact it does nothing of the kind; what it says is simply that History is Necessity, and that it is made by men's choices. Once it is made, help and pardon are irrelevant. It is a harsh morality, for a harsh time, but it is nevertheless a morality, and not a wicked one.

‘Spain' is an extraordinary war-poem: diagnostic, abstract, detached, lacking all the particularities and the feelings that defined the genre in the First World War. There are no battles in the poem, no dead boys or screaming women, no grisly details, and no personal voice testifying to war's hideousness. Not only is there no 'I' in it, there is no suggestion of direct observation at all; Auden's ‘Spain’ is a shape on a map, or the earth seen from a great height, not a landscape. It is a pitiless poem; the poetry is in the pitilessness.

 It is also an open and unresolved poem. This is partly inherent in the theme: moral choices must be made now, but the consequences are never clear. But it is also partly a function of the poem's date: in the spring of 1937, the future of the Spanish war, and the future of Europe that seemed to hang on it, were still uncertain. Independent of its thematic content, the poem is an excellent example of Auden's technical skill over rhyming and sense of rhythm. Nature to him was an entity in geographical patterns related to its history and economics.

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Sharma, Kedar N. "Spain by W. H. Auden: Critical Analysis." BachelorandMaster, 3 July 2017,