"Spain 1937" by W.H.Auden

Selection:(Lines 45-56, 89-93)

And the life, if it answers at all, replies from the heart
And the eyes and the lungs, from the shops and squares of the city:
"O no, I am not the Mover,
Not today, not to you. To you I'm the

"Yes-man, the bar-companion, the easily-duped:
I am whatever you do; I am your vow to be
Good, your humorous story;
I am your business voice; I am your marriage.

"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."
(p. 2264)

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.
(p. 2265)


W.H. Auden's poem "Spain 1937" is a reexamination and a call to action. Like a telephoto lens, the narrative sweeps across the panorama of history, zooms in on the Spanish Civil War, focuses briefly into the future, and returns to the scene in Spain and the common realities of war. Yet, the past, present, and future are not given equal weight. Though Auden enumerates and acknowledges past achievements of civilization and admits the future may be fruitful and serene, he emphasizes the importance of the present, specifically of the outcome of Spain's Civil War, as a momentous and historical event that will in turn influence the future. And in the present, humanity must act and must struggle and not be washed passively in "Time the refreshing river" (line 36, 2264).

The author makes this idea clear in lines 45-56: History is not an autonomous flow but is created, generation by generation, by living people. Referring to the several preceding stanzas in which individuals and nations cry for providential intervention in the affairs of men, line 45 begins "And the life...replies...'O no, I am not the Mover'" and goes on "'I am whatever you do'" (line 50). A Republican victory is "To build the Just City" (line 53) while a defeat would be "the romantic Death" (line 54-5), but both are "choices." Spain is only the current landscape, among thousands of other places in the past and future where people have struggled and fought, where humanity will create its own history through conscious will and effort.

The author clearly believes the Republican cause a worthy one and the stanzas following the ones above relate how fighters from all over the world have also come to aid in the struggle. But after alluding to many possible advances and preoccupations of the future for which many may be fighting, the author again emphasizes the unglamorous realities of the moment while never questioning their necessity. The last stanza makes the point: Neither the "stars" above, nor the "animals" (and nature) over which we have dominion can aid us or are even relevant, "We are left alone with our day" (line 91) and if the Republicans fail, it will be a defeat that cannot be reversed or excused.

"Spain 1937" is an urgent call to Seize the Day, recognizing the literal and symbolic importance of the Spanish Civil War. By placing it in the context of the whole sweep of history, the poet accurately identifies the struggle between the forces of democracy and fascism as significant not only for the Spanish but for modern civilization. The poem prophetically foreshadows this struggle throughout the 20th century; it has been enacted again and again in the past decades, both within nations and between them. Many historians have speculated that had the Republicans been successful, Mussolini and Hitler might not have been so bold or so successful and history might have taken a different course. Yet the fascist tyrants were unchecked for years, and with the end of World War II, civilization entered the postmodern era where the struggle continues.

© 1995 Shirley Galloway

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