"Spain" by W.H. Auden

posted Feb 22, 2010, 7:02 PM by Ivan A Rodriguez Candelaria
                                                                                                                                                             Yesterday all the past. The language of size
Spreading to China along the trade-routes; the diffusion
Of the counting-frame and the cromlech;
Yesterday the shadow-reckoning in the sunny climates.

Yesterday the assessment of insurance by cards,
The divination of water; yesterday the invention
Of cartwheels and clocks, the taming of
Horses. Yesterday the bustling world of the navigators.

Yesterday the abolition of fairies and giants,
the fortress like a motionless eagle eyeing the valley,
the chapel built in the forest;
Yesterday the carving of angels and alarming gargoyles;

The trial of heretics among the columns of stone;
Yesterday the theological feuds in the taverns
And the miraculous cure at the fountain;
Yesterday the Sabbath of witches; but to-day the struggle

Yesterday the installation of dynamos and turbines,
The construction of railways in the colonial desert;
Yesterday the classic lecture
On the origin of Mankind. But to-day the struggle.

Yesterday the belief in the absolute value of Greek,
The fall of the curtain upon the death of a hero;
Yesterday the prayer to the sunset
And the adoration of madmen. but to-day the struggle.

As the poet whispers, startled among the pines,
Or where the loose waterfall sings compact, or upright
On the crag by the leaning tower:
"O my vision. O send me the luck of the sailor."

And the investigator peers through his instruments
At the inhuman provinces, the virile bacillus
Or enormous Jupiter finished:
"But the lives of my friends. I inquire. I inquire."

And 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."

And the nations combine each cry, invoking the life
That shapes the individual belly and orders
The private nocturnal terror:
"Did you not found the city state of the sponge,

"Raise the vast military empires of the shark
And the tiger, establish the robin's plucky canton?
Intervene. O descend as a dove or
A furious papa or a mild engineer, but descend."

And the life, if it answers at all, replied 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 to-day; 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."

Many have heard it on remote peninsulas,
On sleepy plains, in the aberrant fishermen's islands
Or the corrupt heart of the city.
Have heard and migrated like gulls or the seeds of a flower.

They clung like burrs to the long expresses that lurch
Through the unjust lands, through the night, through the alpine tunnel;
They floated over the oceans;
They walked the passes. All presented their lives.

On that arid square, that fragment nipped off from hot
Africa, soldered so crudely to inventive Europe;
On that tableland scored by rivers,
Our thoughts have bodies; the menacing shapes of our fever

Are precise and alive. For the fears which made us respond
To the medicine ad, and the brochure of winter cruises
Have become invading battalions;
And our faces, the institute-face, the chain-store, the ruin

Are projecting their greed as the firing squad and the bomb.
Madrid is the heart. Our moments of tenderness blossom
As the ambulance and the sandbag;
Our hours of friendship into a people's army.

To-morrow, perhaps the future. The research on fatigue
And the movements of packers; the gradual exploring of all the
Octaves of radiation;
To-morrow the enlarging of consciousness by diet and breathing.

To-morrow the rediscovery of romantic love,
the photographing of ravens; all the fun under
Liberty's masterful shadow;
To-morrow the hour of the pageant-master and the musician,

The beautiful roar of the chorus under the dome;
To-morrow the exchanging of tips on the breeding of terriers,
The eager election of chairmen
By the sudden forest of hands. But to-day the struggle.

To-morrow for the young the poets exploding like bombs,
The walks by the lake, the weeks of perfect communion;
To-morrow the bicycle races
Through the suburbs on summer evenings. But to-day the struggle.

To-day the deliberate increase in the chances of death,
The consious 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 candlelit 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 nor pardon.

Analysis on “Spain” by W.H. Auden

We could write dozens of pages if we would want to analyze every detail of this poem, as it talks about historical facts and expresses political ideals and points of view of the author in verse. I will just get some points about some of the parts that most caught my attention.

For the analysis of this poem it’s important to know that from 1936 to 1939, Spain was at a civil war. We should know that the conflict was between republicans against nationalists, that this was an extremely violent conflict in which more than 300 thousand people were killed, more than 120 thousand were civilians and that it generated tensions between neighbors, friends and even families that sometimes ended in violent hatred. W.H. Auden had deep and sophisticated political points of view. For him, the international media, and most people out of Spain, the republicans were the good guys, and the nationalists were the bad guys.

Author W.H. Auden actually visited Spain in 1937, getting some direct inspiration for this, and other poems. “Spain” is a poem that, in general, expresses how important, influential and powerful Spain was before the civil war, and does some type deep complain about how it was breaking down as a result of that war. The overall message in the beginning of the poem seems to be: “Yesterday great beautiful things; But to-day disaster”.

 I want to point out some interesting details. The eleventh stanza sounds like a cry from the country itself. The shark and the tiger represent the fiercest military forces on land and sea, while the robin’s plucky canton gives a feeling of nobleness. Then he’s saying “descend as a dove… or a mild engineer, but descend”, here, Spain is crying for anyone to save it from its misery in any way. This stanza and the next three are my favorites. Stanza number 12 is an emotional stanza that could be saying that the common people, civilians, are the ones who will truly decide the outcome of the country’s future. Auden seems to use the country itself, Spain, as the narrative (or in this case, poetic) voice. The 13th stanza expresses that Spain is whatever its people (republicans) make out of it. And in the next stanza, the “Just City” represents the victory of the republicans, then the “suicide pact” or “romantic Death” means their defeat. Here, we can connect that Spain is making its own republicans responsible for the outcome of the war, and that it all depends on how much art they put into this conflict. At the end of the poem, the message becomes: “To-day disaster; To-morrow hope”.

An aspect about the structure that really caught my attention was that the third verse on each stanza if much shorter, but seems to have the heaviest words. Why does the author do this? Fewer but much heavier words deliver an even stronger expression of a message.