James’s Notes on the Discussion of Auden’s Poem “Spain” on 12/20

On Tuesday December the 20th Nicole facilitated the group’s analysis and discussion of W.H. Auden’s poem “Spain”, which was inspired by the poet’s own experiences participating and observing the Spanish Civil War.The group’s discussion primarily consisted of closely reading each part of the poem in order to determine what its elements conveyed and what its overall meaning might be.

The first 6 stanzas of the poem focuses on the history of both Spain in particular and Western Civilization in general. Each Stanza begins with the word “Yesterday”, which is repeated throughout the stanza, and catalogs various stages in the development of society up to that point. In the 4th-6th stanzas, each ends with the refrain of “but to-day the struggle”. There was thus some assertions on my part that these 3 stanzas may be semi-separate from the first, but others did not concur.  Either way, I think the group agreed that the first 6 stanzas recount the formation of civilization in the past, with that past now leading to the conflicts and civil war of Auden’s present.

The next three stanzas then lists different types of individuals who are appealing to their own particular higher powers for guidance and redress in the face of the already mentioned “struggle.” First a poet appeals to their artistic vision, then a scientist appeals to “inhuman” scientific laws, and finally the poor appeal to history itself. This final appeal, made by “the poor” to “History…the Organizer”, was felt to be Marxian in its appeal to class as well as to a Hegelian view of history. Also, the order in which these individuals were listed seemed to further recount the development of Man and society, since their order matches the development of the type of humans who would question the human condition at different eras; the poet being the first type of person to do so, the scientist doing so in later ages, and in the present the masses as a whole showing such concern.

The following two stanzas synthesizes the appeals made by individuals into national appeals to Life itself. Life then responds in the next three stanzas that it is not the determining force in the world, but is rather the product of mankind’s choices, ending with the statement “Yes, I am Spain.”

From here the poem recounts the journey that people all over the world made to come and join in the Spanish Civil War. Many felt that the journey described in the poem was particularly referring to those who came to volunteer with the Republican side of the war, but at least one person felt that the poem was referring to everyone who fought in the war, and that one of the goals of the poem was to illustrate the transcending of individual “fear” and “greed” in order to become part of the experience of the war. I personally agree that the poem helps the reader feel the brotherhood of the experience, but I think that it is a feeling that is and was meant to be uniquely about the Republican side of the conflict, which Auden himself experienced.

Another element of the poem focused on by the group was its appeal to human responsibility and a focus on the present moment. Already mentioned is the answer of Life, in which it says that it is not in control of human affairs, but is rather itself defined by the choices that each individual makes. Coupled with that is the latter part of the poem’s dismissive cataloguing of the future as well as the summation of the past that occurred in the first 6 stanzas.

I feel that this appeal to the choices of the present that we see in the poem is just one element of  its overall effect, which is to make the reader feel what someone like Auden felt as they decided to abandon the safety and comfort of their lives in order to travel across the world and join a civil war in a country that was not theirs. Like many of them, we come to see Spain as a crossroads of all of civilization and Life, as a situation that we are desperately responsible for, and as something that the men and women who joined the International Brigades could not turn away from.

However, as the group pointed out, the end of the poem also makes us feel the experience of fighting in the war itself. In the end of the poem we see the camaraderie as well as the wretchedness of the war. Whether for all combatants or just the Republican side, Auden expresses the brotherhood of the struggle with his “shared cigarette” and “masculine jokes”. But we also feel the disillusionment of those idealists who came for a moral victory over Fascism, and saw instead the “boring meeting” and the “conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder”.

One thing that the group only briefly touched on was how the poem relates to the Occupy Movement. While the poem is about the Spanish Civil War, I think the lesson that we can take from it is really completely unrelated to the subject of the poem. Given, I more than anyone look to the Spanish Civil War for lessons on how to recreate society, however, when looking at Auden’s “Spain”, I agree with the few comments made during the group’s discussion that the main take away for our movement is Auden’s exhortations of human responsibility and living in the present. We and others must come to view our “struggle” with the same excitement and critical importance which those like Auden viewed Spain.


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