Introduction

‘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.’

WH Auden, ‘Spain’

As with the Great War, the literature of the Spanish Civil War has been the subject of much mythologizing. Art and politics fused in a number of works, such as Picasso’s Guernica, Miro’s Black and Red Series, and the novels of Hemingway, Dos Passos, Claude Simon and George Orwell. Stephen Spender, however, in The God that Failed, called it ‘the poets’ war’.

The struggle between the Republican and National Forces in Spain between 1936 and 1939 engaged the imagination and the conscience of many writers and intellectuals from around the world. The polarisation of political and social values that characterised the war seemed to many to represent the defining struggle of the age: a clash between not just between the opposing political ideologies of socialism and fascism, but between civilization and barbarism, good and evil. In his Introduction to Poems for Spain, Spender wrote:

Poets and poetry have played a considerable part in the Spanish War, because to many people the struggle of the Republicans has seemed a struggle for the conditions without which the writing and reading of poetry are almost impossible in modern society.

A number of British writers made the Spanish cause their own (which meant, overwhelmingly, the Republican cause). Many went to Spain to support the Republicans in various roles and wrote about their experience, making it a distinctive episode in British literary history. These included: < a href=”#”>Stephen Spender, WH Auden, George Orwell, Julian Bell, Christopher Caudwell, John Cornford, Sylvia Townsend Warner, George Barker, Rex Warner and Ralph Fox. As with their predecessors in the Great War, the British war poets of Spain combined a spirit of youthful idealism with a sensitivity to suffering, and developed a political and moral awareness through painful experience and the harsh realities of war.

The most enduring poetry of the war was, however, written in Spanish. In 1937 the poet and playwright, Federico Garcia Lorca, was murdered by fascists, an act of tragic brutality that soon achieved iconic status, as described by Antonio Machado:

Carve, friends, from stone and dream,
in the Alhambra, a barrow for the poet,
on the water of fountains that weep
and whisper, for eternity:
‘the crime was in Granada,
in his Granada!’

(trans. By Paul O’Prey)

Many of the most powerful poems of the war are by Miguel Hernandez, of whom Pablo Neruda wrote, ‘his face was the face of Spain’. Hernandez, a self-educated peasant, served in the Republican Army and was sentenced to death by Franco at the end of the war. He died in prison 3 years later, aged 31. In ‘To the International Soldier Fallen in Spain’, Hernandez writes tenderly of the solidarity shown to Spain by members of the International Brigades:

Around your bones, the olive groves will grow,
unfolding their iron roots in the ground,
embracing men universally, faithfully.

(trans. by Ted Genoway)

The war was a central theme for three of the leading South American writers of the age: Pablo Neruda, Cesar Vallejo and Octavio Paz. All three spent time at the Front and their strongly anti-fascist poems about what was happening in Spain are among the most remarkable war poems of the twentieth century.

Mass

At the end of the battle the fighter lay dead. A man came to him
and said: ‘Don’t die! I love you too much!’
But the corpse, alas, went on dying.

Two came to him and again said:
‘Don’t leave us! Take heart!
Come back to life!’
But the corpse, alas, went on dying.

Then twenty, a hundred, a thousand,
Five hundred thousand, came, crying:
‘So much love and yet so powerless against death!’
But the corpse, alas, went on dying.

Millions surrounded him,
pleading together:
‘Brother, don’t leave us!’
But the corpse, alas, went on dying.

Then, all the men on earth
stood round him. The corpse eyed them sadly,
overwhelmed. He got up slowly,
embraced the first man, started to walk…

Cesar Vallejo (trans. By Paul O’Prey)

Suggested Reading

  • The Penguin Book of Spanish Civil War Verse, edited by Valentine Cunningham (Penguin, 1980)
  • Spanish Front, Writers on the Civil War, edited by Valentine Cunningham (Oxford University Press, 1986)
  • Rewriting the Good Fight : critical essays on the literature of the Spanish Civil War, edited by Frieda S. Brown (Michigan State University Press, 1989)
  • The Spanish Civil War in Literature, edited by Janet Perez and Wendell Aycock (1990)
  • The Last Great Cause: The Intellectuals and the Spanish Civil War, by Stanley Weintraub (1968)
  • Poesia de la Guerra Civil Espanola 1936-1939, edited by Cesar de Vicente Hernando (Akal, 1994)
  • Literatura sobre la Guerra Civil, edited by Bertrand de Muñoz, (Anthropos, 1993)