In order to understand the theme of history in Pablo Neruda’s “The Way Spain Was” and Derek Walcott’s “A Far Cry from Africa”, we must learn a bit about both poets’ historical backgrounds.
Pablo Neruda was born in southern Chile and served “as consul in Spain” beginning in 1935. In 1936, when the Spanish Civil War broke out, Neruda used his poetry to express his “outspoken sympathy for the loyalist cause during the Spanish Civil War,” which supported the recently elected republic and fought against the far-right Nationalists (poets.org). He believed that when poetry is written responsibly, it is “inseparable from historical and political context” (Poetry Foundation).
“The Way Spain Was” depicts the opposing forces that existed in Spain during the time of the Spanish Civil War. In the first stanza, Neruda notes that both the “flatlands” and “eagle’s nest” have been disrupted and “lashed by the storm” of the Spanish Civil War. Neruda calls attention to the opposing forces of the war and shows how all parts of Spain have been affected.
He goes on to write about how much he loves the “hard soil,” the “poor bread,” the “poor people,” and the “wrinkled villages” of Spain. Here we see Neruda’s vehement support of the working-class people of Spain. He loves Spain precisely because of its struggles, and he commends the people who work hard to produce bounty from hard, infertile land. He laments the fact that Spain is now ruled by a “false god,” most likely referring to the Nationalists, who won the war. Under their rule, the bountiful vineyards are now “violent and dangerous.”
Neruda amplifies the horrors of the war, noting that the war happened while Spain was “still conscious,” as if surgery were performed on the country without any anesthesia. Neruda ends the poem by acknowledging that Spain is a beautiful country marred by the violence of war: “streaked / With blood and metal” and “made of petals and bullets.” The country is both “alive” and “asleep”; it contains both wonders and horrors.
Derek Walcott was born in Saint Lucia in the West Indies, a former British colony. Much of his work deals with his conflicting English and West Indian ancestries.
In “A Far Cry from Africa,” Walcott exhibits the white colonization of African land. Walcott, as a black writer of English poetry, has a conflicted viewpoint on the subject. He is “poisoned with the blood of both” the colonizer and the colonized and tries to reconcile his split heritage in this poem, asking, “How can I turn from Africa and live?”
Walcott writes of an uprising in Africa involving the Kikuyu, “the largest ethnic group in Kenya who fought against European settlers as they implemented colonialism on native lands” (The Poetry of Derek Walcott). The Kikuyu’s “Corpses are scattered through a paradise,” while the European “worm, the colonel of carrion, cries: / ‘Waste no compassion on these separate dead!’ ” The colonizers are depicted as worms, using the flesh of the Kikuyu people to fertilize the stolen land. To the Europeans, the Kikuyu people are nothing but “statistics,” and in this way, Walcott compares their plight to that of the Jewish people during the Holocaust (“To savages, expendable as Jews?”).
In the second stanza, Walcott explains the colonial mindset:
The violence of beast on beast is read
As natural law, but upright man
Seeks his divinity by inflicting pain.
Walcott notes that in the animal kingdom, violence is only natural; it is survival of the fittest. However, violence is a different story among humans. Walcott criticizes the fact that European colonizers murder people simply to climb the ladder of “divinity.” The white man is courageous in his efforts to colonize and kill; he is killing off the “beasts” of Africa and instilling “white peace” across the land. Walcott paints a clear, horrific picture of European colonization and criticizes the hypocritical nature of the colonizers.
In the final stanza, Walcott compares this uprising to the Spanish Civil War (“as with Spain, / The gorilla wrestles with the superman”). Both uprisings involved a conflict between a “civilized” party (the superman) and an “uncivilized” party (the gorilla). It seems that this type of conflict repeats itself across the globe, throughout time and history.