Does Auden seek to change society in "Spain" or is he just describing it?  

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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W.H. Auden once wrote, “Poetry might be defined as the clear expression of mixed feelings.”   In this light, the only clear condition is that little is clear in poetry.  Auden develops this with how he views society in his poem, "Spain." Auden presents a vision of the social order where there is a painful statement of what is ongoing.  However, within this is a statement of what can be, or what should be learned in order to transform such a condition.  It is a very delicate balance, but is one that defines the thematic dynamics of Auden's poem.

One way in which we can see a clear statement of what society is as well as the need to change it can be seen in the time configuration.  There is a repetition of the past in the form of "yesterday."  Auden speaks to how the condition of the past plays a role in human identity.  In this way, he makes a statement as to what society is.  This is seen in verses such as "Yesterday the carving of angels and alarming gargoyles;/ The trial of heretics among the columns of stone;" or "Yesterday the theological feuds in the taverns/ And the miraculous cure at the fountain;/Yesterday the Sabbath of witches; but to-day the struggle."  These moments speaks to how society has been formed and what society actually is.  At the same time, Auden points to aspects of a historical condition and state of being that has helped to define the the way the social order is.  Evidence of this can be found in lines such as "the inhuman provinces" of science as well as "History the operator, the/ Organiser. Time the refreshing river."  In these conditions, Auden is able to describe the way society is, the way a prevailing state of being actually is presented.

However, there is ample evidence to articulate a means through which society can change.  Auden presents the refrain of "To-morrow," to embody a vision of the future, as in "To-morrow, perhaps the future."  This notion of transformation can also be seen in "To-morrow the enlarging of consciousness by diet and breathing" and "To-morrow the rediscovery of romantic love." These images provide a construction of the conditional, of what can and might be in the rather stark face of what is.  At the same time, the author's context has to be included in envisioning what might be.  While seeing the Spanish War through partisan eyes towards the Loyalists, it is clear that Auden is disillusioned with the bloodshed of political reality.  Auden composes his poem as a statement of what is, however it is difficult to see him as completely devoid of a transformative hope.  In lines such as "We are left alone with our day, and the time is short" that is set against the death of "stars" and "animals," Auden might be providing a small glimpse that what was does not necessarily have to be what be.  The world that confronts us does not have to be the spiritual forecasting of the future.  In this light, Auden's poem can become a means through which social change can be evident if individuals possess the courage and will to embrace it.  This dynamic shows little clear, other than the artful exploration of the world in which people live and how they function in it.

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