Summary

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Last Updated January 26, 2024.

W. H. Auden visited Spain in 1937 amid the Spanish Civil War. His sympathies lay firmly with the Republicans, who fought against the Nationalists, but the poet was not blind to the political and ideological complexities of the situation. “Spain 1937” reflects on those entanglements as it looks at how the conflict grew out of the past, affects the present, and shapes the future in mysterious ways. While this is a war poem, “Spain 1937” is also a deep meditation on history, human nature, God, and hope.

Stanzas 1-6

In the first six stanzas, the poet turns his eyes to the past, remembering the ways of old and reflecting on the changes that have occurred over the centuries. “Yesterday all the past,” he begins. Trade routes spread to China with counting-frames to tally the profits. Yet the cromlech, groups of standing stones, still reckoned time by sun and shadows.

Technology flourished with clocks, wheels, and navigation, yet it remained side by side with the “divination of water,” the superstitions of old. Eventually, “the abolition of fairies and giants” occurred as the Christian faith, symbolized by the chapel, gained prominence. Yet the new religion brought its own problems with the “trial of heretics” and the “theological feuds.”

Yesterday had its conflicts and ambiguities, witch trials, industrialization, colonialism, and the theory of evolution. “But to-day the struggle,” the poet declares. The conflicts and ambiguities of the past led to the struggles of Spain in 1937. Yesterday, people valued the classics and heroes and prayers. Today, they fight.

Stanzas 7-11

People are left to try to discover meaning from the past and in the present. The poet turns to nature and prays to his vision for luck. The scientist “peers through his instruments” and finds bacteria or Jupiter but does not understand the lives of his friends. The poor suffer and wish that Time could be a “refreshing river” for them.

All these cries combine in the life of nations as individuals come together, yet these nations also command “The private nocturnal terror.” Their city-states are like sponges that can suck the life out of people. They want to become “vast military empires,” but the people cry out for intervention from above. They want a God who is like a dove or a “furious papa” or a “mild engineer” who can descend and save them.

Stanzas 12-14

But the reply they receive does not come from God. It comes amid daily living as individuals try to find meaning in the “shops and squares of the city.” They look to the people around them, their activities, vows, stories, businesses, and relationships.

A voice speaks to them, asking them what they propose. Do they want a just city, a romantic death, or a suicide pact? The decision is theirs. The voice concludes, “Yes, I am Spain,” and Spain awaits their choice.

Stanzas 15-19

A call goes out across Spain. People on the “remote peninsulas” and the “fisherman’s islands” hear it. They listen in the “corrupt heart of the city.” And they respond; they come from all across the country, presenting their lives for Spain.

Spain is but an “arid square,” a mere fragment “nipped off” of Africa and “soldered” to Europe. It is a “tableland scored by rivers,” yet people are willing to fight and die for it. They fear its collapse, and those fears drive them on. Those fears like “invading battalions” lead to firing squads and bombs but also to tenderness and friendship.

Stanzas 20-23

The poet now...

(This entire section contains 759 words.)

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focuses on the future and speculates what it might bring. Research may lead to less fatigue and increased health. Maybe people will rediscover “romantic love” and art, freedom, and fun. Perhaps music, the “beautiful roar of the chorus,” will flourish again.

People may have time to discuss dog breeding tips or eagerly elect a chairperson. But not yet: “to-day the struggle.” Tomorrow may be a time of poetry and sports and easy “walks by the lake” and “perfect communion.” But today, people fight.

Stanzas 24-26

In the last three stanzas, the poet reflects on the present. Today, people must deal with “the deliberate increase in the chances of death” and even with the “guilt in necessary murder” that comes with war. Today, there are only “makeshift consolations,” like a card game or a “shared cigarette,” to help military men survive.

Now, the people have only the struggle. Nature cannot help. “We are left alone with our day,” and if they are defeated, history may mourn “but cannot help or pardon.” So, the fight for Spain in 1937 continues.

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