Spain 1937 tells a story that is partly autobiographical. As a sympathizer with the socially progressive forces of the Spanish Loyalists, Auden had gone to Spain to participate in the war as a stretcher-bearer. Once there, he witnessed the viciousness of civil conflict, not only between the opposing armies but also among the Loyalists themselves. He returned to England embittered with politics, especially the European variety, and would soon leave to establish residence in the United States.

Yet the tone of Spain 1937 is generally elegiac—sad and wistful. In the poem’s first six stanzas, Auden recalls the often-glorious history of this peninsular country, surveying its ocean-borne exploration of the world, its expansion of global trade, and its building of cathedrals. In the more recent past, he notes the more obvious “advances” in Hispanic civilization, the engineering of machines and the building of railroads. At the same time, he does not ignore Spain’s darker past, such as the “trial of heretics” during the Inquisition. The distant past of discovery and religious feud and more recent signs of progress are erased, however, by the coming conflict: “But today the struggle” overtakes Spain. In stanzas 9 through 11, Auden suggests the causes of war, or at least the condition of the country as war begins. He pictures Spain’s impoverished citizens in their “fireless lodgings” as they read the evening news and realize that they have nothing left to lose. Emboldened by the promises of Marxism, the poor invest their...

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