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Last Updated January 26, 2024.

To better understand W. H. Auden's poem "Spain 1937," readers must acquaint themselves with several key aspects, including the historical context surrounding the poem, the progression of its narrative, and Auden's perspective on history. Additionally, understanding the poem's structure, choice of words, and literary techniques is crucial. In 1937, Spain was immersed in a civil war. Republicans who tended toward socialism or even communism vied with Nationalists who tended toward fascism for control of Spain's government, and the country plunged into violence.

W. H. Auden was not Spanish, but even as an Englishman, he took great interest in the war in Spain, even traveling to the beleaguered country in 1937 to serve as a propaganda writer for the Republican side. When Auden returned home, he composed the first version of "Spain 1937" and published it in pamphlet form to raise money for the Spanish Medical Aid Committee. Later, Auden revised the poem and included it in his anthology Another Time. As the years passed and Auden's political and ideological positions changed, he distanced himself from the poem.

With this background in place, readers might expect "Spain 1937" to be a highly political, rousing, war-promoting poem, but it is not. Instead, it reflects on the flow of history from the past through the present and into the future. Its narrative structure presents a theory of history that the poet is at least testing as he tries to figure out how human events interact and influence each other as they affect the people who participate in them.

The poem offers a clear narrative flow, occasionally interrupted with a purposefully startling contrast. The first six stanzas focus on the past as the poet reflects on history, alluding to thousands of years in a mere twenty-four lines. He touches on positives and negatives but usually leaves readers to determine which are which. Beginning in the fourth stanza, he breaks his flow of historical reflections with "but to-day the struggle," suggesting that somehow the conflict of the present has developed out of past events. The poet does not specify precisely how this happens.

As it transitions from past to present, the poem's narrative introduces a poet, an investigator (or scientist), poor people, and nations trying to discover exactly how the world works and how time flows. They cry out to some power for answers but receive none that satisfy them. Rather, they hear the call of Spain, summoning them to service in war. They respond, driven by fear, and discover both violence and tenderness.

The poet then abruptly shifts to the future, imagining a world after the war, where everything flourishes, from the simplest to the greatest. This is a world of hope and unreality, for Spain in 1937 was not such a place. Readers may wonder how the violence of the present could resolve into the peace of the future, and the poet offers no particular answers. He merely presents the possibility, suggesting that just knowing it may contribute to its fulfillment in some mysterious way.

Finally, the narrative shifts back to the present reality in the last three stanzas. Today, there is war and suffering and death. The past has gone, although its influence remains to be discovered. The future is still merely a possibility. "We are left alone with our day, and the time is short." History cannot "help or pardon" those conquered; it might explain, but it is no remedy for an agonized present or a shattered future.

The poem's narrative, then, carries readers through the past and into the present, into the future and back to today, into the...

(This entire section contains 943 words.)

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immediacy of the Spanish Civil War. The poem's structure enhances this narrative flow. Each twenty-six stanzas contains four lines in blank verse, allowing for linguistic flexibility. There is no rhyme or particular set rhythm, although the third line of each stanza is significantly shorter than the others, suggesting, perhaps, a particular emphasis. Readers may focus on each short line and think about the message the poet is trying to convey.

Finally, Auden makes particular choices about diction and literary devices that heighten his narrative. First, he employs repetition, especially of the words "yesterday," "to-day," and "to-morrow." These orient readers to their place in the poem and in time. The poet also repeats the word "struggle" many times, contrasting the conflict of the present with the flow of the past and the hopes of the future.

Auden also has a knack for choosing words with a wealth of meaning and imagery. The word "cromlech" in the first stanza, for instance, is likely unfamiliar and, therefore, mysterious to many readers, and it is meant to be, for it sets the tone of the long past, a time of stone circles with strange uses that modern people fail to grasp. The phrase "fairies and giants" and the imagery of "angels and alarming gargoyles" also give life to the past and show its diversity.

The poet employs a variety of metaphors and similes, too, to paint word pictures in readers' minds. Spain is a "fragment nipped off from hot / Africa, soldered so crudely to inventive Europe." It is out of place somehow, like some giant has removed it from one continent and clumsily attached it to another. A fortress in the past is "like a motionless eagle eyeing the valley." It is graceful, proud, and powerful, with a hint of danger.

The poem ends with three dramatic, provocative images: "The stars are dead"; their light is extinguished. "The animals will not look"; Spain seems to be cut off from the natural world through warfare. History, personified, sighs "alas" but can do no more in the face of human warfare and suffering.