Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 487

“Spanish Image of Death,” collected with fourteen other poems in España, aparta de mí este cáliz, presented by Vallejo as poems about the Spanish Civil War, seems also to be principally about the war. The title and the reference to Irun, the town devastated by the war, nationalize the death which is the focus of the poem, and war images form a majority of the poem’s imagery. However, earlier versions of the poem lacked any references to war, and some critics have come to believe that it was written earlier than the outbreak of the Civil War and that Vallejo added the war references in order to work it into the fabric of the España collection.

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Regardless, with Vallejo the Spanish Civil War, and any war, is much more than a political event; it is suffering and death and dismemberment (“global enigmatic fractions [that] hurt, pierce”) of the unity he so values. With this in mind, the poem becomes an expression of Vallejo’s compassion for humankind far wider than the specific political issues at hand. The poet-speaker, then, embodies both the individual human and the soldier—Vallejo would count both as members of humankind—who either defended or attacked Irun.

The battle described in “Spanish Image of Death” may be the battle of the Spanish Republicans against the Fascists, but it is also the battle of life against death, of creativity against stagnation, of courage against fear as well as the attempt on the part of the poet not to uphold one over the other, but to fuse them. When the poet admits that “at times, I touch myself and don’t feel myself,” he is acknowledging his inability to become whole, the stubborn separateness of his body and spirit.

The solution, Vallejo maintains, is unification through passion. By calling with tears and fury to Death (Vallejo also makes allusion to the Spanish secular tradition of engaging in dialogue with Death) and not attempting to hide from her, the poet embraces the fullness of the life-death cycle. Not only this, but the poet must approach Death with an intense awareness of his body: “From her smell up, oh god my dust . . ./ From her pus up, oh god my ferule.” In so doing, he embraces the body for precisely what it is—dust and iron—and through this courage may gain the power to fuse it with his soul, or at least to find out if such fusion is possible.

Finally, in experiencing “Spanish Image of Death,” one of Vallejo’s greatest and most stirring poems, it should be remembered through whose eyes Death is observed: the poet’s, the martyr-witness, who resists Death with his power to immortalize through words. Whether this power is a worthy rival, Vallejo does not conclude; instead his challenge to the poet is to find the answer, for if resurrection is ever to occur, death is necessary.

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