The poem begins, “Yesterday the past.” It was yesterday that the trade routes sprang up and the counting-frame and the cromlech were used. Yesterday there was insurance and the divination of water and the creation of the clock and the taming of horses; it was “the bustling world of the navigators.” Yesterday myths of fairies and giants were destroyed, and chapels were built in the forest. Angels and gargoyles were carved. Heretics were put on trial, and feuds over theology took place. Today, though: “the struggle.”
Yesterday was the belief in the perfection of the Greeks, the prayer to the sunset, and the “adoration of madmen.” Today the struggle.
The poet whispers in the pines and the waterfall and the crags, calling for his vision and for the “luck of the sailor.” The investigator uses his instruments and analyzes bacteria or the planets; he inquires and inquires. The poor live in their barren cottages and drop the paper to the floor, asking for “History the operator, the / Organiser” to be revealed.
The nations combine the individual cries, calling to History. Since History or Time has intervened before, it should descend and intervene again, regardless of what form it takes. If this spirit even answers, it has replied that it is not actually “the mover”—History is “whatever you do.” It will do what the nations and individuals choose. In this, History is “your choice, your decision. Yes, I am Spain.”
Many people heard this throughout the peninsulas and plains, or in the islands or in the cities. Hearing this they migrated like “gulls or the seeds of a flower.” They clung to the express trains and floated over the seas and walked the passes, all presenting their lives.
Spain is a dry square, snipped from Africa and welded to Europe. This is where “our thoughts have bodies” and “Madrid is the heart.” Our fears and greed blossom into instruments of war, our friendships into an army.
Tomorrow, there is, perhaps, the future. There will be research into consciousness and fatigue and radiation, rediscovery of love and the arts, local politics, and quotidian life. Today, though, is the struggle. Tomorrow will have young poets, walks by the lake, bicycle races. Today is the struggle.
Today the chances of death are high, and it is necessary to accept guilt for murder. Powers are expended over the map, and everything is full of “makeshift consolations” like jokes and cigarettes and the “fumbled and unsatisfactory embrace before hurting.” The stars are dead, the animals are gone, and we only have ourselves and our short day. Those who lose the battle will receive nothing from History except an “Alas.”
“Spain,” one of Auden’s longest and most complicated poems, is beautiful and compelling. Written in 1937 after his visit to Spain, it addresses the Spanish Civil War. The first version Auden wrote was published as a pamphlet in 1937 (its proceeds went to the war effort), and the second version, revised slightly, was included in Another Time in 1940. Auden would later repudiate this poem, as he did with “September 1, 1939,” as “dishonest.”
Auden had gone to Spain as a volunteer, where he served as an ambulance driver, wanting to see the terrors and thrills of war firsthand. The civil war was split between the Republicans and Generalissimo Francisco Franco’s Fascist forces. Franco was a tyrannical brute in the same fashion as Hitler and Mussolini. Auden had written in 1936 to his close friend E.R. Dodds, “I am not one of those who believe that poetry need or even should be directly political. But in a critical period such as ours, I do believe that the poet must have direct knowledge of the major political events.” As a leftist American intellectual, Auden supported the Republicans, but he witnessed the brutality of both sides.
The poem speaks of three times: yesterday, today, and tomorrow. It begins with Spain’s past, invoking the taming of the wilderness, the exploration and conquest, the various inventions, the ridding of medieval myths in favor of Christianity, the Spanish Inquisition as “the trial of heretics among the columns of stone,”, the growth of industry and modernity, the espousal of Greek perfection, and the “death of the hero.” These lines mark the multifaceted growth of Spanish civilization as intellectual, religious, and artistic values were constructed and celebrated.
But yesterday is gone and, as the poem repeats several times without a verb, “To-day the struggle.” There are several figures in the today of the poem: the poet, who wants vision to contemplate and write of this terror; the scientist, who spends his time looking under a microscope or into a telescope but thinks of the lives of his friends; the poor people in their cold, cheerless homes thinking of how “Our day is our loss.” The people of Spain cry out. The greatness of Spain’s early days, with its military and its city-state, are now in crisis. Life can only claim that it cannot do anything to move events; life is the simple things, such as marriage or funny stories or business voices. Spain was formed from people migrating to this jagged peninsula “nipped off from hot / Africa, soldered so crudely to inventive Europe,” a mix of African and European influences. Now people are filled with fear, and moments of tenderness and love and friendship are carried out during war.
The poem then turns to the future, presented as a hopeful time, filled with research, enlarging of consciousness, romance and love, music and art and theater, poetry, bicycle races, peaceful walks. Note the imagery of “poets exploding like bombs”—the poem imagines a future without bombs but with poets.
The 26 four-line stanzas in the poem are not rhymed. The third line of most stanzas is noticeably shorter than the other lines. Perhaps it is not too much of a stretch to imagine the structure of each stanza as symbolizing past, present, and future, with the momentary present symbolized by the third line sandwiched between, and not rhyming with, the other periods.
The image of a pleasant future is quickly swallowed back up into the fierce present of today. Today death and murder are realities, and there are very few things that make life worth living. Even an embrace has to be curtailed before it hurts the recipient. The poem ends on a very bleak note; the glorious tomorrow has never seemed farther away. Indeed, “the stars are dead. The animals will not look.” The people are “left alone with our day,” and “time is short.” There is neither help nor hope from History, which depends on how the people who are in it will direct it. As scholar SeomByeol Song writes, “the poem, instead of encouraging ‘today’ to switch over to [a] better state, or presenting a concrete breakthrough, stops on the problematic situation...the future is not worth achieving: even the stars and animals will not prove it.” Expectations for the future, in these conditions, are ambivalent. Spain is in crisis; it had a pleasant past; it may or may not have a pleasant future.