"But there waited for me in the summer morning
My title comes from the final stanza of a poem called Spain, which is no longer in print and available in its original form only to those who still possess anthologies of poetry bought in the late '60s or who search out pamphlets published in the '30s. It occurs to me that the story of its revision and final disappearance forms a parallel narrative to the theme of this series of histories. Hence this note.
The poem is a call to arms, written by WH Auden in 1937, a year into the Spanish Civil War. Poet, critic and publisher John Lehmann said of it that Auden "is more conscious of the force of history than any modern poet, young or old, and this sense develops until it reaches its fullest impression in his long ode on 'Spain'."
W.H. (Wystan Hugh) Auden was one of thousands who went to Spain to fight on behalf of the young Spanish Republic against the revolt of the church and generals. He later renounced the poem and denounced its politics, allowing it to be published in Poetry of the Thirties, a 1964 Penguin anthology by Robert Skelton, only if Skelton made it clear that "Mr W.H. Auden considers these five poems to be trash which he is ashamed to have written". (The other four are Sir, No Man's Enemy, A Communist to Others, To A Writer On His Birthday and September 1, 1939.)
It is from Skelton's anthology rather than the uncut pages of my precious first edition pamphlet that I have taken the text below. The single exception is in the final line: I have kept the initial capital for 'Alas' from the original publication, which is lost in subsequent printings, and even by Auden himself in the reference below, because, in my view, this is not merely an observation. It is History speaking directly to the defeated; it is addressing them directly, and saying to them, out loud, 'Alas'.
Two years after his correspondence with Skelton, in 1966, Auden personally collected his shorter poems to 1957 in a new volume, published by Faber & Faber. In the foreword, he returns - obsessively you may think - to this poem, explaining its absence:
"Some poems which I wrote and, unfortunately, published, I have thrown out because they were dishonest, or bad-mannered, or boring" he wrote. And because the itch must be scratched, he continues: "A dishonest poem is one which expresses, no matter how well, feelings or beliefs which its author never felt or entertained".
And then he gets specific:
"... much more shamefully, I once wrote:
History to the defeated
may say alas but cannot help or pardon.
To say this is to equate goodness with success. It would have been bad enough if I had ever held this wicked doctrine, but that I should have stated it simply because it sounded to me rhetorically effective is quite inexcusable."
He reiterates this in a letter to Alan Bold, refusing permission for Spain to be included in the 1970 Penguin Book of Socialist Verse:
"As you know, I disapprove of my poem "Spain", in particular of the last two lines which assert the immoral doctrine (it may be marxist, but it certainly isn't socialist) that whoever succeeds historically is just".
But by the time he writes these letters, the one grudgingly agreeing to publication, the other refusing outright, Auden has been backtracking for twenty years or more. In 1940, the poem appeared in Another Time without three stanzas (18, 19 and 22 which are at the heart of the poem both structurally and in terms of its imagery) and with many significant changes. Crucially, the lines "Today the deliberate increase in the chances of death, / The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder;" now read "Today the inevitable increase in the chances of death, / The conscious acceptance of guilt in the fact of murder;".
In this form, the poem - now retitled "Spain 1937" - is included in The Collected Poetry of WH Auden in 1945 and Collected Shorter Poems 1930 - 1944 in 1950, at which time William Empson commented that Auden "has also, very oddly, cut out the best and most characteristic verses, the comparisons of aspects of suburban fretfulness with the machine of war which they are supposed to have engendered." The American academic, Samuel Hynes, pointed out that "History is Necessity, and that it is made by men's choices. Once it is made, help or pardon are irrelevant. It is a harsh morality, for a harsh time, but it is nevertheless a morality and not a wicked one." Hynes quotes Wilfred Owen, that "the poetry is in the pity", arguing that for Auden, in Spain, the opposite applies: "the poetry is in the pitilessness".
By the time he publishes Auden: A Selection by the Author in 1958 and Collected Shorter Poems 1927 - 1957 in 1966, the poem has disappeared completely. The historian AL Rowse reports that Auden "came to disagree so violently with that conclusion that he scored it out in all the copies he came across and wrote 'This is a lie', and eventually deleted the whole poem from his Works. I do not know what is wrong with the statement. In fact history does not pardon the defeated; neither do I." To which Auden responds that:
"I can only say that I have never, consciously at any rate, attempted to revise my former thoughts or feelings, only the language in which they were first expressed when, on further consideration, it seemed to me inaccurate, lifeless, prolix or painful to the ear."
Which is disingenuous to say the least, and has prompted many critics to question the authenticity of the thoughts and feelings in the first instance. Christopher Caudwell (the author of a posthumously published book, Illusion and Reality, which Auden considered to be "the most important book on poetry since the books of Dr IA Richards") noted this at the time, in 1937, the year in which Auden was awarded the King's Gold Medal for Poetry. His acceptance of the award caused shock and consternation - and not merely amongst those on the Left.
Later, Hugh MacDiarmid would write:
"Michael Roberts and All Angels: Auden, Spender, those bhoyos,
All yellow wticers; not one of them
With a tithe of Carlile's courage and integrity.
Unlike those pseudos I am of - not for - the working class ..."
When I first read Spain, more than fifty years ago, I judged it to be a powerful, passionate (and yes, sometimes cynical) expression of why those who fought believed their cause to be of "exemplary validity". That remains my verdict - and not merely because it is a "rhetorically effective" reinforcement of the importance of choice in history, although of course it is: "I am your choice, your decision. Yes, I am Spain."
But because Auden renounced it, it is apparently not covered by copyright. So I am going to quote it in full for you:
Yesterday all the past. The language of size
Spreading to China along the trade-routes; the diffusion
Of the counting-frame and the cromlech;
Yesterday the shadow-reckoning in the sunny climates.
Yesterday the assessment of insurance by cards,
The divination of water; yesterday the invention
Of cartwheels and clocks, the taming of
Horses. Yesterday the bustling world of the navigators.
Yesterday the abolition of fairies and giants,
the fortress like a motionless eagle eyeing the valley,
the chapel built in the forest;
Yesterday the carving of angels and alarming gargoyles;
The trial of heretics among the columns of stone;
Yesterday the theological feuds in the taverns
And the miraculous cure at the fountain;
Yesterday the Sabbath of witches; but to-day the struggle.
Yesterday the installation of dynamos and turbines,
The construction of railways in the colonial desert;
Yesterday the classic lecture
On the origin of Mankind. But to-day the struggle.
Yesterday the belief in the absolute value of Greek,
The fall of the curtain upon the death of a hero;
Yesterday the prayer to the sunset
And the adoration of madmen. But to-day the struggle.
As the poet whispers, startled among the pines,
Or where the loose waterfall sings compact, or upright
On the crag by the leaning tower:
"O my vision. O send me the luck of the sailor."
And the investigator peers through his instruments
At the inhuman provinces, the virile bacillus
Or enormous Jupiter finished:
"But the lives of my friends. I inquire. I inquire."
And the poor in their fireless lodgings, dropping the sheets
Of the evening paper: "Our day is our loss. O show us
History the operator, the
Organiser. Time the refreshing river."
And the nations combine each cry, invoking the life
That shapes the individual belly and orders
The private nocturnal terror:
"Did you not found the city state of the sponge,
"Raise the vast military empires of the shark
And the tiger, establish the robin's plucky canton?
Intervene. O descend as a dove or
A furious papa or a mild engineer, but descend."
And the life, if it answers at all, replied from the heart
And the eyes and the lungs, from the shops and squares of the city
"O no, I am not the mover;
Not to-day; not to you. To you, I'm the
"Yes-man, the bar-companion, the easily-duped;
I am whatever you do. I am your vow to be
Good, your humorous story.
I am your business voice. I am your marriage.
"What's your proposal? To build the just city? I will.
I agree. Or is it the suicide pact, the romantic
Death? Very well, I accept, for
I am your choice, your decision. Yes, I am Spain."
Many have heard it on remote peninsulas,
On sleepy plains, in the aberrant fishermen's islands
Or the corrupt heart of the city.
Have heard and migrated like gulls or the seeds of a flower.
They clung like burrs to the long expresses that lurch
Through the unjust lands, through the night, through the alpine tunnel;
They floated over the oceans;
They walked the passes. All presented their lives.
On that arid square, that fragment nipped off from hot
Africa, soldered so crudely to inventive Europe;
On that tableland scored by rivers,
Our thoughts have bodies; the menacing shapes of our fever
Are precise and alive. For the fears which made us respond
To the medicine ad, and the brochure of winter cruises
Have become invading battalions;
And our faces, the institute-face, the chain-store, the ruin
Are projecting their greed as the firing squad and the bomb.
Madrid is the heart. Our moments of tenderness blossom
As the ambulance and the sandbag;
Our hours of friendship into a people's army.
Tomorrow, perhaps the future. The research on fatigue
And the movements of packers; the gradual exploring of all the
Octaves of radiation;
Tomorrow the enlarging of consciousness by diet and breathing.
Tomorrow the rediscovery of romantic love,
The photographing of ravens; all the fun under
Liberty's masterful shadow;
Tomorrow the hour of the pageant-master and the musician,
The beautiful roar of the chorus under the dome;
Tomorrow the exchanging of tips on the breeding of terriers,
The eager election of chairmen
By the sudden forest of hands. But today the struggle.
Tomorrow for the young poets exploding like bombs,
The walks by the lake, the weeks of perfect communion;
Tomorrow the bicycle races
Through the suburbs on summer evenings. But to-day the struggle.
Today the deliberate increase in the chances of death,
The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder;
Today the expending of powers
On the flat ephemeral pamphlet and the boring meeting.
Today the makeshift consolations: the shared cigarette,
The cards in the candlelit barn, and the scraping concert,
The masculine jokes; today the
Fumbled and unsatisfactory embrace before hurting.
The stars are dead. The animals will not look.
We are left alone with our day, and the time is short, and
History to the defeated
May say Alas but cannot help or pardon.