Death and the Poet.

He was seen walking only with Her,

and unafraid of her scythe.

– The sun now on tower after tower, hammers

on anvils – anvil on anvil, of the forges.

Federico was speaking

flattering Death. She listened.

‘Yesterday in my verse, friend,

the clap of your dry palms sounded,

you gave ice to my song, your silver

scythe’s edge to my tragedy,

I’ll sing to you of your wasted flesh,

your empty eyes,

your hair the wind stirs,

the red lips where you were kissed…

Now as ever, gypsy, my death,

how good to be alone with you,

in this breeze of Granada, my Granada!

— Antonio Machado, The Crime Was in Granada.

This month I’m attempting “Chronicles of Short Books”, where I take small books by big writers and attempt to.. supplement them. I’m not quite sure how this works yet; broadly, I aim to stay faithful to the authors’ perspectives, but necessarily not to their knowledge. My cards have been stormy lately, there is much war and death in them, and I recommend buckling down for gloomy posts. But I’m guessing you lot don’t particularly fancy methodological disquisitions, so let’s move right on.

Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, the small book that changed my life forever, will begin the series in the next post.  It was because of Looking Back on the Spanish War thatI went onto read Robert Fisk’s Great War for Civilisation, the biggest big-book of my young and sorry life. Between them, Orwell and Fisk taught me that the world around me demanded considerably more attention than I accorded it, and my tryst with non-fiction evolved into a full-blown affair.

This post records the poets and volunteers the Spanish war immortalised, for this was a war of illusions, and they were the ones who pierced it best.

Arrival In Madrid of the International Brigade

One morning in a cold month

In a dying month, spattered with mud and smoke

A month without knees, a sad, besieged, unlucky month

When from beyond my wet window panes you could

hear the jackals

Howling with their rifles and their teeth full of blood


When we didn’t have more hope than a dream

of more gun powder, when we believed by then

That the world was full of nothing but devouring

monsters and furies,

Then, breaking through the frost of that cold

month in Madrid, in the early morning mist

I saw with my own eyes, with this heart which looks out

I saw the bright ones arrive, the victorious fighters

From that lean, hard, tested rock of a brigade.

This was the troubled time when the women

Carried an emptiness like a terrible burning coal,

And Spanish death, sharper and more bitter

than other deaths

Filled the fields which until then had been honoured by wheat.

Through the streets the beaten blood of men had joined

With water flowing out of the destroyed hearts of houses

The bones of dismembered children, the piercing

Silence of women in mourning, the eyes

Of the defenseless closed forever,

It was like sadness and loss, like a spat-upon garden


Then I saw you,

And my eyes even now are full of pride

Because I saw you arriving through the

Morning mist, coming to the pure brow of Spain

Silent and firm

Like bells before daybreak

So solemn with blue eyes coming from far, far away

coming from your corners, from your lost homelands,

from your dreams

Full of burning sweetness and guns

To defend the Spanish city where freedom was trapped

About to fall and be bitten by beasts.

Brothers, from now on

Your purity and your strength, your solemn story

Will be known by child and man, by woman and old one,

May it reach all beings who have no hope, may it

descend into the mines corroded by sulphuric air,

May it climb the inhuman stairways to the slave

May all the stars, all the wheat stalks of Spain and the world

Write your name and your harsh struggle

And your victory, strong and earthy as a red oak tree.

Because you have given new birth by your sacrifice

To the lost faith, the empty soul, the confidence in the earth

And through your abundance, your nobility, your deaths,

Like through a valley of hard, bloody rocks

Passes an immense river of doves

Made of steel and hope.


“The Crime was in Grenada”, excerpted at the beginning of the post, is about the assassination of Federico Lorca by Franco’s forces. Lorca, already a famous poet, was visiting his home when he was killed. His family, many of whom were also killed, was prominent in local Popular Front politics; Lorca himself was something of a radical. After Spanish Morocco, the Granada garrison was one of the earliest to revolt against the civilian government, and Lorca was one of Fascist Spain’s earliest victims.

By the time Orwell is fighting at the Aragon front in winter 1936 contempt for the South, which fell to Franco early, is endemic. We meet no one from Cordoba or Seville, but  Andalusians are referred to as “semi-savages” with the “faces deeply stained from the ferocious suns of farther south” who had “run from Malaga so fast they forgot to stop in Valencia”, winding up in Aragon after Franco’s coup. Even Orwell, so restrained and unwilling to judge, finds them “very ignorant” and politically naive. Yet how many of our images of Spain- the olives, the men, the architecture, the flamenco- come from this bewitching slice of historic geography!

Song of Spain.

Flamenco is the song of Spain

Gypsies, guitars, dancing

Death and love and heartbreak

To a heel tap and a swirl of fingers

On three strings.

Flamenco is the song of Spain.

I do not understand.

Toros are the song of Spain:

The bellowing bull, the red cape,

A sword thrust, a horn tip,

The torn suit of satin and gold,

Blood on the sand

Is the song of Spain.

I do not understand.

Pintura is the song of Spain:

Goya, Velasquez, Murillo,

Splash of color on canvass,

Whirl of cherub-faces.

La Maja Desnuda’s

The song of Spain.

Langston Hughes, used to being an alien within an estranged society, was perhaps the only one who saw through the paradox of “the moor” asked to trust in other people’s democracy:

I looked across to Africa

And seed foundations shakin’.

Cause if a Free Spain wins this war,

The colonies, too, are free—

Then something wonderful’ll happen

To them Moors as dark as me.

I said, I guess that’s why old England

And I reckon Italy, too,

Is afraid to let a worker’s Spain

Be too good to me and you—

Because they got slaves in Africa—

And they don’t want ‘em to be free.

Listen, Moorish prisoner, hell!

Here, shake hands with me!

I knelt down there beside him,

And I took his hand—

But the wounded Moor was dyin’

So he didn’t understand.

A Letter from Spain to Alabama.

And, finally, we must have the great Auden, who rejected his own poem in later years. In my collected Auden, therefore, “Spain” was not to be found. Orwell had a rather better opinion of it, calling it one of the few decent pieces of art to emerge from the destruction. This is high praise indeed, given he was no fan of Auden’s, calling the poet a “gutless Kipling”, which if you know Orwell’s views on Kipling himself is something of a mixed insult.  He admits to the ‘spiteful remark’ later, but never quite apologises: it is a fact, he writes, that Auden’s early work embodies “an atmosphere of uplift”. Squabbles aside, I tend to take Orwell’s side in re “Spain” and if anyone has the full poem, would be much obliged if you would email it along.

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.”

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.

Photographer: Robert Capa.

To-day the deliberate increase in the chances of death,

The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder;

To-day the expending of powers

On the flat ephemeral pamphlet and the boring meeting.

To-day the makeshift consolations: the shared cigarette,

The cards in the candlelit barn, and the scraping concert,

The masculine jokes; to-day 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.

One response to “Death and the Poet.”

  1. This post went up rather unexpectedly while I was editing it, so my apologies if it looks a bit wonky on an RSS feed: all fixed now, and I haven’t suddenly forgotten how frame sentences.


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