Tag Archives: Spanish Civil War

Homage to Catalonia.

20 Dec

Come close to my clamour,

people fed from the same breast,

tree whose roots

keep me in prison,

because I am here to love you

and I am here to defend you

with my blood and with my mouth

as two faithful rifles.

— Sitting upon the Dead, Miguel Hernandez.

(An edited version of this essay appeared on mylaw.net)

The Spanish Civil War is a bellwether for humanities geeks. For most, it was just one more brutal event in a brutal decade: with things like the Holocaust and atomic bombs to report, how interesting are a bunch of anarchists running around trying to change the world? There are a smattering of those in every war. For us nerds, however, the war means much more: it was a harbinger, a prophecy, a betrayal. This was as true at the time it happened as it is now; which is why all the eccentrics and writers of the world were drawn to the battle like moths to a flame. It was a war in which, as Auden once wrote, poets exploded like bombs.  Think back to any mid-century poet or journalist, and odds are they were annealed by fires across Spain. Orwell describes a very cosmopolitan Catalonia, brimming with Italians, Frenchmen, Germans, Poles, not to mention the Russians; Neruda, for that matter, made his way all the way from Chile. Spain, too, offered up her own literary sacrifices: Lorca, killed by Franco in Granada; Miguel Hernandez, lost to prison and pneumonia.

Orwell was amongst the first wave of these adventurists, and Homage to Catalonia is a bitter love-story about the country and the ideals he was determined to save. It begins in 1936, when Orwell first joined the POUM militia on the Aragon front, and closes in 1937, when he is running from Barcelona with the police, as he put it, one jump behind him. The story of how a soldier became a traitor is the story of Homage to Catalonia.

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Death and the Poet.

17 Dec

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.
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