Autumn Journal on Autumn Journal: 6
- By Michael Thurston
(Photo by Robert Capa/Magnum,
from msnbc.com "Remembering the Spanish Civil War")
“And I remember Spain”
It is, I think, no accident that MacNeice concludes section V of Autumn Journal with “the day is to-day” and then spends section VI remembering Spain, but the juxtaposition requires some explanation. The connection is neither chronologically nor narratively obvious. The poem’s present moment is mid-September, and the trip to Spain recalled here happened at Easter. The poem’s present is 1938, but MacNeice traveled to Spain in 1936. From the poem’s beginning, the story MacNeice has told has focused on his current experiences—return from vacation, sleepless nights, news-riddled days, the dissolution of a love affair. What has an earlier trip got to do with any of this? And why, if the poet is interested in a remembered excursion, does he choose this one rather than, say, his 1937 travels with Auden in Iceland or his trip with Coldstream to the Outer Hebrides?
Theme, clearly, drives this progression from fall to spring, from present to past, from London to Madrid. MacNeice’s echo of Matthew 26:39 in section V (“’Take away this cup’”) locates us in Gethsemane on the night before Christ’s trial and crucifixion, which might prompt memories of “Spain at Easter,” though the more sustained link here is the atmosphere of pending catastrophe. The ominous sense of the bloody frontier’s convergence on “our beds” in the fall of 1938 echoes the omens MacNeice saw but did not grasp, noticed but did not understand, when he traveled to a country “ripe as an egg for revolt and ruin,” a divided nation on the brink of civil war in the spring of 1936.
Looking back, MacNeice can now read the signs more clearly: on July 17, just two months after MacNeice left Spain, General Francisco Franco led a military coup against the democratically elected Popular Front government, beginning a grim and savage conflict that still raged as MacNeice worked on this poem two years later. Alarmingly, the signs of impending conflict in Spain are tucked into mundane details just like the signs of impending war in London are woven into the everyday. MacNeice recalls “café-au-lait brimming the waterfalls, / with sherry, shellfish, omelettes,” he remembers the Alhambra’s Moorish “fretted stone,” the “Escorial / Cold for ever within like the heart of Philip,” marble saints in churches and “in the Prado half- / wit princes look[ing] from the canvas they had paid for”—all the sights and sensations one would expect from a “tripper in the rain.” But on the margins of these he also remembers “writings on the walls – / Hammer and sickle, Boicot, Viva, Muerra,” and “begging cripples and the children begging” and “peeling posters from the last elections / Promising bread or guns / Or an amnesty or another / Order or else the old / Glory veneered and varnished.” Sure, he and his companions (the memories are narrated in the first-person plural) noticed that “the standard of living was low,” but that was not their business as tourists. Their business was a boring Easter Sunday bullfight in wet Seville (the first major city taken by Franco and his Nationalist rebels in July) as well as complaints about the cold, the rain, the insufficiently dyed hair of women who dyed their hair, and Spanish cigarettes that fell apart. The accurate predictions from a Cambridge don the travelers meet (“’There’s going to be trouble shortly in this country’”) are dismissed along with the prof’s pudginess, his “debonair” demeanor, his anis, and his ostentatious performance of linguistic skill. Even a “mob in flower in Algeciras” the day before their departure does not awaken the travelers to the realization that “Spain would soon denote / Our grief, our aspirations.” Now, with hindsight, this denotation is clear, and it is alarmingly suggestive for the present moment in which MacNeice writes.
Okay, so much for the thematic connection between these two sections. But I have yet to account for the more specific juxtaposition I began with: “the day is to-day” and “I remember Spain.” The closing lines of the section (which I quoted at the end of the last paragraph) help to explain this one. In the closing lines of this section, we can find the hint. Spain, MacNeice writes
would soon denote
Our grief, our aspirations;
Not knowing that our blunt
Ideals would find their whetstone, that our spirit
Would find its frontier on the Spanish front,
Its body in a rag-tag army.
This imagery of abstractions embodied by the combatants of Spain echoes the poem W.H. Auden published in 1937, after his own travels in the war-torn country:
On that tableland scores by rivers,
Our thoughts have bodies; the menacing shapes of our fever
Are precise and alive.
Initially intending to support the Republican cause in some concrete way (by driving an ambulance or volunteering in some other noncombatant capacity), Auden brought to Spain a history of political commitment (of sorts) rather than the skepticism that characterized MacNeice throughout the 1930s. The destruction of churches and the execution of priests by Republican paramilitaries, Auden later wrote, put him off of such involvement (the Catholic Church was strongly associated with the Nationalists, which made its churches and priests vulnerable to Republican attacks). Nevertheless, he published this poem and allowed its use for fundraising in support of the Republican cause. In “Spain,” Auden narrates the history of human civilization from its beginnings (“Yesterday” is the organizing anaphora for this part of the poem) right up to his own historical moment (a tactic he deploys in some of his other major works of the decade, the sequence of sonnets on the Sino-Japanese War, for example), finding that history’s climax “On that arid square, that fragment nipped off from hot / Africa, soldered so crudely to inventive Europe.” And in this climactic moment, utopian futures are imaginable (“To-morrow, perhaps the future,” “To-morrow the rediscovery of romantic love”). This moment, though, is characterized only by violence, complicity, the drudgery of politics. It is enlivened only by “makeshift consolations.” Today, as Auden famously repeats, “the struggle.”
I remember Spain. Last April, not so far from Easter. Roast sucking pig and rioja alta at Botín, paper cones of jamón Ibérico with glasses of Tempranillo in the Mercado San Miguel, a walk around the medieval city wall of Pamplona and a drizzly tour of the empty bullring, happy crowds of young walkers and pilgrims of all ages in the city’s central plaza, and the little squares of the old town. Before the virus, before lockdowns and rising case numbers. Before.
Remembering Spain would come to be, after the Republic’s defeat early in 1939 and as the Second World War made the Civil War appear in retrospect like a dress rehearsal for the fight against Fascism, a widespread and familiar trope, especially among writers on the Left. From Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Say That We Saw Spain Die” to Edwin Rolfe’s “Elegia,” from International Publishers’ Salud! (1938) to Alvah Bessie’s Heart of Spain anthology (1952), the elegiac tone of a lost cause and a lost opportunity imbues such recollections. MacNeice remembers not the fallen Republic or the fight to save it but, instead, the harbingers of its destruction scattered amid the pleasures and irritations he experienced.
Yet he does remember Spain, and at this moment. I want to suggest that it is his resolution of section V with “the day is to-day” that provokes the memory, and, in doing so, provokes an indirect dialogue with Auden. For Auden, all of the erotic, artistic, and socio-political positive possibilities are reserved for “tomorrow.” Today is the moment of struggle to achieve those possibilities. For MacNeice, though, the pleasures of the everyday are inextricable from the struggle, and the temporal division Auden builds his poem on is untenable. Though MacNeice failed to read the signals properly in Spain, his recollections mingle there the range of bodily, affective, and social experience and the calls for commitment and action. Living among that very combination in London as the autumn cools and deepens, he stages, over the first quarter of his Journal, an awakening to commitment and action not simply for but also as and through the communal experience of the everyday.
Michael Thurston is the Provost and Dean of the Faculty, and Helen Means Professor of English Language and Literature at Smith College.