Auden and Orwell in the Heart of the Fire
by T. R. Healy
“So much of left-wing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don’t even know that fire is hot.”
On January 12, 1937, the day W.H. Auden left England to volunteer his services to the besieged Spanish Republic, The Daily Worker announced, “Famous Poet To Drive Ambulance in Spain.” Throughout Europe the Communists encouraged its members and supporters to help the Republican government quell the insurrection led by General Francisco Franco. Celebrated sympathizers like Auden were solicited because of the attention they brought to the conflict. It was their notoriety that made them valuable, not their reputed skills as combatants. The more people learned about the plight of the government, the more support it would receive from elsewhere on the continent.
For many volunteers, the Spanish Civil War was an opportunity to stand up to the malignant forces of oppression that had swept across Europe in the past few years, but for others the motives were more personal and complicated. Auden, not untypically, declared in a letter to a friend, “I feel I ought to go.” But when his friend wrote back and asked for an explanation of his decision, Auden was more candid. “I am not one of those who believe that poetry need or even should be directly political,” he wrote, “but in a critical period such as ours, I do believe that the poet must have direct knowledge of the major political events.” Admitting that “the time has come to gamble on something bigger,” he added, “I shall probably be a bloody bad soldier but how can I speak to/for them without becoming one?”
When he arrived in Spain, Auden intended to drive an ambulance for the Spanish Medical Aid Committee, a small British unit consisting of a few dozen physicians and nurses. This did not happen, however. Years later, Auden said that his services were not accepted because he was not a member of the Communist party. This is doubtful, though, because in addition to Communists the medical group included non-party supporters like Auden. Possibly he was the victim of some administrative confusion or, maybe, he was rejected because he was not considered a reliable enough driver. For Auden not to sit behind the steering wheel of an ambulance, an acquaintance of his remarked, was “a mercy for the wounded.”
His efforts to sign up with the medical unit in Barcelona thwarted, he headed south to Valencia, the new provisional capital of the Republic. He registered at the Hotel Valencia where many foreign correspondents stayed, and, as he observed later, “waited around, could find nothing to do.” Frustrated, unable to secure a car, he concocted a plan of his own and hired a donkey so that he could get out of Valencia and see what was happening in the ravaged country. He managed to walk six miles before the animal kicked him and then he returned to Valencia and accepted a car ride to Madrid with some British Communists who were hopeful he would do what was proper and write some propaganda pieces on behalf of the Loyalist forces. He did write one article for the New Statesman describing his impressions of Valencia and to deliver some news broadcasts sponsored by the Socialist Party, but he was unable to offer the government the unqualified endorsement that the Loyalists expected.
Auden intended to spend about four months in Spain, but soon after he went out to the Aragon Front, he had a change of heart and decided to return to England. He was back in London on March 4th, convinced he had been in the country long enough. Troubled by many things he had witnessed in the conflict, he was not inclined to speak much about his experiences with friends and relatives. Rather, he maintained a deliberate silence for a considerable period of time. Many years later, though, he did observe that “Nobody I know who went to Spain during the Civil War who was not a dyed-in-the-wool stalinist came back with his illusions intact.”
Possibly seduced by the example of an earlier poet, Wilfred Owen, Auden wanted to do something “as a citizen and not as a writer.” Yet, throughout his month in Spain, he believed he was never given anything useful to do and felt he was in the way of those who were making a tangible contribution to the defense of the Republican government. Furthermore, he was profoundly disturbed by the atrocities committed by the Loyalist forces, particularly the persecution of priests and the desecration and destruction of churches. “I could not escape acknowledging that, however I had consciously ignored and rejected the Church for sixteen years,” he recalled later, “the existence of churches and what went on in them had all the time been very important to me.” He did not speak out against these offenses, however, because he did not want to provide any propaganda advantage to the Nationalist forces of Franco. Despite his disappointment with the conduct of the Loyalist troops, he still wanted the government to prevail in the conflict.
Soon after Auden returned to London he went with his friend and collaborator Christopher Isherwood to the Lake District where they planned to work on a theatrical revue. Still haunted by what he saw in Spain, he began to write a long poem concerning the conflict instead. Titled “Spain 1937,” it was completed by the end of the month. It was initially published by Faber in May 1937 as a five page pamphlet, with the royalties from its sale going to the British medical committee in Spain. The critical reception was generally favorable, typified by the comment of John Maynard Keynes that the poem spoke “for many chivalrous hearts.” Three years after its publication, George Orwell still regarded it as “one of the few decent things that have been written about the Spanish war.”
In the same essay, “Inside the Whale,” Orwell strongly objected to the line “The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder,” claiming that such a comment could only have been “written by a person to whom murder is at most a word.” Orwell was someone who had tramped the scabrous back streets of numerous large metropolitan cities, and had served as a volunteer soldier in the Spanish Civil War. He had encountered the bodies of murdered men. “Personally I would not speak so lightly of murder,” he reprimanded the poet. “To me, murder is something to be avoided. So it is to any ordinary person. The Hitlers and Stalins find murder necessary, but they don’t advertise their callousness, and they don’t speak of it as murder; it is ‘liquidation,’ ‘elimination,’ or some other soothing phrase.” He concluded that “Mr. Auden’s brand of amoralism is only possible if you are the kind of person who is always somewhere else when the trigger is pulled.”
This was not the first time Orwell complained about the phrase “necessary murder.” In an essay in The Adelphi, December 1938, he pointed out that Auden could employ such language “because he has never committed a murder, perhaps never had one of his friends murdered, possibly never even seen a murdered man’s corpse.” Even earlier, in The Road to Wigan Pier, he referred to the poet as “a sort of gutless Kipling.”
Auden, who regarded the stinging rebuke of Orwell as “densely unjust,” did have immediate and serious reservations about his use of the phrase “necessary murder.” And when he included “Spain 1937” in his collection Another Time, which came out in 1940 after Orwell’s more recent remarks, he replaced the controversial phrase with the neutral “fact of murder.” His reservations persisted, though, and eventually he came to disown the poem and after the 1950’s refused to include it in any further collected editions of his poetry.
Orwell thought well of the poem as a rallying cry for the Spanish Republic so it is unlikely he would have agreed with Auden’s subsequent repudiation of the work. Certainly he would have approved of the deletion of the “necessary murder” phrase, and perhaps even felt vindicated when Auden made the amendment. This is not warranted, however. To be sure, Auden was troubled by the contentious phrase but not for the reasons put forth by Orwell. “I was not excusing totalitarian crimes but only trying to say what, surely, every decent person thinks if he finds himself unable to adopt the absolute pacifist position,” he declared many years later in an effort to explain what he meant by the phrase. “If there is such a thing as a just war, then murder can be necessary for the sake of justice.”
The source of contention between the two writers was the result of a serious misunderstanding. Auden believed that “To kill another human being is always murder and should never be called anything else,” while Orwell, adhering to the conventional definition of the word, maintained that to kill in combat is not murder. They also had different interpretations of the word “necessary.” For Auden, according to his biographer Edward Mendelson, the word meant something that was settled or already determined so that murder was perceived as an inevitable consequence in the fulfillment of the demands of history. This view was clearly deterministic, excluding the possibility of freedom of choice. Orwell, mistakenly, thought by the word “necessary” Auden referred to that which is required by a particular situation. So he assumed the poet was using the word as the totalitarians did to excuse murder on the grounds of expediency.
Auden did not remove the “necessary murder” phrase from his poem because of the harsh criticism he received from George Orwell. The two men did not even share a basic understanding of the phrase so they were in effect talking past one another. Rather he made the change because the language contravened what he believed was the essential purpose of his craft. “Poetry is not concerned with telling people what to do, but with extending our knowledge of good and evil, perhaps making the necessity for action more urgent and its nature more clear,” he contended in 1935. With the language he employed in “Spain 1937,” he became at times more of a pamphleteer than a poet and soon recognized his error, made some alterations, and eventually rejected the entire poem. The ambition of poetry, he continued, is to lead “us to the point where it is possible for us to make a rational and moral choice.”
T. R. Healy was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, received an M.A. from the London School of Economics, and has had essays published in such journals as Appalachia, Bone and Flesh, Commonweal, Ducts.Org, and The Military Heritage.