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Poets of the Spanish Tragedy

Edwin Rolfe: Collected Poems

edited by Cary Nelson, edited by Jefferson Hendricks, introduction and notes by Cary Nelson
University of Illinois Press, 337 pp., $34.95

Edwin Rolfe: A Biographical Essay and Guide to the Rolfe Archive at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

by Cary Nelson and Jefferson Hendricks
University of Illinois Library/University of Illinois Press, 118 pp., 11.95 (paper)

A Moment of War: A Memoir of the Spanish Civil War

by Laurie Lee
New Press, 178 pp., $9.95 (paper)

1.

The University of Illinois Press, which published Milton Wolff’s Spanish Civil War novel Another Hill, reviewed in the last issue, has also launched a project entitled The American Poetry Recovery Series, which “will consist of collections and anthologies by poets whose work has not been made part of the traditional literary canon, including labor poets, feminist and minority poets, and socialist and anarchist poets.” The first volume in the series collects the poems of Edwin Rolfe, who fought in the Lincoln Battalion in Spain. It is a reprint of the three collections of his poetry printed in 1936, 1951, and (posthumously) 1955, together with a great many uncollected and unpublished poems, but excluding, except for a small selection, poems written “before Rolfe matured as a writer.” It is an impressive body of work, set in its historical, literary, and biographical context by Cary Nelson’s masterly introduction.

Born Solomon Fishman to Russian immigrant parents in 1909, he began writing when very young. By the age of fifteen he had published cartoons in the Daily Worker as well as stories, poems, and reviews in the Comet, the literary magazine of the New Utrecht High School in Brooklyn. In 1926 he “ran into difficulty in a trigonometry class” and was prohibited from publishing in the magazine until his grades improved. He began submitting contributions nevertheless, under “a series of playful pseudonyms”1 such as W. Tell and R. Hood, and in 1927 signed a review in the Daily Worker with the name Edwin Rolfe, which became his name in print and in real life from then on.

His life was a hard one. Writing could not earn him a living and he moved through a succession of temporary jobs—dishwasher in a restaurant, helper in a fruit store, punch press operator, laborer digging the subway, printing signs (at five to seven dollars a week)—interrupted by a year at the University of Wisconsin. Back in New York he lived from hand to mouth, publishing poems and reviews until in 1933 he was given the job of feature editor on the Daily Worker—four hours a day at $10 a week. In 1936 his first poetry collection, To My Contemporaries, was published by the Dynamo Press.

The poems, though often technically interesting, are thematically fairly predictable Communist poems of the Depression era; typical titles are “Georgia Nightmare,” “Homage to Karl Marx.” “Witness at Leipzig,” “Unit Meeting,” and “These Men Are Revolution.” Yet sometimes they create, with intense feeling and exact detail the misery of those Depression winters, the days when “the breath of homeless men/freezes on restaurant window panes—men seeking/the sight of rare food/before the head is lowered into the upturned collar/and the shoulders hunched and the shuffling feet/move away slowly, slowly disappear/into a darkened street.” Spain transformed his poetry. The fervent advocacy is, if anything, heightened, but the lines now have a plangent, sometimes heart-breaking, lyricism.

He left for Spain in June 1937 and began training at Tarazona, but late in July was asked if he would like to take over the editorship of the Volunteer for Liberty, the English-language magazine of the Brigades, an assignment for which his experience as a feature editor for the Daily Worker in New York made him the obvious choice. He said no, but was ordered to take the job and move to Madrid. From his base there he made frequent visits to the American battalion at the front and bitterly regretted his noncombatant status, even though much of the time he worked in Madrid he was seriously ill. In March 1938, together with the Volunteer, he moved from Madrid to Barcelona, a city now under constant bombardment by Italian planes. When in April all able-bodied men were directed to report for front-line duty, Rolfe did so even though his position exempted him from the order. He took part in the offensive across the Ebro and in the disorganized retreat that followed as Franco counter-attacked in irresistible force. Rolfe had had his baptism of fire at last, and one of his friends remarked years later that “after Spain things about his personal life that Rolfe would once have talked about openly he now seemed to save for his poetry.”2

In most of the poems he wrote then and in later years, the memory of Spain haunts the lines even where it is not mentioned. But it is usually explicit, as in the “Elegia” for Madrid, written ten years after the end of the war:

Madrid, if ever I forget you,
may my right hand lose its human cunning…
And if I die before I can return to you,
or you, in fullest freedom, are re- stored to us,
my sons will love you as their father did
Madrid Madrid Madrid

It is explicit too in the “Elegy for Our Dead,” where he uses the alliterative technique of Anglo-Saxon verse:

There is a place where, wisdom won, right recorded,
men move beautifully, striding across fields…
where lie, nurturing all these fields, my friends in death.


Honor for them in this lies: that theirs is no special
strange plot of alien earth. Men of all lands here
lie side by side, at peace now after the crucial
torture of combat, bullet and bay- onet gone, fear
conquered forever…

And in “First Love,” the title poem of the volume, he writes among young men training for war in Texas, but thinks of another war.

I am eager to enter it, eager to end it.
Perhaps this one will be the last one.


But my heart is forever captive of that other war
that taught me first the meaning of peace and of comradeship

and always I think of my friend who amid the apparition of bombs
saw on the lyric lake the single perfect swan.

These poems had a strange publishing history. “Elegy for our Dead” first appeared in the Volunteer for Liberty in Spain in January 1938; it was reprinted in The New Republic and the Daily Worker. “First Love” appeared in Yank: The Army Weekly in September 1945. But by 1948, when “Elegia” was written, “there was literally no place to publish it. Even the Communist Party-supported Masses and Mainstream refused it, partly because the biblical allusions offended the editors; religion, after all, could only be the opiate of the people.” Rolfe sent a copy to Hemingway, who wrote back: “Your fucking poem made me cry and I have only cried maybe four times in my life….”

Rolfe also gave a copy to a Spanish exile, José Rubia Barcia, who translated it into Spanish and sent it to Luis Buñuel in Mexico City. There another Spanish exile, the printer and poet Manuel Altolaguirre, issued it in the form of a pamphlet and the poem was recited at gatherings of Spanish exiles in Mexico, Argentina, and Chile. It finally appeared in print in English, together with the other two, in 1951, when Rolfe published his second collection, First Love, himself. In September of that year he sent out circulars inviting subscribers to pay the costs of printing and binding, for all the world like Alexander Pope collecting subscriptions for his translation of the Iliad—“the Subscribers are to pay two Guineas in hand, advancing one in regard of the Expense the Undertaker must be at…”3 Two hundred seventy-five copies, at $2.75 each, were issued under the imprint of the Larry Edmunds Bookshop, and by the end of January all were sold. But only two reviews appeared, one by Aaron Kramer in the National Guardian and the other by Rolfe Humphries in The Nation.

The last poems reflect the bitterness of the years of persecution, the time of informers, as in “Little Ballad for Americans—1954,” written one month before his death of a heart attack.

Housewife, housewife, never trust your neighbor
A chance remark may boomerang to five years at hard labor.

Student, student, keep mouth shut and brain spry—
Your best friend Dick Merriwell’s employed by the F.B.I.

But they often hark back to Spain as in “1949 (After Reading a News Item)”:

His first official act was to bless
The planes that bombed their Barcelona home.
Ten years have passed. Today his Holiness
Welcomes the Catalan orphans into Rome.

But in the poem that gives the last volume its title he creates a moving lyric that has little to do with politics:

Permit me refuge in a region of your brain:
carry and resurrect me, whatever path you take,
as a ship creates its own unending wake
or as rails define direction in a train…

With the publication of these two volumes the University of Illinois Press has done a notable service to American poetry.

Rolfe was not the only poet to heed the call of Spain. John Cornford was a devoted Communist organizer and also a talented poet whose promising career was cut short by his death at Lopera the day after his twenty-first birthday.4 W.H. Auden decided to enlist in the Brigades in 1936. In December of that year he wrote a “scribbled pencil note” to the classical scholar Eric Dodds, whom he had got to know when Dodds was a professor at the University in Auden’s home town, Birmingham. “I feel,” it ran, “I can speak about la condition humaine of only a small class of English intellectuals and professional people and that the time has come to gamble on something bigger. I shall probably be a bloody bad soldier, but how can I speak to/for them without becoming one?”5 The Brigade authorities evidently shared his misgivings about his future as an infantryman—he had once referred to himself in print as the possessor of “flat feet and a big behind”:6 they accepted him only as a radio propagandist and within a couple of months he was back in England, a disappointed man. Much later he was to tell a journalist: “I was shocked and disillusioned. The politics were particularly unpleasant.” And in a 1956 essay he wrote that in Barcelona he found all the churches closed and not a priest to be seen. He felt “that this mattered more to him than he would have imagined.”7 Stephen Spender, invited by Harry Pollitt, the secretary of the British Communist Party, to enlist—“Go and get killed, comrade, we need a Byron in the movement”—understandably declined, but visited Spain twice during the war, once to intercede for a young friend jailed as a deserter and a second time to attend the International Writers Congress in Valencia.

2.

There was one English poet, Laurie Lee, who came to Spain later than the others, in the winter of 1937. He was twenty-three years old, and not yet widely known as a poet, though when in Spain he met Fred Copeman the commander of the British Battalion, who had been his strike leader when Lee worked as a builder’s laborer in London, he was greeted with the words: “The poet from the buildings. Never thought you’d make it.”

This was not his first visit to Spain. In the spring of 1936 he had sailed, with little more baggage than his fiddle, to Vigo on the northwest coast of Spain and made his way on foot, supporting himself by playing his fiddle to earn a few pesetas, across a country that Louis MacNeice, also a tourist in Spain that spring, though on a higher economic level, described as “ripe as an egg for revolt and ruin.”8 When the fighting broke out in July, Lee left for home, under the mistaken impression that the military coup had succeeded, but returned in the next year, to join the International Brigade. In 1969 he published a famous account of his summer journey, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning. And now, at the age of eighty, he has written an account of his second trip to Spain, A Moment of War.

It is not like any other account of the war written by a participant. For one thing, Lee was only in combat for a few moments of nightmare confusion outside Teruel, when, in a wild melee, he killed a man—he does not tell us exactly how.

There was the sudden bungled confrontation, the breathless hand-to-hand, the awkward pushing, jabbing, grunting, swearing, death a moment’s weakness or a slip of the foot away. Then we broke and raced off, each man going alone, each the gasping centre of his own survival.

This is a poet’s prose: tense, economical, and suddenly illuminated by the unexpected but perfect word. Time and again the words on the printed page re-create the sharp reality of his surroundings and sensations, as in his description of the moment he realized, as he crossed the Pyrenees on foot, that France was now behind him and before him “all the scarred differences and immensities of Spain. At my back was the tang of Gauloises and slumberous sauces, scented flesh and opulent farmlands; before me, still ghostly, was all I remembered—the whiff of rags and woodsmoke, the salt of dried fish, sour wine and sickness, stone and thorn, old horses and rotting leather.”

The story Lee has to tell is a grim one. Before his first experience of combat he was twice imprisoned as a spy. His first time in jail, or rather in an excavation in the frozen ground that was covered by an iron trapdoor, was in part due to his decision to cross the Pyrenees alone in December. “It was,” he says, “just one of a number of idiocies I committed at the time.” Volunteers normally came in through a well-organized traffic—“some by boat, some by illegal train-shuttles from France, but most smuggled from Perpignan by lorry.” The mountain peasant family at whose door he knocked fed him—on a “watery mystery that might have been the tenth boiling of the bones of a hare”—and next morning took him to the nearest village and handed him over to the police, saying: “We’ve brought you the spy.”

After some time in the black hole—“it may have been a couple of days or but a few hours”—he was joined by another prisoner. “Now you’ve got a committee,” the guard said as the newcomer was dropped in. He was a Spaniard, a deserter arrested trying to cross the mountains; his name was Dino. The two of them stayed together in the hole for about a week; Lee saw his fellow prisoner’s face in “a brief glimmer of moonlight” only when “two dark shapes pulled him through the narrow entrance, and the manhole was closed again. I heard the clink of glasses, some moments of casual chatter, Dino’s short laugh, then a pistol shot….”

Lee expected the same fate, and when, a few days later, the grille was dragged open and a voice called “Hey, Rubio” (the Spanish for “blond”) he was dragged out to see what he had expected—“the chair, the hand-cart, the plain wooden box, the sleepy officer with the bottle of coñac, the ragged soldiers lined up and looking at their feet—all were present.” But not for him. “Another young man sat bound to a chair, smoking furiously and chattering like a parrot.” Lee was taken to the Brigade reception center at Figueras.

Before he was executed, Dino had talked at length to Lee,

laughing at the looking-glass difference between us. I was trying to get into the war and he was trying to get out of it, and here we were, stuffed into the same black hole….and most certainly now, he said, we’d both be shot.

And why not, indeed? The deserter appeared quite fatalistic about it. Patiently, drowsily, with no complaint or self-pity, my companion explained the situation to me. The Civil War was eighteen months old, and entering a bitter winter. The Republican forces were in retreat and could afford to take no chances. Franco’s rebels were better armed, and had powerful allies abroad, while our side had few weapons, few friends, almost no food, and had learned to trust no one but the dead. What could you expect them to do with a couple of doubtful characters like us? They couldn’t afford to keep us, feed us, or even turn us loose. Even less could they afford the luxury of a trial. So it was thought safer, and quicker, that anyone under suspicion should be shot, and this was being done regretfully as a matter of course.

Dino’s explanation was not too far from the truth. “Almost no food” is exact; the Republic held the big cities, but Franco had occupied the food-bearing regions of Spain. Lee’s narrative is rich in pungent evocations of the poor fare: coffee that “tastes of rusty buttons,” a “glass of hot brown silt tasting of leather and rust,” and “bean soup…with an interesting admixture of tar.” And Franco’s recapture of Teruel in February 1938 was the beginning of a series of offensives that overwhelmed the Republic’s heroic but outgunned and outmanned armies. The Spain Lee had seen on his first visit had changed almost beyond recognition. “Figueras had once been a fine hill town…War had shrivelled and emptied it, covering it with a sort of grey hapless grime so that even the windows seemed to have no reflections.” At Madrid “there was little to be seen; rotting sandbags, broken roads, barricades of brick and bedsteads, shuttered windows, closed shops and bars.”

Lee moves through a dark landscape eloquent of impending defeat from Figueras to Albacete, the base of the International Brigades, only to be imprisoned once again, this time with more than just suspicion against him. On his previous visit to Spain he had taken a short trip with a friend to Spanish Morocco; his passport showed that he had been there just at the time when the generals were readying the Foreign Legion and the Moorish regulares for the coup. Obviously, he must have been there for training and briefing for infiltration into the Brigades as a Franco agent. He was saved from the firing squad by the “crane-necked Frenchman” who had guided him to the frontier, and who turned up in Alabacete and vouched for him.

Lee was sent off to join the British volunteers for training at Tarazona. He found them quartered in a warehouse; they ate their meals in the church, which was

bare as a barn—the walls and little chapels cleared of their stars and images, the altar stripped, all vestments gone….Now the inside of Tarazona’s own church had an almost medieval mystery and bustle, an absence of holy silences and tinkling rituals, and a robust and profane reoccupation by the people….

All over Republican Spain now such churches as this—which had stood for so long as fortresses of faith commanding even the poorest of villages, dominating the black-clad peasants and disciplining their lives and souls with fearsome liturgies, with wax-teared Madonnas and tortured Christs, tinselled saints and gilded visions of heaven—almost all were being taken over, emptied, torn bare, defused of their mysteries and powers, and turned into buildings of quite ordinary use, into places of common gathering.

On his first morning Lee was “awakened by the sound of a bugle—a sound pure and cold, slender as an icicle, coming from the dark winter outside. In spite of our heavy sleep and grunting longing for more, some of us began to love that awakening, the crystal range of the notes stroking the dawn’s silence and raising one up like a spirit.” After coffee (“its flavour was boiler grease”) the company fell in on parade.

The lines of men were not noticeably impressive, except that we displayed perhaps a harmonious gathering of oddities and a shared heroic daftness. Did we know, as we stood there, our clenched fists raised high, our torn coats flapping in the wind, and scarcely a gun between the three of us, that we had ranged against us the rising military power of Europe, the soft evasion of our friends, and the deadly cynicism of Russia? No, we didn’t. Though we may have looked at that time, in our wantonly tattered uniforms, more like prisoners of war than a crusading army, we were convinced that we possessed an invincible armament of spirit, and that in the eyes of the world, and the angels, we were on the right side of this struggle. We had yet to learn that sheer idealism never stopped a tank.

Lee started training with a team on the Russian Maxim machine gun, but was soon pulled out for “special duty,” which turned out to be service with the political police who had arrested him because of the entries in his passport. His boss, Kassell, was “thin as a peeled birch tree, with a starved face and feverish eyes.” In a sequence of mysterious events—mysterious because Lee never knew what lay behind them and so neither do we—he took part in the capture of a young man called Forteza; according to Kassell, they were trying to rescue him. Forteza was snared by a young woman who had made love to Lee at Figueras but was now working for the police; Lee and a companion were sent to pick him up. When they carried him in, a sick boy whose

skeletal frame…was as light as a bundle of sticks[,]…Kassell got up and strode forward, crinkling in his black leather mackintosh, threw his arms round Forteza and kissed him. Forteza stood quiet, neither shivering nor coughing now. “Welcome, comrade,” said Kasell, with his watery smile. “We thought something had happened to you.” He ran his hands quickly over the boy’s thin body and led him into the inner room…. A little later we heard the sound of a shot.

Not long after this Lee was sent to the Teruel front, where he killed a man in his one and only contact with the enemy. It was not something he was proud of. “I headed for the old barn where I’d spent my first night. I lay in a state of sick paralysis. I had killed a man, and remembered his shocked, angry eyes. There was nothing I could say to him now…. I began to have hallucinations and breaks in the brain. I lay there knowing neither time nor place. Some of our men found me, I don’t know who they were, and they drove me back speechless to Tarazona.”

The reader is not particularly surprised when the political commissar there told him he was to be sent back to London. To his protest the commissar replied: “You’d be more use to us there than here. After all, you’re not much use to us here. You could write about us, make speeches….” But Lee was not out of the woods yet. When he presented himself with his passport at police headquarters in Barcelona, they arrested him as a deserter and a spy. This time he was rescued by Bill Rust, the editor of the London Daily Worker, who eventually set him on the road to home and his lover in “high wealthy Hampstead…. I remember the flowers on the piano, the white sheets on her bed, her deep mouth, and love without honour.”

Lee’s experience in Spain was wildly eccentric, but though he did not share the long months of combat, interrupted only by death or wounds, that were the lot of the soldiers of the International Brigades, he admired them. Before he left Barcelona, Bill Rust set him to work sorting out the files he was keeping that were eventually to become the base for his book Britons in Spain, which appeared in January 1939. The files consisted of

cards with the names and addresses of British and Irish volunteers…. There must have been five or six hundred of them. Many—more than half—were marked “killed in action” or “missing,” at such fronts as Brunete, Guadalajara, the Ebro. Public schoolboys, undergraduates, men from coal mines and mills, they were the ill-armed advance scouts in the, as yet, unsanctified Second World War. Here were the names of dead heroes, piled into little cardboard boxes, never to be inscribed later in official Halls of Remembrance. Without recognition, often ridiculed, they saw what was coming, jumped the gun, and went into battle too soon.

(This is the second part of a two-part article.)

  1. 1

    Edwin Rolfe: A Biographical Essay, p. 7. The guide contains some interesting photographs and facsimiles and extracts from letters of, among others, Ernest Hemingway and Albert Maltz. 

  2. 2

    Edwin Rolfe: A Biographical Essay, p. 37. 

  3. 3

    Alexander Pope, The Iliad of Homer, edited by Maynard Mack, et al. (Yale University Press, 1967), p. xxxvi, no. 5. 

  4. 4

    Corynford’s collected poems were first published in John Cornford: A Memoir, edited by Pat Sloan (Jonathan Cape, 1937). They are available in Jonathan Galassi, Understand the Weapon, Understand the Wound (Carcanet, 1976). 

  5. 5

    E.R. Dodds, Missing Persons: An Autobiography (Oxford University Press/Clarendon Press, 1977), p. 133. 

  6. 6

    Letter to Lord Byron, Part IV. 

  7. 7

    Humphrey Carpenter, Auden: A Biography (Houghton Mifflin, 1981); Modern Canterbury Piegrims, edited by James A. Pike (Morehouse Graham, 1956), p. 41. 

  8. 8

    Collected Poems of Louis MacNeice edited by E.R. Dodds (Oxford University Press, 1967), p. 110.