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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, by 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)


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collections of his poetry printed in 1936, 1951, and (posthumously) 1955, together with a great many uncollected and unpublished poems, but excluding, except for a small selection, poems written “before Rolfe matured as a writer.”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.


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.”

  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.

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