Sixty years after British writers flocked to fight fascism
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On a hot Spanish weekend, 60 years ago this week - the 18-19 July, 1936 - right-wing forces commanded by General Francisco Franco rose massively against the recently elected republican government of Manuel Azana, and so began the Spanish Civil War. For three terrible years, Spain was the place where the great 20th-century struggle between Left and Right, democracy and Fascism, was focussed. Hitler and Mussolini poured in men and materials on Franco's side. Stalin supplied weapons for the goverment forces. Thousands of Communists and Socialists of all stripes flocked to the Republican flag, including around three thousand British men and women. At least 543 of these Brits lost their lives; hundreds more were wounded.

The Civil War was not, as some over-enthusiastic literary historians have dubbed it, a "poets' war". Most Spanish fighters and volunteers had nothing much to do with literature. But what did make this conflict momentous indeed for literature was the number of writers who did take personal part in it, and the way it was read as a decisive struggle for literary modernity and free literary expression against the repressive encroachments of the Fascist regimes. Hitler had books burned and writers exiled. Characteristically prime among targets for Franco's reactionary traditionalism was Federico Garcia Lorca, one of Spain's foremost modernist poets and playwrights, gunned down in the opening hours of the rising. His killers signalled their righteous hostility to his well-known homosexuality by firing into his buttocks. "Hard Lines, Azana!'', jeered the anti-semitic, homophobic, tub-thumping Roman Catholic poet, Roy Campbell, ''The sodomites are on your side, The cowards and the cranks''. It was easy for Spain's best poets and artists - Alberti, Machado, Hernandez, Casals - to spot which side they were on. Easy too for the progressive writers and artists of the world.

Which is why they signed up in such numbers to the Left Review's survey, "Authors Take Sides on the Spanish Civil War". One hundred and twenty- seven writers were "for the legal Government and the people of Spain", only a tiny handful "for Franco and Fascism". "UPTHEREPUBLIC!" said Samuel Beckett's telegram from Paris; a typical reply. They went to Spain in extraordinary numbers, in many guises: as reporters, like Hemingway and Louis MacNeice and the French novelist Saint-Exupery; as republican cheer- leaders, like the 80 or so writers, including Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, Alexei Tolstoy and Sylvia Townsend Warner, who were ferried around Spain in July 1937 as the Second Congress of the International Association of Writers. And as activists and fighters.

Among the 27 or so German writers who fought for the Republic were the novelists, Ludwig Renn and Gustav Regler. The French novelist Andre Malraux organised the tiny Republican airforce in the first weeks of the coup. Auden knew he'd make ''a bloody bad soldier'', but still went, in hopes of driving an ambulance or doing radio propaganda. Stephen Spender, Auden's close ally in the ''Auden Generation'', was told by Communist Party organisers of the International Brigades that his death as a ''modern Byron'' would do the leftists' cause much good. George Orwell; Charles Donnelly, Irish Republican poet; Christopher St John Sprigg, novelist and writer on air topics (under the nom de plume of Christopher Caudwell, the best socialist literary theorist in Britain); the young Cambridge poet, John Cornford; Virginia Woolf's young poetic nephew Julian Bell; the novelist and critic Ralph Fox; the poet Tom Wintringham; the painter Felicia Browne; the painter and poet Clive Branson; the Irish writer Edward Milne; the youthful surrealist David Gascoyne; these were typical of the cultural workers who put their bodies into the front line against Franco.

But it was all to little or no avail. In the end Franco won, and by early 1939, Spain had gone Fascist. Writing and writers came out of the Spanish cockpit feeling terribly let down. It wasn't just that the bodies of writers were grievously hurt - Orwell nearly killed by a bullet in the throat, Cornford and Fox dead on the Cordoba Sprigg, Donnelly killed in the Jarama battles, Bell mortally wounded by shrapnel driving an ambulance in the Brunete Offensive - but that the high reformist and utopian hopes which had once united a generation's writing were shaken and shattered.

Elegy was, naturally enough, a predominant mode of Spanish War writing - the ''mourning tongues'' of poets raised in grief over the loss of comrades, friends, innocent civilians, bombed babies. What's more, those particularised elegiac notes spread out as the main theme of the whole business of the war, so that the most memorable Spanish War texts tend to be united precisely by their shared feeling of being subdued and crushed. ''Today the struggle'', as Auden's great poem ''Spain'' has it - that's all. And the struggle is manifestly going nowhere. The plots of the great Spanish civil war prose narratives - Orwell's Homage to Catalonia, Malraux's Days of Hope, Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls - follow more or less the same disillusioned trajectory of futile action, lost hopes, the demise of optimism about the use of the intellectuals' involvement in radical causes. And speedily, this subduing became the dominant note of English poetry.

Auden is, as ever, representative. After "Spain", his poems became packed with cynical images of gratuitous deaths and narratives of needless killing. He produced a great roster of elegies for dead writers - Housman, Edward Lear, Matthew Arnold, W B Yeats - who seem to stand for the demise of all writerly optimism. It's as if, after Spain, Auden's only comfort is in standing at the grave of an era, the place where (as his ''September 1, 1939'' puts it) ''the clever hopes'', ''Of a low dishonest decade" have simply expired.

This sobering of English poetry is something we have still not recovered from. It's why there has been no literary triumphalism about any of the wars Britain has been engaged in since the end of the Thirties. You'd have thought the Second World War was a crusade moral enough to warrant poetic cheerleading. But its poems and novels tend to be laconic and downbeat, grey as a ration book, gloomy as an air-raid shelter. And if the poetic ''Movement'' of the Fifties went in for neutral tones, deeply suspicious of larger rhetorics and poetic chance-taking, this too can be put down to the aftermath of Spain.

'''Leave for Cape Wrath tonight!' They lounged away". Thus Donald Davie's emblematic Movement poem, ''Remembering the Thirties'', remembering the imperative enthusiasms that led Auden and Co to Spain only as an occasion for debunking. It was, evidently, the wide feeling that such coolness was the most appropriate tonal approach which led to Larkin's unofficial elevation as the British people's laureate.

To measure the continuing life of such poetic reserve in our islands, one need think only of Seamus Heaney's characteristic verses about the dementing horrors of current Irish politics, in which rage, say, at the killing of a cousin in some ''faked road block'' is subdued, Spanish-fashion, into merely a private lament. ''The Strand at Lough Beg: In Memory of Colum McCartney'' is a very fine piece of interiorised grieving. But its awesome quietness signifies the continuing acceptance of what Auden and the rest settled for after Spain, namely that ''poetry makes nothing happen'' because it's a quite private pursuit which the ''executives'' can ignore and need never ''tamper" with. The poetic aftermath of Spain has a lot to answer for.