Communist Poetry of the 1930s and Modernism

Virginia Woolf’s critique of 1930s poetry as being too often an exercise in didacticism is perhaps warranted from an overall perspective. The overwhelming import of the fascist threat that rose in Franco’s Spain, however, holds a unique place in the literary history of this time. The Spanish Civil War served as a call to arms that legitimised for many the embrace of a far-left alternative to awaken the closed eyes of many in Britain and throughout Europe. As the subject for the adoption of a loudspeaker mentality, very few moments in modern history are more deserving. What may be lost amid the generalised opinion of Virginia Woolf is that so many of those poets had but one issue to drive them. Far more instructive in analysing her assertion is how writers of talent who chose to tackle the issue of radical liberalism succeeded or failed. The real question that must be addressed is whether active engagement with beliefs is better suited to turning propaganda into art, or whether the key lies in detached, observational analysis. In other words, is propaganda more likely to reach the level of art if one is fully or only partly committed to the cause? W. H. Auden was never a card-carrying member of the Communist Party, but like so many artists and intellectuals of the time his response to the widespread advancement of fascism manifested itself in the embrace of certain leftist ideals commonly associated with the Party. Although the iconic symbol of the dangers of right wing extremism today is Hitler, Germany and the Nazis, for most of the 1930s the poster boy for all that progressive liberalism hated was located in Spain and that face was Francisco Franco. The Spanish Civil War provide fodder for many archetypal modernist works of art, from Ernest Hemingway’s novel For Whom the Bell Tolls to Pablo Picasso’s massive mural Guernica, neither of which can escape the critique of being at least partly didactic. In those days before the rise of the Soviet Union and threat of nuclear annihilation, it was still not yet dangerous to be a fellow traveler, Communist sympathiser or just plain Red. Seen from that perspective, then, Auden’s poem “A Communist to Others” need not necessarily by its very title and subject be designated mere propaganda. It might be considered more highly if it was; as it is “A Communist to Others” suffers the fate of much proletarian literature in that it is crafted with unfortunate tones of an intellectual speaking down to the common worker while positioning himself as one of them. The consciousness that infuses this poem is one that is, fortunately, entirely aware of that particular paradox: “We cannot put on airs with you / The fears that hurt you hurt us too.” The speaker is recognising the distance that exists while promising not to become merely a dialectician conducting a seminar in class consciousness. That sentiment is undermined, however, by the lines that come directly after: “Only we say / That like all nightmares these are fake / If you would help us we could make / Our eyes to open, and awake / Shall find night day.” On the surface, these lines appear to indicate that the elitist is placing himself in a somewhat submissive position, as if asking for help suggests that his capacity is not enough without assistance of the comrades being addressed. It is that “Only we say” that is troubling, however, in regard to Woolf’s observation that the poetry of this era often gives in to the danger of becoming a didactic, secular sermon sanctifying not the opium of the masses, but Marxian theory. Like a religious sermon urging potential converts to the word of Jesus Christ, a secular sermon is probably not best served with a generous helping of subtlety. Of course, the interpretation that Auden’s poem is a workers rights polemic becomes more complex if, as Stephen Spender asserts, the poem is for Auden “`an exercise in entering a point of view not his own’. ” (Haffenden, 1997, p. 28). In addition, Spender makes the claim that it was precisely because Auden was not a Communist who could write, but a writer who was sympathetic to some aspects of the ideology who was also conscious of its limitations that he could better write artistically on the subject matter. When viewed from that perspective, however, the poem is all the more a failure. If even a somewhat detached engagement with political propaganda can seem so heavy-handed at times, then Woolf’s assessment about the preachy quality of 30’s poetry rings true. Unfortunately, Spender may have been mistaken in his assertion that a true believer was not better equipped to write about leftist ideology. John Cornford certainly does not allow for interpreting his poetry as an exercise; he was a committed Communist. Under Spender’s terms, then, his poetry should be less successful than Auden at artistic propaganda. At least in terms of “Full Moon at Tierz” this is debatable. While the final exhortation of the poem urging readers to “Raise the red flag triumphantly / For Communism and for liberty” certainly sounds like something that may have been lifted straight out of Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto, or a fiery 1917 speech by Lenin, the elegant nuance of what comes before makes Auden’s detachment all the more didactic in comparison. “Here, too, our freedom’s swaying on the scales. / O understand before it’s too late / Freedom was never held without a fight. / Freedom is an easily spoken word” is poetry that, separated from its subject matter, could be applied to any political literature. In fact, its lyrical quality is closer to an anthem. Or, possibly, a love poem. That is the missing ingredient from Auden’s “Communist” poem and Cornford and presents the crux of the problem of Spender’s assertion. While doubtlessly a committed Communist could place ideology over art, the same can be said of any poet and any firmly held conviction. What Woolf’s criticism is really driving at is that Modernist poets had to turn their backs on Romanticism as part of the effort to define themselves by what they weren’t. The poets of this era had witnessed amazing technological achievements as well as unbelievable horrors. As a result, the literature of this period was typically pessimistic and at times deeply cynical. It was a clarion call to the masses who had been hypnotised by the technological progress, but who were too quick to suppress the unspeakable evil that could be waged with that technology. In the midst of sounding a wake-up call there was little time for such flights of fancy as love poems. Instead, the romantic feelings of many 1930s writers were sublimated into a passion toward stemming the tide of fascism creeping across Europe. In a very real way, “Full Moon at Tierza” is a romantic poem as much as it is propaganda. The tone is certainly not one of Woolf’s loudspeaker, although its allusions to specific Communist events and figures like the Seventh Congress and Dimitrov disallows the idea that it is not in any way didactic. What Cornford does that Auden does not, however, is balance the message with vibrant imagery and a personal conviction. What is certainly clear is Cornford believes more than Auden; what else is clear is Cornford sincerely views the Communist cause as a means toward establishing equality. His embrace of the ideology is on full display in “Full Moon at Tierza” and that embrace carries with it another supremely importance difference between Cornford and Auden; one that undermines completely Spender’s argument. The language and imagery in “Full Moon at Tierza” is the work of someone who doesn’t merely write about his beliefs, but cherishes them the way another person might cherish a lover. More than that, Cornford lives them. Cornford’s Communist beliefs are grounded in the fact that he was also an activist, and that he saw firsthand the horror of the opponent. If Auden’s poem feels like an elitist speaking down to the working class, Cornford’s poem feels like one worker talking lovingly about the possibility of achieving equality to another worker. Like any good propagandist, or preacher, in this poem Cornford, proving Spender wrong, combines the larger ideological message complete with its expected didactic qualities with a far more subtle personal message of conviction. With “Full Moon at Tierza” John Cornford gives ample enough evidence to tarnish the clear ring of truth in Woolf’s assertion. Even more unfortunate from the perspective of both Woolf and Spender is that Cornford is able to achieve the same effect even when his language is stripped of its romantic qualities and he is acting as a reporter. When “A Letter from Aragon” is analysed alongside “Full Moon at Tierza” it becomes apparent that in the hands of a true believer function eclipses form. In style, Aragon appears to have far more in common with Auden’s poem than Tierza. Both are clearly propagandistic and polemical, and both affirm the causes of liberalism. But while Auden’s rhetoric lacks a fiery center and betrays his alienation from the words he is writing, Cornford’s admittedly preachy content builds to an undeniably blistering call to arms that positions the workers in Auden’s poem as the potential victims of fascism. Here there is precious little evidence of the romantic imagery that fills the Tierza poem; Cornford proves that even a true believer can look at the situation in unsentimental terms and write passionately about it. That is to say, with passionate language. Even though the word choice in this poem is less elegant than, say, the “freedom” passage from Tiera quoted above, and even though it often comes across as bare, stripped-down, reportage it nonetheless manages to display the very same passionate conviction that Tierza contains. If “Cornford is using poetry as a vehicle for politics” (Brown 2005, 196) then these poems both serve to illuminate the point that while perhaps not all 1930s poetry could avoid engaging in pedagogy to the detriment of artistry, it could be done. Because both of Cornford’s poems are so vastly different in tone, language and syntax, they represent a strong case against Woolf’s assertion. Even more so is the fact that in the more “romantic” poem Cornford introduces more stringently propagandistic language at times, including the far less elegant conclusion, and yet still manages to turn it into a love song of Communism. Eschewing the loving indoctrination of a fellow worker with luscious imagery in “A Letter from Aragon”, he still manages to convey the same feeling. What is strikingly pronounced in this poem is that despite seeming to be more didactic and propagandistic than “Full Moon at Tierza”, it actually contains far less overtly pedagogical instruction on the subject of communism and ideology. It is practically impossible to imagine a writer such as Auden—one who was not fully committed to the communist cause—being capable of writing both these poems. Indeed, in the hands of many lesser artists or less committed Communists, the result in both cases would seem almost predetermined to end up categorically confirming Woolf’s contention, while at the same also categorically refuting Spender’s. Doubtlessly, Virginia Woolf is at least partially correct in her assessment of 1930s poetry as very often being little more than a vehicle to instruct on the political and social causes of the day. Yet, as the subject for loudspeaker poetry, the hope for a society based on equality seems particularly fitting. While many poets celebrated by the leftist movement specifically for their ideological certainty are now forgotten in part due to lack of artistry in promoting an agenda, the cases of Auden and Cornford are unique. Both were excellent poets in their own right. The fact that Auden fails to counteract Woolf’s thesis while Cornford succeeds in the presentation of two distinctly different stylistic imperatives to action requires a reassessment of the very idea that propaganda and art cannot co-exist. ReferencesBROWN, R.D. 2005. The Poetry of the 1930s. In R.D. BROWN and S. GUPTA, ed., Aestheticism and modernism. London: Routledge. 166-214HAFFENDEN, J. Ed. 1997. W.H. Auden: The critical heritage. London: Routledge.SKELTON, R. Ed. 1964. Poetry of the thirties. London: Penguin. 28-29.