Guernica and Guernica in British and American Poetry

September 17, 2012

Picasso's Guernica, 1937.

New technologies of warfare and forms of mass media and propaganda to disseminate news of combat are among the elements that cause the Spanish Civil War to be considered the first thoroughly modern war. Poetry, a very traditional literary form, also played an important role of dissemination in the conflict, providing a large body of works that portray both idealism and a sense of catastrophe. The April 1937 bombing of the Basque town of Guernica and its repercussions exemplify these characteristics. The far-reaching impact of the destruction of the town can be attributed to the wide press coverage the event received. War correspondents like George Steer of The Times presented the air raid in alarmist tones, emphasizing how the event could be read as a rehearsal of Nazi Germany’s total war strategy. Steer’s articles suggested that “Guernica” was more than an allegory of defeat and terror wielded against a civilian population. Soon after the bombing, Pablo Picasso’s mural Guernica—modern art’s most powerful anti-war statement –punctuated the phenomenon by seizing the symbolic force of the event and transforming it into a representation of the violence suffered in Spain, and the imminent danger non-intervention posed for democracies of the world. The motif of the devastated town also appears in numerous poems written by British and American, some of them combatants, journalists, humanitarian relief workers or simply activists against the non-intervention policies of Western democracies. Since the unveiling of the mural by Picasso, writers have used ekphrasis, that is, the strategy of using words to describe art, to include the name Guernica in poetry. Poems about the painting have come to take the place of those poems that had initially condemned the bombing itself.

A.S. Knowland’s “Guernica,” written shortly after April 26, 1937, is perhaps the first poem to present the bombing as a precursor to the unstoppable destruction of the Nazi war machine:

So that the swastika and the eagle

Might spring from the blood-red-soil,

Bombs were sown into the earth at Guernica,

Whose only havest was a calculated slaughter.  (Cunningham 167)

Yet, in the epigraph, “Irun-Badajóz-Málaga-and then Guernica,” the poet establishes an allusion by referring to Guernica as just another place on the list of defeats suffered by the Spanish Republicans. In “To a Certain Priest,” where Stanley Richardson chides the Spanish Church for supporting the Nationalist rebels, the town of Guernica appears as a symbol that summarizes the key events of the war. Richardson connects it to the fall of Badajoz in 1936, and the siege of Madrid. Guernica, though, acquires special connotations that cause it to stand in for other places much more crucial in the military development of the conflict, such as Bilbao, whose fall meant the end of fighting on the Basque front. This type of long poem, one that traces the evolution of the Spanish conflict in parallel to mass media presentations, takes advantage of the condensed symbolism that mark certain otherwise unfamiliar place names as sites of catastrophe: 

On Guernica and Bloody Badajoz

On you, Madrid, Life’s glorious capital. (Dietz 74)

The town of Guernica after the April 26, 1937 bombing.

In “Elegy on Spain,” by George Barker, the town in Vizcaya is added as well to the inventory of the places of destruction:

Farewell for the day my phoenix who leaves ashes

Flashing on the Guernica tree and Guadalajara range. (Cunningham 160)

Here, however, there is a reference to the ancient tree that symbolizes Basque identity and echoes the journalist Steer’s suggestion that the attack on Guernica was contrived as punishment for the region’s pursuit of self-rule. John Edgell Rickword in “To the Wife of Any Non-Intervention Statesman” also locates Guernica in geographic and political-strategic terms within the web of capitalist interests that condemned the Spanish democracy to its violent demise. He takes advantage of the symbolic value that other cities, more representative of these interests, might not possess:

Euzkadi’s supply the ore mines

to feed the Nazi dogs of war:

Guernikas’s thermite rain perspire

In doom on Oxford’s dreaming spires

Already Hull and Cardiff blaze,

And Paul’s Rocks gray dome to the blast

Or air-torpedoes screaming past. (Shand and Girri 63)

Tom Wintringham’s “Monument” judges the non-interventionist stance immoral and foolish given the Fascist threat facing the rest of Europe. The poet pairs the political and national symbolism of Guernica with the logistical significance and industrial wealth of Bilbao as objectives for the invasion of the Basque Country:

From the Basque country Bilbao, Guernica

City of agony, village of fire

Take charred earth, so no one burnt and tortured

Knows if small children ‘s bones are mingled in it

Take iron ore from the mines those strangers envied;

And wash your hands, remembering a World that did so. (Lopez Ortega and Rodríguez Álvarez 319)

At the same time, Guernica here evokes the fate of a martyred city beyond its Basque context. The dead children represents the civilian victims of air raids, a symbol found in poems about the Spanish war by writers of all nationalities. If indiscriminate bombing works as a tool to instill terror, images of its bloody effects are the most direct means of representing a horror that at once invites repudiation and foments a foreboding of terror in places that have not been subject to combat. Those dead children in the streets of bombed Spain, the poems charge, could be soon British and American children.

The painting Guernica was also envisioned as an instrument of persuasion to encourage Western democracies to intervene when the Republican government commissioned it for the Spanish Pavilion at the 1937 Paris Universal Exposition. Coinciding with the destruction of the town, Picasso takes up the immediate repercussions by applying the title to his painting that otherwise makes no direct references to the concrete event. Any bombed Spanish town could be the one depicted on the enormous canvas. The sense of allegory projects the evils of modern warfare, whose principal victims are civilians, continues into the present: its figures are re-contextualized to protest against unjust conflicts: any bombed town in the world. Precisely in 1937, when the Spanish war came to be seen as a pre-amble to greater conflicts, the painting became a motif of poetry, of the fatal allegory evoked by the name of a single city.

At the Spanish Pavilion in Paris, the placement of Paul Éluard’s poem “La victoire de Guernica” alongside the Picasso painting is the first instance of the relationships between poetry and painting that the bombing would generate many times over. Later cases openly show to be inspired as much by the event as by the work of art itself. The young Scotsman Ruthven Todd, fascinated as much by surrealism as by the Spanish Republican cause, reveals in the title of his poem, Drawings for Guernica,” how he was inspired by preparatory drawings that traveled with Picasso’s mural he admired in October 1938 when it was displayed at London’s Burlington Gallery:

The woman weeps as if her tears forever

would wash away the blood and broken limbs

The tortured horse and whinnies and climbs

iron hoof on towards broken beam electric stars. (Oppler 190)

Another Scotsman, J.F. Hendry, proposes a somewhat more complex interpretation in “Picasso: for Guernica ” by physically entangling the poet-viewer with the figures on the canvas.

Frozen in fright of the skull and spine light chilled

Drip-bone-shriek-splinters sharper than the Bren:

Starve frank stroke and stave the hooves of bulls.

I am the candle arm thrust-through the wall. (Cunningham 418)

In another example of subject involvement, Albert Brown recreates the bombing in “From a Painting by Picasso” by drawing viewers’ eyes to a single figure. There, admiration for the canvas leads to a reflection on the victimization of the real population during war:

This woman by Picasso


What If This Woman

(Who must-exist)

Should be killed by shrapnel gas

Her precious body distorted and destroyed

And her quiet essence

Smothered in blood and smoke? “(Cunningham 168)

The horror depicted is a premonition of the global war that will eventually engulf him too:

If bits of our brains plebeian

Add to the litter of the bomb-pocked pavement

And lumps of our lumpy limbs sparely hang around “(Cunningham 169)

These poems form the core of a long list of works in which Guernica substitutes the geographic place name as a literary motif. Such displacement allows the representation to signify universally the disasters of modern, mechanized warfare across borders and time. And yet, the poetry that takes Guernica as its theme never ceases to be a reaction to the reality of destruction that inspired the painter, and this is a reality of existing places locatable on a map, albeit an allegorical one, for those fearing fascism beyond their borders.

As Ian Patterson explains, part of the cultural legacy of Guernica, as a bombed town, and Guernica, the work of art, is the possibility for imagining events of similarly horrific scale for the civilian population in the coming war: “to make the future frightening and close” (71). Hendry includes the above poem in his 1942 collection Bombed Happiness published in the context of World War II. Likewise, Norman Rosten includes “Spanish Sequence,” in his 1943 The Fourth Decade and Other Poems. The North American author recreates the collection of the cadavers of children in the aftermath of an aerial bombing, so often depicted in photographs of the Spanish war, and he identifies the site of the carnage as Guernica without any other details evocative of the destruction of that particular city:

In Guernica the dead children

Were laid out upon the sidewalks in order

In Their starched white dresses,

In Their pitiful white dresses. (58)

This writer returns to the place name as an allegory of the massacre of innocents in the final stanzas that recount the varieties of horror propagated by modern war, which Spain itself represents:

The firing squads perform with silences

Let the barbed-wire Camps be quiet

Let Guernica sleep, and the children there

Let Darkness come down like a robe

To cover this infamous year.( 65)

Aaron Kramer attaches the following clarification to the title of his poem “Guernica” that appeared in the 1945 collection Thru Our Guns: “Holy City of Spain destroyed by Fascist bombs” (Nelson 170). This poet announces his dual intention of commemorating the event and of recovering it from the allegorical meaning projected upon by the painting following its installation at the MOMA in New York. He invites readers to recall the way in which the painting, not mentioned in the poem, is a work of art that permanently memorializes the event but that is nonetheless overshadowed by its status as a universal symbol of anti-war sentiments.

In efforts to downplay the dimensions of the crime, conservatives have derided the role of mass media and art in the defining the significance of Guernica internationally. The motif is hardly present in war poetry by Spanish writers of the period.  Such absence can be explained by observing that destruction and defeat did not serve the same purpose for poets whose task it was to sound the battle cry and raise morale, mostly in an epic mode, as it did for foreigners seeking to call attention to horrors taking place elsewhere. Only in the context of exile, did the name of the ravaged city become a poetic theme for the generation of Spaniards that had fought in the war. By then the civil conflict had lost its immediate significance as a harbinger of future catastrophe; it was instead a lost cause that needed to be remembered.

Elena Cueto Asín is Associate Professor of Romance Languages at Bowdoin College.

Work Cited

Cunningham, Valentin. Ed. Penguin Book of Spanish Civil War Verse. London: Penguin, 1980.

Dietz, Bernard. Un país donde lucía el sol. Poesía inglesa de la guerra civil. Madrid: Hiperion, 1981.

López Ortega, Ramón y Román Álvarez Rogriguez. Eds. Poesía anglo-norteamericana de la Guerra Civil Española. Salamanca: Junta de Castilla y León, 1986.

Nelson, Cary. Ed. The Wound and the Dream. Sixty Years of American Poems about the Spanish Civil War. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002.

Oppler, Ellen. Picasso’s Guernica. New York: Norton, 1988.

Patterson, Ian. Guernica and Total War. London: Profile Books, 2007

Rosten, Norman. The Fourth Decade and Other Poems. New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1943.

Shand y Girri. Eds Poesía inglesa de la guerra civil española. Barcelona: Ateneo, 1947.


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