The International Brigades in the Poetry of the Spanish Civil War: Populist Rhetorical Strategies

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The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) engaged poets on a scale unprecedented in the Western World, generating in Antony Beevor’s words, “the fascination of an epic drama involving the basic forces of humanity.”1 In the politically engaged literary climate of the time, the political and emotional repercussions of the war transcended those of a national conflict, becoming a turning point for poets and writers in Europe and North and South America. Not only did it serve as a symbol upon which to base their literary works, it forced them to question their political and philosophical assumptions, as shown in the letters and questionnaires from journals and colleagues asking writers to declare their allegiance to the National Front insurgents or to the Popular Front government.2

During the three-year civil war that divided Spain between two major ideological camps, many poets wrote from a strong awareness of how poetic speech could influence perceptions of the war. The poems and poets that I will discuss helped reinforce the volunteer as mythical figures who served in the International Brigades on behalf of the Popular Front. W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, John Cornford, Edwin Rolfe, Pablo Neruda, César Vallejo, and Miguel Hernández, among others, articulated the construction of a legendary hero willing to sacrifice his or her life for freedom and democracy. These poets helped consolidate the international volunteer as a hero of the Resistance against international fascism, enlarging our view of these soldiers as encapsulated in the title of the English language magazine of the International Brigades, the “Volunteer for Liberty.3

Auden’s “Spain,” Hernández’s “Winds of the People Carry Me,” Cornford’s “Letter from Aragon,” Spender’s “Ultima Ratio Regum,” Rolfe’s “Brigadas Internacionales,” and other poems have received a good deal of critical attention but the impact of their verse on our perceptions of the Brigades’ volunteers remains unaddressed. I propose to re-read specific poems, considering how poets made use of two rhetorical gestures common to populism: 1) a poetic voice that speaks in the name of a collective identity 2) and that employs a rhetoric critical of powerful elites.4 These gestures were specifically employed as poetic devices to present the volunteers in laudatory terms and contribute to the anti-fascist cause.  As I will discuss, this approach was challenged by Wallace Stevens and Philip Levine, two poets who were very different from each other, ideologically and aesthetically, but who wrote influential poems conveying the emotional cost of individual soldier’s idealism and the realities of wartime experiences.

The National Front, led by General Francisco Franco, which included conservatives, monarchists, devout Catholics, and the far-right, believed “the country was speeding towards anarchy, atheism, and communism under Popular Front’s rule,”5 while the left-wing Popular Front—a coalition of liberals, communists, socialists, and anarchist—saw the military uprising of the Franco’s Nationalists on July 18, 1936 as a fascist attack on democracy. The National Front was aided by Germany, Italy, Morocco, and international right-wingers. The Popular Front was aided materially by the USSR and left-wingers across the world.  The governments in Washington, London, and Paris embraced neutrality through the policies of a non-intervention agreement, reckoning “that opposing forces stood for different forms of tyranny”6 and trying to avoid global calamity.

Both sides were supported by thousands of international volunteers—ordinary British, American, French, Italian, German or Russian citizens, among others, from more than fifty countries—organized in military units called International Brigades. But while the International Brigades of the Popular Front became legendary, the International Brigades of Franco largely have been forgotten. Popular Front propagandists—including poets, novelists, journalists, painters, and film directors who advocated or joined their International Brigades—sought international support and viewed it as a sign that the world was reacting against fascist expansion. Many artists spent time in Spain driving ambulances, working as reporters waging the war against nationalist propaganda, and fighting in the trenches and barricades of Madrid, Teruel, Guadalajara, Belchite, and other places across Spain.

The Nationalists, on the other hand, considered the International Brigades of the Popular Front “a manifestation of the absolute power of Stalin and his determination to subdue Spain to his influence,”7 and did not publicize its own international brigades.  As Christopher Othen observes in Franco’s International Brigades: Adventurers, Fascists, and Christian Crusaders in the Spanish Civil War, Franco did not want to recognize the need of outside help to save his regime. Further, after World War II ended and the horrors of Nazism became known more widely, most of Franco’s international volunteers did not want to be “discredited because of Hitler’s crimes.”8 Nonetheless, the role of Popular Front volunteers in the Spanish Civil War remains a matter of controversy. For instance, in 2001 a coalition of conservative politicians, citizens, and veterans’ groups picketed a gathering in New Hampshire celebrating locals who had served in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, the American unit of the International Brigades.9 New Hampshire state senator, Burton Cohen, had referred to “the courage demonstrated by these brave Americans who stand as a role model for young generations to come,”10 but the state representative, Tony Soltani, considered it unacceptable to ignore whom he believed those volunteers really served: “It doesn’t matter how many times we say the name of Abraham Lincoln, it does not validate the act of fighting shoulder to shoulder with the murderous Communist Party led by the likes of Joseph Stalin.”11

In this essay I will explore the relation between populism and poetry, and how poets portrayed International Brigade volunteers. The heroic image of Popular Front volunteers remains an emotional touchstone for Spaniards and others who consider them ordinary people who came to Spain to save freedom and democracy against overwhelming odds. Exhibitions of lithographs and poetry readings celebrate their legacy and are held regularly in universities and libraries.12 Politicians continue to hold tributes to remaining survivors and various associations promote the International Brigades’ historical importance.13 In 1995 the Spanish government “granted Spanish citizenship to the remaining brigadiers,”14 and in July of 2016 a member of the Spanish government gave President Obama a copy of the book The Lincoln Brigade: A Picture.15

The International Brigades of Poetry  

What motivated poets to take sides and respond from a very politically inflected stance to a war that was happening in a foreign land? Why did some writers risk their lives to fight or serve as witnesses? Why did they become a sort of International Brigades of poetry and write about thousands of Americans and Europeans who made their way to battlefields in Spain?

The International Brigades of the Popular Front, commonly referred to as “The Internationals,”16 gave volunteers from various nations a common identity in the fight against Fascism. They captured the conscience and hearts of people who saw them as freedom fighters willing to sacrifice their lives for human solidarity and the defense of democratic values. Considering the many dimensions of the war, which was varyingly viewed as a class struggle, a religious struggle, a struggle between dictatorship and democracy, between fascism and communism, and between revolution and counterrevolution, the poetic representation of the international volunteer varies from poet to poet. But, in general terms, writerly representations epitomize the typical war volunteer as someone who sacrificed himself in the international anti-fascist cause, a characterization most widely known in Ernest Hemingway’s depiction of Robert Jordan in For Whom the Bell Tolls. In the early stages of the novel, Jordan makes clear his mission of supporting the republicans during a conversation with two companions:

“Are you a Communist”?
“No, I am an anti-fascist.”
“For a long time?”
“Since I have understood fascism.”
“How long is that?”
“For nearly ten years.”
“That is not much time,” the woman said. “I have been a Republican for twenty years.”
“My father was a Republican all his life,” Maria said. “It was for that they shot him.”
“My father was also a Republican all his life. Also my grandfather, Robert Jordan said.”
“In what country?” “The United States.”
“Did they shoot them?” the woman asked.
“Qué va,” Maria said. “The United States is a country of Republicans. They
don’t shoot you for being a Republican there.”17

Eventually, Jordan would become disenchanted with the cynical attitude of commanders and the indifference of some comrades about the outcome of the fight, which nonetheless, did not restrain him from doing everything for the good of his fellow soldiers or being willing to die for the fulfillment of his mission.18 He embodied the best qualities of those who fought for an ideal in a foreign land, qualities which W. H. Auden, Rafael Alberti, Pablo Neruda, Langston Hughes and others captured in their poems about the International Brigades.

The Internationals initially entered in combat in the battle of Jarama, one of the bloodiest of the Spanish Civil War, which took place from February 6 – 27, 1937.19 A British volunteer named Alex McDade immortalized the ordeal in a poem called “Jarama Valley.” Its “humorous cynicism made it popular in all battalions,”20 becoming the standard song of the Lincoln Brigade which Americans sang to the tune of “The Red River Valley”:

There’s a valley in Spain called Jarama,
It’s a place that we all know so well,
For ‘tis there that we wasted our manhood,
And most of our old ages as well.21

The poem was recorded by artists, including Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, and has continued to be sung at events commemorating the International Brigades. Guthrie’s version alludes to the anti-fascist struggle (“It was there that we fought against the fascists/we saw a peaceful valley turn to hell”), and the sense of pride in Lincoln Battalion:

We are proud of the Lincoln Battalion
and the fight for Madrid that it made
there we fought like true sons of the people
as part of the Fifteenth Brigade.22

British volunteers justified anti-fascism for their involvement in the Spanish war. When commenting on John Cornford’s generation and suggesting British intellectuals’ fears, Spender noted that “in the Thirties anti-Fascism was predominantly a reaction of middle-class young men brought up in a liberal atmosphere, against the old men in power, of their own class, who, while talking about freedom and democracy, were not prepared to denounce Hitler or support the Spanish Republic.”23 “I went to Spain to fight against Fascism,”24 Orwell wrote in Homage to Catalonia, a first-hand account of his experiences as a militiaman. Cornford made the anti-fascist and revolutionary mission clear in “A Letter from Aragon,” where the poetic voice describes his miseries and fears on the battlefield–he sees people “mourning on a stretcher” and “crying for water”–but risks his life in battle when an anarchist worker tells him about class and ideological antagonisms of a country torn between “the people” and the “elites:”

… Tell the workers of England
This was a war not of our own making
We did not seek it.
But if ever the Fascist again rule Barcelona
It will be as a heap of ruins with us workers beneath it.25

The majority of American volunteers who joined the International Brigades, shared with their European counterparts the common belief that by fighting fascism in Spain, they also were fighting it in their own countries. Echoing the American veteran Milton Wolff’s statement that he went to Spain “sincerely believing that in fighting for Spanish Democracy, I was helping preserve American Democracy,”26 Archibald MacLeish attempted to warn his fellow citizens, in the midst of the Madrid siege in June of 1937, about the dangers of American neutrality: “How can we not claim the war as ours? How then can we refuse our help to those who fight our battles […] now in Spain?”27 He strongly criticized academics who “emerged free, pure and single into the antiseptic air of objectivity,”28 and rejected the pusillanimity of writers who stayed silent amidst the atrocities that were happening in Spain: “In that war, that Spanish war on Spanish earth, we, writers who contend for freedom, are ourselves, and whether we so wish or not, engaged.”29

The incursion of politics into poetry and intellectual life reflects the shared collective fear of what the defeat of the Spanish Republic might mean. A fear that had emerged, according to Orwell, out of the “awareness of the enormous injustice and misery of the world, and a guilt-stricken feeling that one ought to be doing something about it, which makes a purely aesthetic attitude toward life impossible.”30 Auden and Spender argued that given the advances of fascism, “the equivocal attitude, the Ivory Tower, the paradoxical, the ironic detachment, will no longer do.”31 Those who were strongly committed became brigadiers or spoke for them, enlarging the image of a volunteer that, in the words of historian R. Dan Richardson, represented “the cream of the progressive youth of the age” and were “premature antifascists” who embarked on a “great crusade” to make the world safe for democracy.32

The “Voice of the People” as a Populist Rhetorical Device

In January 1937, the Daily Worker, a newspaper published by the Communist Party in the United States, prompted a banner headline encouraging people to follow the example of W.H. Auden: “FAMOUS POET TO DRIVE AMBULANCE IN SPAIN.” Auden had already told a friend about the importance of being a witness in the war to establish his credibility and gain the respect of his readers and volunteers: “I shall probably be a bloody bad soldier but, how can I speak to / for them without becoming one?”33

Auden served in Spain as a stretcher-bearer between January and March of 1937, however he never became a soldier nor wrote to or for them, except in his poem entitled “Spain.” After accounts of internal confrontations, discharges for misbehavior, desertions among soldiers, and repressive measures by commanders became known, Auden and other writers became disillusioned.34 Nevertheless, shortly after leaving the country he published “Spain,” in which the poetic voice calls on Republican sympathizers to defend the official government of the Republic against Franco’s insurrection and warn foreign volunteers who came from “remote peninsulas, / on sleepy plains, in the aberrant fisherman’s islands” of the consequences of the fight against fascism: “To-day the deliberate increase in the chances of death / the conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder.” The repetition of “but today the struggle” and the anaphoric structure introduced by the word “through” in the stanza below suggests a romantic vision motivating many people who flocked to the Spanish Civil War:

They clung like birds to the long expresses that lurch
Through the unjust lands, through the night, through the alpine tunnel;
………..They floated over the oceans;
They walked the passes. All presented their lives.35

The poem, which was sold as a fundraising pamphlet whose proceeds were donated to Medical Aid for Spain, was reproduced in other collections but with changes, perhaps, as some critics have suggested, due to an objection Orwell made when he referred to the phrase “necessary murder” as one that “could only be written by a person to whom murder is at most a word.36 These words might suggest that the fighters were trying to convince themselves that their actions had some justification, but Orwell, who thought of Auden as “the kind of person who is always somewhere else when the trigger is pulled,”37 was offended by speaking so lightly of murder. Contrasting his own experience fighting in the war with Auden’s lack of direct involvement in combat, Orwell concluded:

It so happens that I have seen the bodies of numbers of murdered men–I don’t mean killed in battle. I mean murdered. Therefore, I have some conception of what murder means -the terror, the hatred, the howling relatives, the post-mortems, the blood, the smells. To me, murder is something to be avoided. So it is to any ordinary person.38

Eventually, Auden dropped “Spain” and other iconic poems from future collections, including his Collected Shorter Poems 1927-1957. Auden’s biographer contends that the poet didn’t reject “Spain” because of Orwell’s remarks but because “he distrusted their power to convince his readers that he and they were on the right side in the great struggles of the age.”39 For his part, Auden was not specific about why he did not include it but claimed that he threw out many poems on the grounds of being “dishonest” for expressing feelings or beliefs which he “never felt or entertained.” He did, however, explicitly reject the poem’s last two lines: “History to the defeated / May say alas but cannot help nor pardon,” condemning them as “wicked doctrine,”40 or as Spender put it, “as expressing an attitude which for a few weeks or months he had felt intellectually forced to adopt, but which he never truly felt.”41

In “Spain” the poetic voice claims to be on the side of truth and tries to influence the reader by speaking for the Internationals, who are on the side of “the people.” This rhetorical strategy was frequently used by contemporaries and showed how a “people”—even if they spoke different languages and came from countries—were united in an ideological struggle. A similar rhetorical device can be found in the poetry of Rafael Alberti, Pablo Neruda, César Vallejo, John Cornford, and others.

Overwhelmed by the war’s destructive force, Alberti, one of the great figures of the “Silver Age” of Spanish Literature, used his poems to engage and energize Loyalist sympathizers: “You come from very far … but this distance / what is it for your blood which sings without borders?” asks the speaker in the first two lines of “To the International Brigades.” The poem, written to encourage volunteers arriving in Spain at the end of 1936 to combat Franco’s uprising, made it evident that losing lives would be inevitable. Alberti emphasizes the international combatants’ heroism: “The necessary death calls you each day / no matter in what cities, fields or roads.”42

It would not take long for the International Brigades to become mythic, thanks in part to Neruda’s “Arrival in Madrid of the International Brigade.” Neruda had been working as the Chilean consulate in Madrid since 1934. In glorifying terms, he expressed his gratitude for the Brigades’ solidarity when they entered the Spanish capital to defend it. Those soldiers not only increased the number of combatants supporting the loyalist to the Spanish Republic but also served as proof that the world had not forgotten Spanish democracy:

Because you were made to be born again with your sacrifice,
the lost faith, the absent soul, the confidence in the land,
and by your abundance, by your nobleness, by your dead,
as through a valley of hard rocks of blood,
it rests an immense river with doves of steel and hope.43

The Internationals, as represented in the poem, arrived motivated by a generous “abundance,” bringing with it their “sacrifice” and the hope to restore “the lost faith” in democracy, because freedom, as the poem later puts it, had been “entrapped” and “eaten by beasts.” Neruda affirms the immortality of the Internationals through a speaker who observes how they are writing their own history: “all the wheat of Castile and of the world / write your name and your fight / and your strong and terrestrial victory like a red oak tree.”44  Neruda did not fight on the battlefront nor did the Peruvian poet César Vallejo, who also found himself in Spain during the first months of the conflict. Both participated in the International Writers’ Congress for the Defense of Culture, which held sessions in Valencia and Madrid.

In “Hymn to the Volunteer for the Republic,” Vallejo encourages the militiaman because “in Spain, in Madrid, the command is / to kill, volunteers who fight for life!”45 Neither poet seemed troubled by the temptation to confuse art and propaganda—nor was Miguel Hernández, who served in combat roles during the entirety of the war. In “To the International Soldier Fallen in Combat,” he refers to foreign volunteers as “men who contained a soul without frontiers” and who “wanted to quench the thirst of panthers.”46 Hernández, who was jailed until his death from tuberculosis in an Alicante prison two years after the end of the conflict, wrote several of the most powerful poems about the Spanish Civil War, including “Child of the Night” and “Lullaby of the Onion.” However, in “To the International Soldier Fallen in Combat,” he falls into stereotypes, transforming the international brigadier into a legendary hero in order to delegitimize the adversary.

Hernández portrays the brigadiers as representatives of “the people” in “To the International Soldier Fallen in Combat,” a strategy Neruda and Vallejo also utilized. Hernández made this identification explicit in his popular chant “Winds of the People Carry Me,” in which he tells of the suffering of people subjugated by the power of the economic elites: “The winds of people blows me on / scattering this heart of mine / and readying my throat.” He sends this message to encourage people in the trenches not to bow their heads like oxen “at their punishment” but to lift them as “lions”:

I am not from a people of oxen,
I am from a people who seize
the mines of lions,
the mountain passes of eagles,
and ridgetops of bulls
with pride in the horn.
Never did oxen prosper
in the wilderness of Spain.47

Other poems that present the Internationals as heroes of the resistance are found in the revolutionary anthems that John Cornford wrote before he was killed in action. Cornford was one of the first British volunteers to die as a member of the International Brigades. In one of his most powerful poems, “Full Moon at Tierz: Before the Storming of Huesca,” the speaker reveals his doubts and desperation while he struggles to keep the faith in his mission and hope in those who stand by him: “Our fight’s not won till the workers of all the world / stand by our guard on Huesca’s plain, / swear that our dead fought not in vain.”48

Similar portrayals of the international volunteers as defenders of the “Right cause” are found in the American camp. John Malcolm Brinnin speaks of the sacrifice of offering their lives “in freedom’s necessary crypt,” so one day “new Spanish skies […] can be contemplated “un-swastikaed, on peoples’ hills.”49 Genevieve Taggard, who was living in Spain on a Guggenheim Fellowship before the war broke out, got to know the prewar atmosphere. “They were young,” she writes, “the haggard in a trench, the dead on the olive slope / all young. And the thin, the ill and the shattered, / sightless, in hospitals, all young.”50 Muriel Rukeyser was present at the beginning of the war in 1936 to cover The People’s Olympiad, which was held in Barcelona to protest the Summer Olympics in Berlin under control of Nazi Germany. She recalls nostalgically in “Long Past Moncada”: “Whether you fell at Huesca during the lack of guns, / or later, at Barcelona, as the city fell, / … / I know how you recognized our war.”51 And Langston Hughes, who worked as a war correspondent in Madrid for six months in 1937, remembers how those “who fell in Spanish earth” planted “human seed / for freedom’s birth.”52

These poets’ personal achievements are not in question; however, their poems written during the Spanish war about the volunteers idealize them as heroes who came, as Auden wrote in “Spain,” “floating over the oceans.” The poets concerns do not extend far beyond party lines, assuming that the volunteers came ready to offer their lives as “a necessary death” in Spanish “cities, fields or roads” (Alberti) through “a valley of hard rocks of blood” (Neruda). The universal fear of Nazism, symbolized in the “new Spanish skies” that Brinnin envisions, justifies the international character of the war, “our war” as Rukeyser recalls it, and the necessary mission of the Internationals, who, in Hughes’ words, died for “freedoms’ birth.”

When the International Brigades were withdrawn in October of 1938, the myth continued to grow through poems and homages that celebrated their actions with a rhetoric of adoration. In Spain, Manuel Altolaguirre, another important figure from the group of Alberti and Garcia Lorca, known as the Generation of 27, refers to them as “the youth of America fallen / enriched the land with their blood,”53 and Antonio Machado alludes to their “heroic solidarity” in a fervent farewell published in a newspaper article lamenting how the Spanish Republic was left alone “facing the traitors at home and invaders from abroad.”54

There is no doubt that these poets were emotionally involved in the Spanish Civil War. They paid a high price with exile, jail, death, or physical and psychological wounds, but in their poems celebrating the International Brigades, they assumed a collective representation that often fell onto clichéd of oversimplifications about the reasons that led soldiers to risk their lives. Philip Levine’s criticism of Stephen Spender is relevant here: “Commitment does not always poetry make.”55

An anti-elitist critical rhetoric

Auden, Spender, Orwell, and Rolfe acquired a special literary authority as witnesses or direct participants in the Spanish Civil War. They wrote poems that contributed to the construction of the myth of the International Brigades as saviors of democracy willing to die for “the people” of Spain, but they often transcended the portrayal of the Internationals as one-dimensional heroes. In their poetry Republican forces become the subdued population and the fascists become the elites, resulting in allegorical battles at home: “To-day, the struggle is in Spain. To-morrow it may be in other countries—our own,”56 reads the pamphlet that contains the answers to a political questionnaire issued by the poet and activist Nancy Cunard in 1937, Authors Take Sides on the Spanish Civil War. 

Spender got involved with “the Communists in his effort to help the Spanish Republic by joining the Party,”57 but after three visits to Spain during the war as a reporter, as a broadcaster at a radio station in Valencia, and as a delegate of the International Writers’ Congress, he became disenchanted with Communism. Unlike Auden, who never spoke publicly about the war after returning from Spain, Spender encouraged controversy in the ranks of the Internationals: “I was sure above all of one thing: that one must be honest. If we knew of atrocities committed by the Republicans we must admit to them. Here, of course, I found myself disagreeing with the Communists.”58 He also objected to party functionaries for enlisting men in the International Brigades without telling they were controlled by the Communist International, a sentiment that comes out in “Ultima Ratio Regum,” a poem about the fate of an anonymous young boy killed in battle “under these olive trees.” The soldier is described as “too young and too silly,” and the details provided about him—he had never had a job, been inside a good restaurant, nor was recognized for any kind of accomplishment—suggest that he was a victim of the interests of the powerful elites in keeping the old order. He had suffered social contempt and disdain, and knew too little of the world to understand the complexities of the conflict:

When he lived, tall factory hooters never summoned him
nor did restaurant plate-glass doors revolve to wave him in.
His name never appeared in the papers.
The world maintained its traditional wall
round the dead with their gold sunk deep as a well,
whilst his life, intangible as a Stock Exchange rumor, drifted outside.59

The third-person narrator laments the inevitability of the protagonist’s death with a metaphor (“intangible as a Stock Exchange rumor”) that links the senselessness of war to the economic battles in the protagonist’s home country. The young man is a victim not only of the war but of a society and armament interests that left him alone and whose “traditional wall / round the death with their gold sunk deep as a well” had previously shunned him.

Orwell’s “The Italian Soldier Who Shook My Hand” also presents a less romantic and more complex portrait. Orwell went to Spain “with some notion of writing newspaper articles, but he joined a militia almost immediately.”60 In Homage to Catalonia, he recalls one of his first memories, an Italian soldier standing in front of the officers’ table in the Lenin Barracks in Barcelona: “Something in his face deeply moved me. It was the face of a man who would commit murder and throw away his life for a friend […]. There were both candor and ferocity in it; also the pathetic reverence that illiterate people have for their supposed superiors.”61 Similarly, in “The Italian Soldier Who Shook My Hand” the speaker remembers his encounter with a soldier: “For the fly-blown words that make me spew / still in his ears were holy.” He only saw this man’s face for a minute or two, but it remained with him as a vivid image of his destiny. The speaker addresses the soldier directly: “What would the world give back to you? / Always less than you gave.” Having witnessed the purges and executions carried out in the ranks of the International Brigades and having come out of the war intensely hostile to the Popular Front, Orwell suggests none of the heroism in the irretrievable loss of a young man who, like so many others, was caught in the cross-fire between the lies spread by propaganda and the omnipresent danger of enemy artillery:

Between the shadow and the ghost,
between the white and the red,
between the bullet and the lie,
where would you hide your head?62

Other examples of the controversies and tensions faced by the Internationals are found in Rolfe’s poems. Known as the “Poet Laureate of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion” by his fellow brigadiers, Rolfe wrote strikingly personal poems about the international volunteers’ experiences in the battlefront: “… No man knows war / who never has crouched in his foxhole, hearing / the bullets an inch from his head, nor the zoom of / planes like a Ferris wheel strafing the trenches,” he wrote in “City of Anguish,” a poem about the bombing of Madrid, an event he experienced in the fall of 1937. The poem documents a soldier’s reaction to the nature of war and the sudden loss of friends: “War is your comrade struck dead beside you, / his shared cigarette still alive in your lips.” In the middle of the chaos “the city weeps” and “the Madrileños rise from the wreckage,” trying to find a safer place to hide from the bombs falling: “The swastika’d baton falls! and the clatter of / thunder begins again,”63 as the speaker says, alluding to the German aircraft that supported the Nationalists’ forces in that strife.

Rolfe was well aware of the ideological dynamics and conscious of political motives—he was the editor of Volunteer for Liberty, worked as a broadcaster in Radio Madrid, and published the first book of eyewitness accounts during the war, The Lincoln Battalion: The Story of Americans Who Fought in Spain in the International Brigades.  In “Brigadas Internacionales,” he makes a strong allegation against the neutrality policies of the Anglo-American bloc, targeting the cowardly attitude of the government officials who turned a blind eye to the Spanish war. The speaker laments and attacks the spirit of non-intervention by revealing the ominous reality caused by not selling weapons to Republican Spain, when it was known that Hitler and Mussolini were selling them to Franco:

To say We were right is not boastful,
not We saw, when all others were blind
not We acted, while others ignored or uselessly wept.

We have the right to say this
because in purest truth it is also recorded:
We died, while others in cowardice looked on.64

The poem emphasizes the speaker’s frustration with Western democracies for allowing the spread of fascism and leaving soldiers powerless: “We acted, while others ignored or uselessly wept” and remembers the volunteers’ sacrifice from a personal perspective: “We died, while others in cowardice looked on.” The veterans understood “that the United States, for reasons of politics, had participated in the death of the Spanish Republic,”65 as historian Peter Carroll wrote, a somber reality that Rolfe clearly denounces.

These poems add another dimension to the multifaceted nature of the conflict by bringing the terror and confusion of the soldier in the front, the treachery of supposed allies, and the disappointment with the volunteers’ home governments. The poems are not a call to arms nor an idealistic representation of events, but succinct testimonies in which the lyrical voice becomes a politically positioned subject.

Addressing the Volunteer as an Individual

Works by Wallace Stevens and Philip Levine depicted the volunteer as an individual. Rather than the personification of a political cause, they wrote with an explicit recognition of the ironic blurring of opposing forces that always occurs in wartime. Restraining from a populist stance and creating poems from a poetic distance in time and space, their approaches in “The Men That Are Falling” (Stevens), and “To P.L., 1916-1937: A Soldier of the Republic” and “I Could Believe” (Levine), reflect how the soldiers’ moral conflicts are not contained within the sectarianism of party lines.

Their focus on the demoralizing nature of the war and the philosophical misgivings of the fighters—fear in combat, deceiving indications of weaknesses, trauma of the war veteran back home—complicates the myth. Unlike those who were close to the events and sometimes more susceptible to a heroic vision than those distant from it, Stevens and Levine were better able to imagine the moral complexity of the volunteer, even though they could not fill this figure with first-hand accounts. In addition, they developed wartime poetics that did not align with existing political ideologies, separating public politics from artistic means and challenging the commonly accepted version of the war “as a dramatic struggle between good and evil.”66 Well aware of the privilege of their autonomy as writers and having the courage to speak their minds, they offered a counter to the one-dimensionality of the brigadier legend figure that goes beyond the legendary myth.

Stevens wrote from his home country. Not having first-hand experience as a witness, he overcame the dilemma of the civilian’s mediated relationship to war by developing poetic strategies inspired by the press coverage of the war, as well as from the aesthetic or creative position of a poet who explored the notion of poetry as the supreme fusion of the creative imagination and objective reality. Just a few weeks after the outbreak of the war, he penned an elegy for soldiers recently killed in Spain, “The Men That Are Falling,” in which he explores conflicts of desire and loss, emotional confusion and bitterness. Focusing on a volunteer seriously hurt and lying in bed in “the catastrophic room” of an infirmary, he presents the wounded man trying to go to sleep while questioning his reasons for having gone to fight. With hardly enough strength to listen to the sound of the crickets, the soldier sees his dreams disappear in his agony:

And crickets are loud again in the grass. The moon
burns in the mind on lost remembrances.
He lies down and the night wind blows upon him here.
The bells grow longer. This is not sleep. This is desire.67

Instead of creating an abstract hero or reveling in the gruesome details of combat, Stevens, with the characteristic persuasive symbolism of his work, dramatizes the psychological turmoil of the soldier, who is in a state “beyond desperation.” Stevens did not have the distinctive authority of being a witness as did Orwell, Spender or Rolfe, but his concern for the soldier’s destiny is carefully rendered through a self-reflective approach that allows him to foreground the feelings of men who became involved in the war without realizing all the implications.

Levine was only eight years old when the war broke out, but felt its devastating events in his native Detroit. In 1999 he noted that, “The Spanish Civil War was the war of my growing up, and many young men from my neighborhood went to it. About half of them came home. So this was my war, in a sense. I was growing up with the mythology of it.” After studying the history of the war, living in Spain for a year in the mid-sixties, and visiting on subsequent occasions, that passion increased.  “To P.L., 1916-1937: A Soldier of the Republic” suggests how he combines historical details with the personal in his poems, as he imagines himself entering Spain to witness the loss of his schoolmate’s brother (identified with the acronym of P.L. to preserve his anonymity), who had been thrown in a ditch and was given up for dead, but still conscious: “Great earth peeping through snow / you lay for three days / with one side of your face / frozen to the ground.”69 The young man is wearing a “red and black scarf / of the Anarchists,” a detail which opens room for interpretation about who was responsible for his death. He could have been executed by Franco’s forces, who saw the foreign volunteers as “reds” at the service of International Communism,70 or by someone from his own side—several factions within the Popular Front despised the anarchists and considered them enemies of the Republic.

He also adds other dimensions to the poem by including various characters: “An old country woman of the Aragon,” walks by and steals the soldier’s boots, “the black Wellingtons / the gray hunting socks, and the long / slender knife.” Worried about survival in the midst of battle, the woman hunts for the most basic items, and doesn’t have the luxury to contemplate other things. By shifting perspectives between a first-person narrator reacting to the situation, a second-person narrator addressing the volunteer, and a third-person narrator describing the soldier’s agony, Levine creates a panoply of tones and provides a stark contrast to propagandistic works that romanticize the conflict. The bitter, elegiac ending in which the soldier is thrown away on a side road without a burial intensifies the sense of abandonment during P.L.’s last moments and the desperation of the woman who lives with extreme hunger:

Without laughter she is gone
ten years now,
and on the road to Huesca in spring
there is no one to look for you
among the wild jonquils, the curling
grasses at the road side,
and the blood red poppies, no one
to look on the farthest tip
of wind breathing down from the mountains
and shaking the stunted pines you hid among.71

It is notable that Levine addresses specific characters as opposed to the abstract “we” of the standard eulogizing poems. Similarly, in “I Could Believe” the narrator elucidates the way he perceives the moral and psychological consequences of the war. Written in the tone of a man talking to himself, the speaker indirectly calls the reader to witness the veteran’s experience in the war and his reality after he returns home. He “came / home from Spain, bitter / and wounded,” like many of 1,500 Americans who returned from Spain but who, as historian Peter Carroll observes, “did not receive the joyful welcome that has usually greeted veterans of other American wars– with the exception of those who, three decades later, returned from another unpopular battlefront in Vietnam.”72

The Franco triumph and the news from Spain about the repression of the defeated deepened the grief of the Lincoln Brigade veterans. Rolfe’s literary comrade in Spain, Alvah Bessie, wrote laconically about one of the reasons for his sadness when he returned: “So much blood had been spilled, so much suffering endured, so much heroism displayed, so much sacrifice cheerfully accepted that final defeat was totally unacceptable to my mind.”73 Afraid of being misunderstood, many volunteers remained outsiders and were shunned publicly. Even though part of the American public supported the Loyalist cause, the nation did not support military participation in the war. Other returnees were burdened with the stigma of communist leanings or having violated neutrality laws, no matter how often they reiterated having gone to Spain to fight for democracy. Hemingway protested that, “These men are heroes. Their heroism and value to American society are being disregarded and cast into disrepute … by an avalanche of legal technicalities,”74 in reference to seventeen members of the International Brigades held at the immigration center for lack of documentation.

The speaker in “I Could Believe” is able to eke out a living: he “opened / a small portrait shop / in an office building in Detroit,” accepts his plight, and takes stock of his life during the four years since returning from the war, but is haunted by the human trauma resulting from the failure to win the war.  In 1942, at age thirty-seven years, memories torture him, and “When I can’t stand it / I drive out past the lights / of small factories.” The failure of his past and present are captured in images of industrial Detroit, “where the bearings for tanks / and half-tracks are ground.” He parks his car, and smokes “in silence on the shoulder / of US 24,” and recalls the Ebro,75 the great final battle of the war that lasted for over three months:

…………… 7,000 miles
a lifetime from the Ebro
where 7 men I came to need
went under in a small boat
and I crossed alone
to a burnt shore and kept

The veteran acknowledges his luck for not being “a body fallen away / to the dust of Spain / a white face becoming / water, a name no one / names,” but he is tormented by memories that remind him that he could have been another “face / born forever on an / inside page of the Detroit / Free Press.” The redemptive consolation in the last line, “except / for the dying I could believe,” reflects his ambiguous feelings about the war and that he finds himself living next to factories that manufacture weapons that were not sent to aid the Republican cause, suggesting he feels complicit collaborating with the side he fought against.

Like the metaphysical despair in Stevens’s “The Men That Are Falling,” the complex emotions and the anti-romantic sentiments in Levine’s poems provide a sharp contrast to poems that depict the volunteers as romantic heroes and are filled with patriotic outpourings and calls to arms.  Stevens and Levine’s poems are more reflective about the emotional cost of fighting, imploring the reader to look at the devastating results of war: the fate of the innocent, the questioning of ideals, and the challenges of returning home.  In contrast to many previous poets—including Auden, Hughes, Neruda, and Vallejo—Stevens and Levine challenged the rhetoric common to populism and added more complex dimensions to the myth of the international volunteer.



1 Beevor 246.
2 In 1937, the Left Review sent a questionnaire to 148 British and American writers and intellectuals to know their position about the Spanish War, “Authors Take Sides on the Spanish Civil War.” Editor and activist Nancy Cunard asked the following questions: “Are you for, or against, the legal Government and the People of Republic Spain? Are you for, or against, Franco and Fascism?” Cunningham, ed. 51.
3 The Volunteer for Liberty, was published in Madrid and Barcelona and distributed in Europe and the United States from 1937 to 1938. (Nelson 16)
4 Müller 2-3. I take the two conditions to count as populist—being critical of elites and claiming exclusive and distinctively moral representation of the people—from Jan-Werner Müller’s book, What is populism?
5 Othen 1.
6 Brendon 386.
7 Vidal 9.
8 Othen 7.
9 Othen 6.
10 The New American, March 26, 2001. Qtd. in Othen 6.
11 Ibd. Qtd. in Othen 6.
12 Universidad Complutense of Madrid; Library of Congress.
13 Minder, The New York Times; Asociación de Amigos de las Brigadas Internacionales (AABI).
14 Preston 293.
15 The Volunteer. The assumptions, values, and beliefs of poets who celebrated the Popular Front are constantly alluded to in poetry gatherings and political events, though some of these poets changed their views on Spanish Civil War poems. A remarkable record of these changes are chronicled in The God That Failed by Stephen Spender and Las armas y las letras (“Weapons and Words”) by Andrés Trapiello. Both discuss writer’s breaks with the ideology they professed when they wrote their own poems.
16 Hobsbauwn 160. The “Internationals” were divided into smaller units called Battalions. About 2,000 British enlisted as members of the British Battalion and 2,800 Americans as members of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion – or as they were called “The Lincolns.”
17 Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls 66.
18 Hemingway went to Spain four times between 1937 and 1938 to cover the war as a journalist. On his “Eulogy to the American Dead in Spain,” delivered in 1939 before their first convention of the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade upon their return from the Spanish Civil War, he remembered that these men had taken part on “an earth that will outlive all systems of tyranny” and that had “already achieved immortality.” (Cited in Landis, xiv.)
19 “The primary strategic goal of the Lincolns was to defend the vital Madrid-Valencia road from fascist penetration. If the Republican lines fell, Franco could isolate Spain’s capital city and bring the war to a rapid conclusion” (Carroll 97). It is estimated that “The Republicans lost 25,000 including some of the best British and American members of the Brigades, and the Nationalist about 20,000” (Preston 195).
20 Qtd. in Jump 141.
21 Carroll 106.
22 Guthrie, Woody. “Jarama” on Songs of the Spanish Civil War. Vol 2, 1962.
23 Spender, The Thirties and After 154.
24 Orwell also recognized that he had accepted “the -News Chronicle-New Statesman- version of the war as the defense of civilization against a maniacal outbreak by an army of Colonel Blimps in the pay of Hitler.” (Homage to Catalonia 36).
25 Ibid., “A Letter from Aragon” 254.
26 Carroll 215.
27 MacLeish, “The Communist, the Writers, and the Spanish War” 102.
28 MacLeish, “The Irresponsibles” 121.
29 MacLeish, “The Communists, the Writers, and the Spanish War” 100.
30 Orwell, “Writers and Leviathan” 1262.
31 Cunningham, ed. 51.
32 Richardson 1.
33 Mendelson. Early Auden 183.
34 Historian Franklin Folson recalls the military execution of Dos Passos’ interpreter in Spain, “almost certainly a victim of the Stalinist purges” (37), and how “the U.S. Communist leader, Earl Browder told his friend Philip Jaffe that he discovered in Spain that two heroic leaders of the Lincoln Battalion, Dave Doran and Robert Merriman, were executed, not killed in military action as reported” (39). Auden, according to Beevor, was one of those who “returned from Spain saying little and evidently disillusioned.” (247)
35 Auden, “Spain” 1-4.
36 Orwell, “Inside the Whale” 237.
37 Ibid., 237.
38 Ibid., 237.
39 Mendelson 105.
40 Auden, Collected Shorter Poems 1927-1957. 15.
41 Spender, The Thirties and After: Poetry, Politics, People (1933-75) 18.
42 Alberti, “A las Brigadas Internacionales” (153). “Venís desde muy lejos…mas esta lejanía / ¿qué es para vuestra sangre que canta sin fronteras? / “La necesaria muerte os nombra cada día, / no importa en qué ciudades, campos o carreteras.” (All the translations from Spanish into English are by the author of this article).
43 Neruda. “Llegada a Madrid de la Brigada Internacional” 70-71. “Porque habéis hecho renacer con vuestro sacrificio / la fe perdida, el alma ausente, la confianza en la tierra, / y por vuestra abundancia, por vuestra nobleza, por vuestros muertos, / como por un valle de duras rocas de sangre / posa un inmenso río con palomas de acero y de esperanza.”
44 Ibid., 71.
45 Vallejo, “Himno a los voluntarios de la República” 568-576: “Cuando marcha a matar con su agonía”/ “En España, en Madrid, están llamando / a matar, voluntarios de la vida!”
46 Hernández, “Al soldado internacional caído en combate,” 192: “hombres que contienen un alma sin fronteras” // “apaciguar la sed de las panteras.”
47 Hernández, “Vientos del pueblo me llevan” 171: “No soy de un pueblo de bueyes, / que soy de un pueblo que embargan / yacimientos de leones, desfiladeros de águilas / y cordilleras de toros / con el orgullo en el asta. / Nunca medraron los bueyes / en los páramos de España.”
48 Cornford, “Full Moon at Tierz: Before the Storming of Huesca” 256.
49 Brinnin, “For a Young Poet Dead in Spain” 109-110.
50 Taggard, “To the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade” 154.
51 Rukeyser, “Long Past Moncada” 186.
52 Hughes, “Tomorrow’s Seed” 431.
53 Altolaguirre, “Homenaje a los americanos muertos en defensa de España” 182: “La juventud de América caída / enriqueció la tierra con su sangre”.
54 Machado, “heroica solidaridad”, “encarando a los traidores de casa y a los invasores de fuera”, qtd. in Gibson 120.
55 Levine, My Lost Poets 140.
56 Cunningham, ed. 51.
57 Spender, World Within World 211.
58 Ibid,. 226.
59 Spender, “Ultima Ratio Regum” 99.
60 Orwell, Homage to Catalonia 1.
61 Ibid, 1.
62 Orwell, “The Italian Soldier Shook My Hand” 257.
63 Rolfe, “City of Anguish” 131-135.
64 Rolfe, “Brigadas Internacionales” 198.
65 Carroll 210.
66 Brendon 359.
67 Stevens, “The Men That Are Falling” 10.
68 Levine, So Ask 137.
69 Levine, “To P.L., 1916-1937: A Soldier of the Republic” 73.
70 Carroll 155.
71 Levine, “To P.L., 1916-1937: A Soldier of the Republic” 74.
72 Carroll 212.
73 Bessie “So much blood,” qtd. in Carroll 210.
74 Hemingway, qtd. in Carroll 215.
75 “Over a period of 113 days, nearly 250,000 men had clashed in a hilly terrain of approximately five hundred square kilometers […]. The richly fertile Terra Alta became a massive cemetery –tens of thousands of men were buried quickly, many left where they lay, and others doomed in the river. To this day, human remains are regularly found in the area. The battle itself ruined the harvest of wheat and barley in July, of almond in August, of grapes in September and of olives in November” (Preston 291).
76 Levine, “I Could Believe” 3-5.



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