This is a quiet sector of a quiet front.

Today I am posting a poignant war poem, from John Cornford, who was killed at a young age in the Spanish Civil War shortly after writing this poem, and the one posted on October 16th 2014. It follows the tradition of poems written in World War One depicting the horrors and senselessness of war. The title refers to the region in Spain where Cornford was engaged, one of the front lines between government and insurgent forces in 1936 and 1937.

A Letter from Aragon

This is a quiet sector of a quiet front.

We buried Ruiz in a new pine coffin,
But the shroud was too small and his washed feet stuck out.
The stink of his corpse came through the clean pine boards
And some of the bearers wrapped handkerchiefs round their faces.
Death was not dignified.
We hacked a ragged grave in the unfriendly earth
And fired a ragged volley over the grave.

You could tell from our listlessness, no one much missed him.

This is a quiet sector of a quiet front.
There is no poison gas and no H. E.

But when they shelled the other end of the village
And the streets were choked with dust
Women came screaming out of the crumbling houses,
Clutched under one arm the naked rump of an infant.
I thought: how ugly fear is.

This is a quiet sector of a quiet front.
Our nerves are steady; we all sleep soundly.

In the clean hospital bed, my eyes were so heavy
Sleep easily blotted out one ugly picture,
A wounded militiaman moaning on a stretcher,
Now out of danger, but still crying for water,
Strong against death, but unprepared for such pain.

This on a quiet front.

But when I shook hands to leave, an Anarchist worker
Said: ‘Tell the workers of England
This was a war not of our own making
We did not seek it.
But if ever the Fascists again rule Barcelona
It will be as a heap of ruins with us workers beneath it.’

From <;

The mechanism for accentuating the poignancy of this poem is the repetition throughout the poem of the statement that this is a quiet front, ie no intensive fighting or shelling, both sides pretty much just consolidating their defensive lines with no major effort to change the status quo. But then within this context, each stanza paints a picture of a horrific situation, the direct consequence of the conflict. A rotting dead body of a comrade being untidily buried; women and children living in fear and squalor in affected villages; wounded soldiers lying in pain in hospital. The clear message is that the consequences of war are pervasive and terrible for all affected.

I don’t know what is meant by H.E. on line 11. Any suggestions?

Cornford was a committed Communist, so the last stanza brings the poem back to the political level, obviously with the intention that this should be a rallying cry for more of the working classes of England and elsewhere to come and fight for the government in Spain. It would be interesting to speculate whether Cornford would have evolved his thinking, as did George Orwell, if he had lived longer and experienced more of the Communist sabotaging of the Spanish government war effort by suppressing non-Communist factions in the fight.

The Poetry Dude


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