‘Huesca’ by John Cornford

Heart of the heartless world,
Dear heart, the thought of you
Is the pain at my side,
The shadow that chills my view.

The wind rises in the evening,
Reminds that autumn is near.
I am afraid to lose you,
I am afraid of my fear.

On the last mile to Huesca,
The last fence for our pride,
Think so kindly, dear, that I
Sense you at my side.

And if bad luck should lay my strength
Into the shallow grave,
Remember all the good you can;
Don’t forget my love.

John Cornford (who incidentally was the great grandson of Charles Darwin and son of the poet Frances Cornford) joined the International Brigade to fight Franco’s fascists early on in the Spanish Civil War, just like numerous other writers and poets such as Orwell and Auden.

You may recognise the first line of this poem as a quote from Karl Marx (from his introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right) where he stated that religion was “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of the heartless world, the soul of the soulless situation, and the opium of the people.” Marx went on to say that criticism of religion had “plucked the flowers on the chain not so that man shall bear the chain without consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower.” It is not surprising that Cornford, a committed communist and atheist since his Cambridge days, should find inspiration in Marx for a poem. Nevertheless, this particular quote is one that, though it doesn’t quite excuse religion (it is an oppressive “chain” to be “throw[n] off”), does seem to accept it as being founded on Man’s necessity for light, comfort, morality and truth in a brutal world (a “living flower”).

Huesca, perhaps despite initial appearances, however, is not a political poem. Its opening is musical, romantic – almost chant-like – with the three repetitions of “heart”, and particularly that repeated, breathless “h” sound bathing us in a beautiful whispered effect. It is addressed to Cornford’s girlfriend, Margot Heinemann, and expresses his longing for her and everything she seems to represent (gentleness, clarity, grace, kindness…); everything that is missing amid the “heartless”, chaotic hell-world of War that he is enduring.

I find it fascinating that the poet has used that quote from Marx, originally used to describe Man’s religious impulse, to address his lover. So far removed from her, and the tranquil bubble of England, has she become for him like a saint to pray to – an ideal? This poem does read like a prayer, I think. Amid the terror of battles and constant anxiety and fear, the thought of her is the “pain” in his side, the “shadow that chills [his] view”. These lines seem to me to deliver the idea that Cornford (convinced as he was of the rightness of the cause he was defending, and determined as he was to fight for it) could only waver in tenacity when thinking of Miss Heinemann back at home. She was what he had to lose, his only reason, it would seem, for not being ok with becoming a martyr.

Cornford was killed either on or on the day after his 21st birthday in 1936. He died while fighting on the Cordoba Front. Knowing this, I find the end of the piece even more touching: “Remember all the good you can;/ Don’t forget my love”. The way this last line breaks with the regular rhyming sequence that precedes it (the unremarkable, quaint abab) rhyme scheme, is very effective. Here, the poet’s honest fear – the cracks and trembling in his voice – comes through because it contrasts so with the sing-song and rhyming of the rest of the poem. In this last line, I can almost hear the machine-gun fire going off behind him, and the cries of soldiers coming from all around. Stripped of rhyme, reality is more patent. The music has died, and suddenly we are left with only Cornford and his lover – his earnest voice begging her not to forget him.

John Cornford

John Cornford