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On "First Love"


Cary Nelson

While working in New York 1n 1943, Rolfe was drafted for military service and set to Texas to train in an anti-tank battalion. He became ill while in training at Camp Wolters and was discharged, but not before he had a chance to see the difference between the deeply committed volunteers in Spain and the young recruits in Texas. Two poems from that spring and summer in Texas are of special importance. In May, borrowing his title from William Vaughan Moody's turn of the century anti-imperialist poem against our war in the Philippines, Rolfe wrote "In the Time of Hesitation." It is one of the "Munich period" poems he omitted from First Love, one in which he realizes that Spain is already disappearing from the popular memory but affirms nonetheless that not all reasons for going to war now are the same:

What's in the wind? There is no wind.
What's in the air? Dust.
The dust hangs yellow in the stagnant air,
oppressive on the treeless drill-worn fields
where eager boys with ancient eyes
master their manual-of-arms, till soon
instead of group, they call themselves platoon.

Here, under smoldering Texas sun,
summer beginning and training ending,
daily we read the morning headlines,
nightly we turn the dial, listening
for the words that do not come, the deeds
that hang, suspended like dust in air . . .

And I, one among many, remember
other clouds upon other horizons,
the urgencies of other years and other deeds
. . . but somewhere, always,
hearts quicken when the word Madrid is spoken
and minds recall its lonely betrayed splendor,
the lost war but the undefeated men . . .
imprisoned in the ruins of their immortal city . . .

Here, on these Texas plains, we simulate
all the innumerable movements of invasion:
down ropes into a hypothetic barge,
from barge to sandy beach, then uphill past
barbed tanglements we cut to let the others by;
then on to the attack. Only combat missing:
actual shell, flesh-mangling bomb, bullet with million eyes.
. . . And even the Texas plain
will be fertile or scorched, as the war is lost or won.

Thus Rolfe did not leave the army before historicizing his situation in a more profound and problematic way. For a series of recognitions converged on him in Texas. It was partly the sharp realization of his generational difference and partly as well the specific social and political commitments, the very distinctive camaraderie, he witnessed in Spain but missed among the young men and officers around him here. Training to fight now, he could not help recalling that he had fought five years earlier with very different passions and out of an articulate sense of history and history's entanglements that had little equivalent among the draftees he met here. If the cultural environment he was part of was improbable and the immediate audience for his writing at best surreal, he nonetheless did begin to write again. It may be that the alternating heat and rain in Texas were not altogether unlike the seasonal extremes on the plains at Tarazona. When he left the army, he would begin theorizing the differences between these two wars in prose. But for now these issues coalesced and found expression in poetry.

"In Time of Hesitation" was the first realization of his double consciousness. There is the dust of these plains, he observes, the dust in the ruins of Spain, and the dust that individual memory faces if it is not recorded. And of course, always in the background is the famous passage from the service for the burial of the dead in The Book of Common Prayer: "ashes to ashes, dust to dust." Rolfe concludes with a reflection on the necessity of turning these children rapidly into "men or corpses." For "the world cannot wait." Some, to be sure, await the invasion of Europe; others await the opening of that second front that will deflect some of the pressure of the German attack on the Soviet Union; it is a difference temporarily to be set aside. But Rolfe is not yet satisfied with his rendering of the meaning of Spain remembered now, on the possible eve of a return in arms to Europe.

Under the pressure to give witness to that renewed memory, something changes in the rhetoric available to him. His poetry undergoes a shift in compression and metaphoric complexity. And in the heat of Texas he writes what will be his signature poem, "First Love," a haunting and lyrical tribute to Spain's hold on him and a poem that, while politicizing a romantic trope, also insists that the passionate core of his politics remains a permanent resource. As Karen Ford has written persuasively about this love poem to Spain, "contrary to what we might expect, the romantic suggestiveness of the title `First Love' is not exposed in the poem as a subjective, idealized illusion that the grim brutality and grave morality of war must embarrass. Instead, the poem insists that the intense subjectivity of romantic love and the daunting generality of social struggle are connected, though their connection must constantly be scrutinized to assure that each term is held up for measure by the other." As she adds about one of the poem's more haunting images,

that war makes love central to Rolfe's ideals is expressed in the image of the Spanish girl, who embodies both love and death: `the black-smocked girl approaching, her hands laden with grapes.' The girl is clearly a reaper (she carries the grapes she has picked) and probably a grim reaper (the black smock, however traditional, nonetheless suggests this), but she is also a figure of innocence (she is just a girl) and vitality (she is young and holds the bacchanalian grapes). The approach of death makes love urgent because it forces us to decide what in our lives is most important. She is Spain personified as an exotic yet innocent woman; as such, she is an instance of the poem's irreducibly inaugural and retrospective title. What Rolfe wants from this and many other invocations of romantic love is both a paradigm of human relations and a source of energy——emotional and erotic——that can be tapped for revolutionary purposes.

Here in America, then, in the heat of our southern plains, still he finds Spain present to his mind and central to his life. And there is a reason why this is true, beyond the accidents of circumstance and the politics of commitment that brought him to Madrid and to the hills above the Ebro river. For at the core of the Spanish experience were a set of values and a vision of human perfectibility within history that are quite different from the need, however real, to put an end to Hitler and Mussolini.

That is not to say that "First Love" has no relevance to other historical moments and to other people's lives. The poem would have resonance for anyone training to fight in a second war amongst younger recruits with no comparable experience. Certainly the pathos of the "strange place-names" that enter public discourse during a foreign war only to be widely forgotten shortly thereafter, meanwhile remaining resonant or even pivotal for those who fought there, is a pathos any veteran will understand—as indeed will anyone who has lived long enough to see crucial historical events become irrelevant to younger generations. Rolfe himself calls the field of battle "green with the blood still fresh at the roots of flowers" an "eternal" one. But in fact he means that field to have other connotations as well: it is the field of specific memories that hold fresh for him, and those memories are eternal not so much in their applicability to other struggles as in their singularity. The selfless gift of those international volunteers who went to the aid of the Spanish Republic—a gift whose purity remains a resource to succeeding generations—is part of what justifies the assertion that there were flowers on those battlefields, flowers that thus signify more than the ordinary disruption of a pastoral setting by war or the flowers at a soldier's grave.

Despite Franco's victory, despite the subsequent red-baiting of those who went to Spain, the dream and the trauma of Spain remain unsullied. The last stanza, with its self-declared lyricism, makes that claim explicit. A biographical incident lies behind these lines, but it emerges in the poem not as autobiography but as a lyrical emblem. When a train full of American volunteers was scheduled to leave Spain, Rolfe and the correspondent Vincent Sheean were among others there at Puigcerda to see them off. As it happened, the train arrived and left early, and it was well it did, for at the scheduled arrival two squadrons of Franco's planes flew over and bombed the station heavily. They thus missed their intended target, and that group of internationals left safely. Shortly thereafter, Sheean saw one swan on a nearby lake and remarked the contrast to Rolfe. Here, however, Rolfe raises the image to a more general meaning. For it is the special justice of the Spanish cause—its moral specificity as a historical event—that justifies the lyrical vision at the poem's end. If it is thus an explicit triumph of literariness, it is not an exclusively textual one. Rolfe's point is that the poetic lyricism is historically warranted.

 from the introduction to Rolfe's Collected Poems. Copyright 1993 by Cary Nelson


Michael Thurston

In "First Love," Rolfe’s most anthologized and readily recognized poem, we find his most powerful commemorative act. The poem’s lyricism is inextricably bound up with the historical and moral specificities both of the moment Rolfe commemorates and of the moment in which he writes. If such moments as the end of "First Love," Cary Nelson writes, are "explicit triumph[s] of literariness, [they are] not . . . exclusively textual. Rolfe’s point is that the poetic lyricism is historically warranted" ("Lyric Politics" 37). But Rolfe’s poetic lyricism in this, the closing moment of his book devoted to Spain and all it stands for is not only historically warranted; it is historically necessary if he is to preserve the significance of the moments of which he writes under the ideological pressures operating during and after the Second World War to erase those moments from the American cultural memory. Writing during his military service during the Second World War, Rolfe sees Spain disappearing under the huge historical impact of this war against fascism, sees the specific political commitment which brought him and the other Internationals to Spain disappearing under the massive and indiscriminate mobilization of troops to stop Hitler and Mussolini. He is pressed to remember Spain, to memorialize its significance, to meet the monumental "responsibilities of the medium." "First Love" results from this pressure.

"Again I am summoned to the eternal field," Rolfe begins, summoned again to take part in military struggle, to fight fascism on the battlefield "green with the blood still fresh at the roots of flowers" (CP 190). The poem’s first strophe, though its lines bear a rhythmic regularity, is held together not by meter or rhyme but by repetition of words and sounds. The eternal field is twice green, Rolfe writes, green not only only with blood that nourishes the flowers (as Arnold Reid’s blood nourished the olive groves in Epitaph"), but also green through the dust-rimmed memory of faces." The land’s vitality continues; the field is eternal. More important, though, are the repeated sounds in these opening lines. Field," fresh," flowers," and faces" are conjoined not only through their obvious thematic resonance (especially apparent where flowers" and faces" end consecutive lines) but also through the audible alliteration. We see and hear how those who fought for the land lost themselves in it, became a part of it. The alliteration of m" sounds -- memory," moved," mound" -- effects the same connection along another vector, as the soldiers who moved in battle rest at last in mounds, living on in memory.

Rolfe deploys the resource of repetition in the poem’s third stanza, as well, from the alliteration of the first line -- "I am eager to enter it, eager to end it" -- through the repeated one" in the second -- Perhaps this one will be the last one" -- to the almost obsessive and" that joins the phrases of the last three lines’ long sentence in a syntax of coordination. That sentence is a pivotal one; last one or not, this war will recede into history just as the Spanish war has begun to. The weapons with which Rolfe and his fellow soldiers train will become artifacts, objects to be found in museums, to be studied by people for whom the "strange place-names" and "inadequate dates" are the last and insufficient vestiges of these all important conflicts. Rolfe knows that Spain carries more significance than the names of Brunete or Teruel, the dates on which those battles were fought, carries more significance even than the names -- Arnold Reid -- he has memorialized. But no matter how many conjunctions he deploys, no matter how he stacks and"s in an anaphoric column, Rolfe cannot forge any link between the past and future that might preserve Spain’s significance.

Against forgetting, Rolfe can pose only the sensuality of lyric language and the gripping image. Training on the arid Texas plain, Rolfe’s mind slips from the present conflict to thoughts in another country." Why, though, do the field on which he trains and the field for which he prepares continually give way to the field on which he fought before? His recollections of Spain are not the result of an unwillingness to fight the present war: I am eager to enter it, eager to end it." Rather, Rolfe is lured by the historical specificity of Spain, rendered here in the image of the Moorish castle and the figure of the girl carrying grapes. Spain must be recalled for it was in that conflict, with its basis in fundamental political and ethical values, that Rolfe first learned "the meaning of peace and comradeship," and it appears on the training ground as a mirage-like figure on another battlefield. With a new and larger war effort, though, with the passing of time and the receding into more and more distant memory of Spain and its significance, Rolfe cannot count on the country at large or on the memories of individuals to preserve the historical moment so crucial for him; he holds to Spain, though, as the beautiful image of a girl bringing life and sustenance back to landscape marred by death, by ruins, by history’s long shadow.

The poem’s final lines repeat this hoped-for solution to Rolfe’s problem. Against the insufficient institutional memories of museums and history books, Rolfe places a startlingly beautiful image:

and always I think of my friend who amid the apparition of bombs
saw on the lyric lake the single perfect swan. (190)

While the conflict’s ordinance will soon be nothing more than arms in museums," while the bombs are rendered ghostly, the insubstantial lyric swan" gets the last word and promises to outlast the apparition of bombs." Nelson has explained the autobiographical significance this image carried for Rolfe, but argues that "Rolfe raises the image to a more general meaning. For it is the special justice of the Spanish cause . . . that justifies the lyrical vision at the poem’s end" ("Lyric Politics" 37). We might, though, justify the poem’s lyrical conclusion not only by the "moral specificity" of Spain, but by the historical necessity Rolfe confronts in 1943 as well. Threatened with disappearance under the overwhelming historical spectacle of World War II, Spain must be preserved in the breathtaking beauty of the poem’s final image just as "first loves" often live on in the lyrics that commemorate them. The swan on the lake allows us to read back to the poem’s title, to find in Rolfe’s recollection of Spain the intensity of romantic love and in that intensity the means for preserving the moral and political significance of Spain. Amid bombs which, though lethal, are ghostly and insubstantial, the "single perfect swan" takes on a reality, a concrete character that allows it to hold, for as long as is necessary, the political potential Rolfe found in Spain.

If we read "First Love" -- the final poem of Rolfe’s collection of "Spain poems," and the culminating moment of a book whose political commitments are among the ideas persecuted during the historical moment of the postwar anti-Communist inquisition, we find in it a conclusion only obliquely hinted in Rolfe’s prose writings on poetry and politics. "Again I am summoned to the eternal field," Rolfe begins, the field which is "green with blood still fresh at the roots of flowers, / green through the dust-rimmed memory of faces." This is, as we have seen, the battlefield that was Spain, constantly renewed for Rolfe by his memory and by his continuing commitment to the ideas underlying the Republican cause. In 1951, though, and at the end of this book, the eternal field seems also to be the battlefield on which those ideas now suffer attack. Blood is still "fresh at the roots of flowers" because it is newly spilled in the persecution which intensifies almost daily. The girl, dressed in a black smock, "her hands laden with grapes," comes now to symbolize not only Spain but poetry. Amid ruins she carries nourishment, amid destruction, beauty. She is the woman depicted in Lia Nickson’s illustration for the last part of First Love and Other Poems, the image of lyric beauty earned through personal experience of the pain wrought by history.

And the single perfect swan" that lands upon the lyric lake"? Here, Rolfe brings to bear a handful of his chosen medium’s peculiar resources. This line, alone in the poem, scans almost perfectly (except for the first foot’s trochaic substitution) as iambic hexameter. Sight, singularity, and swan are joined alliteratively, as are the lake and the lyricism that the line embodies. And, thanks to this happy accident of history, the bird present amid the apparition of bombs" is not just any bird but is that most lyrical of water fowl, a swan. We have seen Rolfe call on Yeats before (in To My Contemporaries" and Song for a Birthday in Exile"), and here again he alludes to his aged almost-contemporary. Yeats’s swans, in The Wild Swans at Coole," Leda and the Swan," Among School Children" and other poems, carry a complex set of symbolic resonances: embodied wisdom or sentience, supernatural or divine power, a life that promises to outlast merely human spans. Rolfe’s swan carries these significances through the bombardment, lands with them on the lyric lake. And through the Yeatsian conduit, Rolfe’s swan bears in its wings and feathers Yeats’s own antecedent swans, the legendary children of King Lir, transformed by a jealous stepmother and doomed to live on lakes and seas for nine hundred years. Outliving Aoife, who casts her spell on them, the swans bear their father’s story and their own long-forgotten names (Fionnuala, Aodh, Fiachra, and Con) through the ages, through the disappearance of Druidic culture and the rise of Christianity in Ireland, to utter the inadequate dates, the strange names, once and finally at the moment of their death, to read into the record of legend what otherwise would be entirely forgotten.

Like the girl who carries grapes, the allusive swan at the poem’s end completes the transformation of the "eternal field" from the location of apocalyptic struggles over political power to the location of historical memory. Deploying the resources of the medium against the repressive force of history, "First Love," finally, completes the progression of Rolfe’s political poetics from exhortation through elegy to a hard won ground on which political commitment and personal experience coexist in the carefully constructed poetic vessels which hold them in productive and protective tension.

from Michael Thurston, Making Something Happen: Politics and Modern American Poetry.


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