Image by Gisele Freund

Poem introduction

Well, the issue at stake was really fascism versus anti-fascism - I think after 1933 after Hitler came to power it became more and more clear that the whole of Europe was threatened by fascism which meant dictatorship, anti-semitism, censorship and lack of intellectual freedom and so therefore my generation was involved in trying to prevent this happening, not just politically, but also as writers because if fascism had overwhelmed Europe we anyhow would not have been able to write what we wanted to write, so that although really we were an un-political generation of writers our very survival as writers was involved in the anti-fascist cause...

Ultima Ratio Regum

...Well the foolish boy was just someone I saw [during the Spanish Civil War] lying between the lines, just a corpse really, who couldn't be picked up because if you'd gone out and tried to take his body away, the stretcher bearers who did this would have been killed, whichever side it was. It's called 'Ultima Ratio Regum' which means "the ultimate, or the final argument of kings" which was the legend I think Louis XIII or Louis IVX had embossed on the mouths of their bronze cannons.

Ultima Ratio Regum

The guns spell money's ultimate reason
In letters of lead on the spring hillside.
But the boy lying dead under the olive trees
Was too young and too silly
To have been notable to their important eye.
He was a better target for a kiss.

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 rumour, drifted outside.

O too lightly he threw down his cap
One day when the breeze threw petals from the trees.
The unflowering wall sprouted with guns,
Machine-gun anger quickly scythed the grasses;
Flags and leaves fell from hands and branches;
The tweed cap rotted in the nettles.

Consider his life which was valueless
In terms of employment, hotel ledgers, news files.
Consider. One bullet in ten thousand kills a man.
Ask. Was so much expenditure justified
On the death of one so young and so silly
Lying under the olive trees, O world, O death?


from New Collected Poems (Faber, 2004), by permission of Ed Victor Ltd for the Estate of Stephen Spender. Recordings used by permission of the BBC.

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