Poems of love and loss

Post date: 17/12/2020

John Cornford, International Brigader and communist poet, was born on 27 December 1915 and was killed 21 years and 1 day later, in the early months of the Spanish Civil War. This December marks 105 years since his birth. In this feature, which originally appeared in IBMT Newsletter 3-2015, IBMT Chair Jim Jump looks back at the poems that Cornford and his lover, communist writer Margot Heinemann, exchanged in the lead-up and aftermath to his death. Cornford’s poems have been republished in the collection ‘Poems from Spain’ (Lawrence & Wishart, 2006), which is available here.

One of the best known poems to emerge from the Spanish Civil War is John Cornford’s love poem to his sweetheart Margot Heinemann (1913-1992). The couple, pictured right, met at Cambridge University where they both joined the Communist Party. Called simply “Poem” when it was published posthumously in 1937, it is now more commonly titled “To Margot Heinemann”.

Cornford was killed at Lopera, near Córdoba, on 28 December 1936, the day after his 21st birthday. He was fighting with the English-speaking company of La Marseillaise Battalion. Before joining the International Brigades he had served with the semi-Trotskyist POUM militia on the Aragon front – hence the reference to Huesca in his poem. Also sometimes known by its first line, ‘Heart of the heartless world’ (paraphrasing Karl Marx), the poem is considered by many to be one of the finest love poems of the 20th century, and the reader’s knowledge of the writer’s fate makes its intimate tenderness and confessional tone all the more poignant.

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.

Cornford’s poem takes its place in a sequence of four poems. The other three were written by Margot Heinemann in 1936, 1937 and, probably, around 1950. Taken as a whole they serve to reinforce the romantic view of the tragic Cornford-Heinemann love affair and his Byronic image as a dashing young soldier, poet and lover cut down in his prime.

The late Graham Stevenson, biographer of leading British communists said: ‘Margot Heinemann and John Cornford are perhaps the main example of the great love affair in the British Communist movement, rivalling Noreen and Clive Branson’s personal loss (he was killed in the Second World War) by their remarkable poetry.’ Branson of course was another International Brigader.

Born into a distinguished family of academics, Cornford was the son of a Cambridge University philosophy professor and the great grandson of Charles Darwin. He read history at Trinity College, Cambridge. 

Margot – from a rich Jewish family in London – was not Cornford’s first girlfriend. He had also been romantically attached to Rachel Peters, a Communist Party activist from South Wales, and they had a son in 1935.

Cornford’s poem can be seen as a response to Heinemann’s poem “For R.J.C. (Summer, 1936)”; RJC are Rupert John Cornford’s initials. Here’s an extract:

When he began, and he talked too fast

To be heard well, and he knew too much.

He had never had, though he learned a little at last,

The sure, sincere and easy touch

On an audience: and his handsome head

Charmed no acquiescence: he convinced and led.

Though it almost reads like a eulogy, Heinemann’s poem was written, as its title suggests, while Cornford was still alive. She composed it on a train travelling back from the south of France after she picked up John’s poste restante message that he had enlisted in Spain.

Then, devastated by the news that her lover had been killed, she penned “Grieve in a New Way for New Losses” in 1937. It begins with Heinemann imagining his decomposing body (which was never recovered from the battlefield):

And after the first sense “He will not come again”

Fearing still the images of corruption,

To think he lies out there and changes

In the process of the earth from what I knew,

Decays and even there in the grave, shut close

In the dark, away from me, speechless and cold,

Is in no way left the same that I have known.

All this is not more than we can deal with.

Both “For R.J.C. (Summer 1936)” and “Grieve in a New Way for New Losses” have appeared in anthologies, such as ‘Poems for Spain’ (edited by Stephen Spender and John Lehmann, 1939) and ‘The Penguin Book of Spanish Civil War Verse (edited by Valentine Cunningham, 1980).

Less well known is ‘Ringstead Mill’, the final poem in this sequence, though it was published in ‘Red Sky at Night’ (edited by Andy Croft and Adrian Mitchell, 2003).

It was discovered in Heinemann’s papers following her death. Daughter Jane Bernal (filmed here, reading Cornford’s 'Full Moon at Tierz) explains: ‘At first we thought it must have been written in the last two years of her life. It now seems it was written rather earlier, probably in the late 1940s or early 1950s, but she did not show it to many people and it was never published during her lifetime. Ringstead Mill is a house in an old windmill that belonged to friends of the Cornford family. Margot and John stayed there in December 1935.’

The poem was read at Margot’s funeral by the actress Tilda Swinton. Here it is in full:

Stranger whom I once knew well,

Do not haunt this house.

Sorrow’s but a ravelled thread,

To draw back the active dead,

Nor is pleasure mutable

Such as smiled on us.

Stranger whom I once knew well,

Do not haunt this house.

Idle and low spirits can

Take your name and face:

Old green sweater, battered coat,

Coal-black hair and sleeves too short.

Though I know the living man

Finished with this place,

Idle and low spirits can

Take your name and face.

Here we laid foundations where

Never walls were built.

Faded is the fireside glow,

Things we knew or seemed to know

Blown around the empty air,

And the milk is spilt.

Here we laid foundations where

Never walls were built.

And the hard thing to believe

Still is what you said.

With a bullet in the brain,

How can matter think again?

All things that once live and move

Endlessly are dead.

And the hard thing to believe

Still is what you said.

So from these deserted rooms,

Even memory’s past.

As your closely pencilled screed

Grows more faint and hard to read,

So our blueprints and our dreams,

Torn from time are lost.

So from these deserted rooms,

Even memory’s passed.

Mountains that we saw far off,

Sleek with gentle snow,

To the climbers axe real

Ice that jars the swinging steel,

Armoured on a holdless cliff

With the clouds below–

Mountains that we saw far off,

Sleek with gentle snow.

Time bears down its heroes all

And the fronts they held.

Yet their charge of change survives

In the changed fight of our lives–

Poisoned fires they never dreamed of

Ring the unrented field.

Change is their memorial

Who have changed the world.

Heinemann became – along with Noreen Branson – a leading figure in the Communist Party and was an author and novelist as well as poet. From the early 1950s she lived with the scientist and fellow communist Professor JD Bernal. However, as ‘Ringstead Mill’ so movingly makes clear, she never forgot John Cornford.


Posted on 17 December 2020.

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