Skip to content

An Analysis of Stephen Spender’s ‘Ultima Ratio Regum’

The Spanish Civil War was a conflict that had a profound influence on many 1930s artists, especially poets, such as Stephen Spender. This article analyzes Spender’s ‘Ultima Ratio Regum’, a poem written about the conflict, looking in particular at the structural form Spender selected for this work, and highlighting some of the literary devices he employed, as well as assessing the effect these have on the content of the poem.

In terms of form and structure ‘Ultima Ratio Regum’ is fairly conventional. It comprises several stanzas, each containing an equal number of lines. The language employed is relatively straight forward, in that it doesn’t employ a formidable vocabulary or is it abundant in syntactical trickery – features that are characteristic of the contemporaneous work of W.H. Auden. Its central message is probably comprehensible to most readers on a first perusal. In regards to tone, the poem is comparatively serious, articulating heartfelt and sincere views in a direct and immediate manner.

An understanding of Latin is clearly required to comprehend the title of Spender’s poem, as translated into English, ‘Ultima Ratio Regum’ reads: ‘The last argument of kings’. This gives some idea as to the concerns of the poem. The title refers to war as being the final measure in which monarchies, as opposed to democracies, settle their differences. This serves to strengthen Spender’s credentials as a pacifist, as he is clearly referring to the horrors of all wars instead of just the Spanish Civil War.

‘Ultima Ratio Regum’ is in four stanzas, each containing six lines of varying length. It is related in the third-person by an unnamed narrator who describes the death of a young man who dies in action in an unspecified conflict. The events described are somewhat vague and are not arranged in a sequential order, for example, the first stanza informs us that “the boy lying dead under the olive trees / Was too young and too silly” while the third stanza opens with the line “O too lightly he threw down his cap”, as if he were still alive.

The poem’s protagonist is conveyed as an alienated and anonymous young man with no particular role in society. This impression is created mainly in the first three lines of the second stanza. We learn that “factory hooters never summoned him”, indicating that he was either too young to work, or was of a class who wouldn’t be expected to work in factories. We also learn however that “Nor did restaurant plate-glass doors revolve to wave him in” – a line which reflects that upper-class society was less than welcoming to him. We gather that he wasn’t famous through the line “His name never appeared in the papers”. The line “The world maintained its traditional wall” indicates that he was something of an outcast. The repetition of the word “wall” in the third stanza is illuminating, especially in that it is described now as “unflowering”, instead of “traditional”, possibly meaning it never yielded anything for the young man. Now it is “sprouted with guns”, and it seems somewhat inevitable that the succeeding lines depict the protagonist’s death, as if he had been finally gunned down by the society that had previously shunned him.

Spender doesn’t portray the boy’s brutal death in graphically realistic detail but instead adopts a noticeably figurative approach. This is achieved mainly through imagery and symbolism. The “olive trees”, mentioned in the first and final stanzas, are symbolic in the way that the olive branch is used to convey the idea of peace. There is a hint of irony in that the boy’s body is “lying dead” beneath them. In the last stanza, Spender addresses the reader directly. The use of caesura – a prominent full stop in the third and fourth lines – demands that the reader “Consider” and “Ask” as to why so much money was spent on the young man’s death.

Published inUncategorized