‘Ultima Ratio Regum’ by Stephen Spender is an anti-war poem written around 1937 during the Spanish Civil war. This poem appears in Spender’s anthology of poems entitled “Poems from Spain.” The Spanish civil war was fought between the faction of two ideologies, fascism and communism. Spender was a pacifist and opposed the war. Through this poem, he spreads the words about the futility of war and how it creates devastation on a large scale serving no real purpose at all.
Explore Ultima Ratio Regum
Stephen Spender’s ‘Ultima Ratio Regum’ which translates from Latin as “the final arguments of kings,” showcases the poet’s lament on the killing of an innocent young boy.
This poem is about an innocent who deserved to live but died because he participated in the war. The boy was “too innocent” and “too silly” that he did not estimate the product of the war. He blindly agreed to become bait for the contesting parties.
This poem is also about the disillusionment and the loss of human values during the timeline of the war. At the end of the poem, Spender poses a question to the audience to justify the need to spend so much money on the war. The factions did not even think twice about its results.
You can read the full poem here.
‘Ultima Ratio Regum’ is a poem about a boy who died unnoticed at the borderlines. He was so young/innocent and foolish that he could not comprehend the consequences that could occur to him. He probably served as a mere soldier, or he was just another victim of the war. Whatever his role in the ultimate argument of Spanish factions, ultimately, the turmoil led to his tragic demise. Seeing his lifeless corpse disposed of around the borderlines, the third-person narrator re-estimates the outcomes of the Civil War. Overall, this poem is about the futility of war and how it destroys the lives of innocents.
The guns spell money’s ultimate reason
He was a better target for a kiss.
The title of the poem itself insinuates the coming of war as in Latin, the words “Ultima Ratio Regum” translates to “the final arguments of kings.” The overall connection of the title lies with money and power, the power that proved to be fatal for a young boy resulting in his death and the money that fuelled the war.
Spender’s poem begins on a sad and melancholic note, informing readers directly of the death of “the boy” who lies “dead under the olive trees.” Spender asserts that money is the “ultimate reason,” justifying the death of the unnamed “too young and too silly” boy. The words “young” and “silly” indicate the innocence and youthfulness of the boy who was shot dead on the “spring hillside.”
Spender uses conflicting imagery in this stanza. The images of “letters of lead” and “guns” representing war are in conflict with the peaceful and tranquil images of “the spring hillside” and the “olive trees.” Here, Spender tries to deliver a contradictory remark about the need for war. He further asks why war is necessary for the rulers to expand their geographical dominance.
In the last lines, the speaker says the boy was “too young and too silly” that he could not understand that his life meant nothing to the soldiers. He probably realized his mistake when the lead bullet enervated his life. The boy was meant to be someone’s lover, “a better target for a kiss.” However, he got shot in the war. His death did not even prove its worth and did not come to any use of the contesting parties.
When he lived, tall factory hooters never summoned him.
Whilst his life, intangible as a Stock Exchange rumour, drifted outside.
In this stanza, Spender throws light at the life of the young dead boy. He describes how his life was before the war. In the first line, the phrase “tall factory hooters never summoned him” indicates that he was not given employment in a factory, probably because of his young age.
The poet further suggests his sense of alienation in society in the line, “Nor did restaurant plate-glass doors revolve to wave him in.” The upper class treated him as an outcast and never allowed him to inter-mingle. His name was never even mentioned in newspapers. It suggests his status in society. He was not a name for making it to the headlines.
None cared for the boy in the war situation. He led an insignificant life on the streets minding his own work. Somehow, he had a peaceful life, all to himself, till the time he got into the war and lost his life. This boy was not only a victim of war but also a social outcast, treated with disdain and contempt. No one would take him into count until he chose a side and directly involved himself in the war.
In the war-ridden world, soldiers and officers held a different position in society, a position of power and prominence. Spender tries to focus on the social injustices that prevailed in the times of the Spanish conflict and how it affected the young minds to enroll themselves to fight in the war. Dying on the battlefield was a glory that was only in their minds. Those who denied the custom, society would restrict them from entering into their sophisticated power-circle. They built “traditional walls” to keep the outcasts at bay.
In the last line, Spender compares the boy’s “intangible” life to “a Stock Exchange rumour,” a thing that never had a significant impact on the overall economy. In this way, his identity never mattered for the big picture. He was born to blush unseen.
O too lightly he threw down his cap
The tweed cap rotted in the nettles.
The contrast that Spender builds in the first stanza can be seen in this stanza as well. He juxtaposes the symbols of war and nature. Nature and its aspects like “the breeze,” “the trees,” “leaves,” “the branches,” “the grasses,” “the nettles” – all indicate the tranquillity and peace, a healer of suffering souls. On the contrary, the images of war, such as “guns,” “Machine-gun,” “the flags,” suggest the horrors and the devastation war causes to the nation.
This stanza showcases the horrors of war and the ruthlessness of soldiers. The horrors can be seen as the queue of the soldiers equipped with guns killing the innocent boy. The dashing bullets of “the machine guns scythed the grasses” or cut down every inch of the flora that comes in its way. All the lives were taken, and “flags and leaves fell from hands and branches.”
By “Flags,” Spender refers to a token of truce and peace. The lives of innocents are compared to tiny white flags. They were all pleading for the war to end. The “tweed cap” of the dead boy “rot in the nettle leaves.” This image hints at the futility of war. His sacrifice in the war was not even acknowledged. The “tweed caps” also symbolize the young soldiers who died in the horrible Spanish Civil War.
Consider his life which was valueless
In terms of employment, hotel ledgers, news files.
On the death of one so young and so silly
Lying under the olive tree, O world, O death?
The fourth stanza of ‘Ultima Ratio Regum’ once again diverts our focus towards the value of the boy’s life. Spender contrasts the significance of his life before and after his untimely death.
His life was so valueless that he had no “employment,” he wandered on the streets like a vagabond. The big hotels did not call him for work. He had no “news files” registered under his name. All in all, his life was a useless piece for the great frame. Thus, he died unnoticed.
The use of caesura, a sudden break after the verbs “Consider” and “Ask,” suggests that one should hold their breath for a moment. They should give a thought to why the war was necessary by reasonably considering all these consequences. They have to ask why so much money was spent on military equipment (such as guns and bombs) and soldiers, but not on resolving the issues of the common people.
Spender questions the “world” (a metonym for the people) and “death” (a use of apostrophe) about all the expenditure that has been made in the name of the war that cost a young boy his life. He ends the poem on an interrogatory note. Readers have to ponder upon the futile reasons for the war and how these reasons can be swiped with the ideas that would not have led to the war in the first place.
Spender’s ‘Ultima Ratio Regum’ is written in simple and straightforward language. The poem runs into 4 stanzas with 6 lines each, conforming to no specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. The language of the poem is so subtle and direct that the readers shall find no error or difficulty in following the realization of the speaker about the war and its horrors.
The poem is composed in the free-verse. It contains the use of several punctuation marks, including full stops and question marks, which makes the reading more thought-provoking. The story is told by a third-person narrator who laments the death of an unnamed young boy. Besides, Spender uses truncated, ironic expressions and rhetorical abstractions in this poem.
In ‘Ultima Ratio Regum,’ Spender showcases the use of the following literary devices:
- Symbolism: It is used to refer to a certain idea or thing; for example, the terms “Machine-gun,” “the guns,” “Flags,” and “The tweed cap” symbolize the war. Whereas “the olive trees,” “breeze,” “trees,” “leaves,” “branches,” “grasses,” “nettles” all indicate the idea of peace.
- Repetition: It is used when a word or phrase frequently occurs throughout the poem for the sake of emphasis. In this poem, the words like “young” and “silly,” “the olive tree,” and “wall” are repeated often.
- Alliteration: It is a literary device where a sound is repeated at the beginning of nearby words. For instance, in “letters of lead,” the “l” sound is repeated. It also occurs in “name never,” “fell from,” and “so silly.”
- Caesura: It is a metrical pause or stoppage often marked by a punctuation mark such as by a comma. For example, in the last stanza, “Consider” (line 3) and “Ask” (line 4) demands attention from the readers to stop and think. Hence, Spender makes them halt by placing a full stop right after the terms.
The poem ‘Ultima Ratio Regum’ was written during the Spanish Civil War. This war affected many artists and influenced many literary works, including poetry, paintings, and prose. Generally, war causes no benefit to anyone and is rather proved to be futile, causing the deaths of millions of innocent humans. The after-effects of war leave spine-chilling experiences to those who survive. The traumatic memories cause people to relive every moment and every single day of the war.
The survivors are reminded of their horrific experiences whenever anything about war comes up. War does not just affect the ones who actively participated as soldiers but also indirectly affects the families who live under constant fear of losing someone of their own any minute soon. The psychological effects include depression, trauma, anxiety, fear, and insecurity. During a war, people are turned into refugees. The children of these refugees are denied food and other basic services leading them to be hungry and malnourished, suffering from various diseases and disorders. The mental illness it offers goes unnoticed sometimes.
Spender was an orthodox non-believer of war and demanded a world free from war and its consequences. In this way, through ‘Ultima Ratio Regum,’ Spender taps on the themes of the futility of war, the horrors it brings, and the death of innocent people.
In the 1930s, Europe saw the rise of “the great dictator,” Adolf Hitler. His rise to power affected many writers, causing an increase in anti-fascist, un-political writings. Hitler transformed the Weimar Republic into a dictatorship, took Germany’s position to a geopolitical elevation, and started military expansion that resulted in the Second World War.
Like many young British poets and intellectuals, Spender was well aware of the horrors of fascism. His earliest collection of poetry entitled Poems was published in 1933. Spender’s poems from this collection exemplify the terror of this phenomenon and the social and political scenario prevalent in the 1930s.
Spender belonged to a generation that had seen the world’s most terrible wars, and hence, he knew how these wars had left a void in everybody’s life. When the Spanish Civil War began, Spender supported the pro-Republican International Brigades, who opposed the fascist forces led by General Francisco Franco. The war was fought from 1936 to 1939 between the Republicans and Nationalists. The “final argument” broke out due to the lack of harmony and the failure of Spanish democracy, resulting from the Spanish parties’ refusal to respect and adopt the democratic government.
Being a pacifist, Spender did not take part in any war. Rather, he produced his next collection of poetry, “Poems for Spain,” where the poem ‘Ultima Ratio Regum’ was published. This piece recounts Spender’s experiences of the Civil War. He was posted there as a reporter in 1937.
About Stephen Spender
Stephen Harold Spender, commonly known as Stephen Spender, was born on 28th February 1909 in London, England. He was a poet and critic, famously known for his expressions of conscience-stricken politics. During World War II, Spender worked for the London fire service. He belonged to the group of poets called the Oxford Poets that included W.H. Auden, a prominent poet of the 1930s. Spender’s poems reflect the impact of several politically turbulent events such as the Spanish Civil War, the Great Depression, and the World Wars on innocent people’s lives. Spender was appointed the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 1965 and received the Golden PEN Award in 1995.
The title comes from the Latin phrase introduced by Louis XIV. The phrase goes in English as “The Last Argument of Kings.” It was inscribed on the mouth of Canon de 12 de Callière, a bronze war Canon of Louis XIV. In the introductory note to the poem, Spender exemplifies the main topic alongside a brief overview of the phrase. Thus the title is an insinuation of war. However, Spender uses the phrase “final argument of kings,” or the war, to hint at its impact on the lives of innocents.
The Latin phrase “ultima ratio” means the ultimate or final argument. It also means the last resort when all the possible ways of persuasion have failed. The phrase came into usage in 1780.
This poem taps on a number of themes that include horrors of war, the futility of war, money, and worth, and the death of innocent people. The central theme of the poem revolves around the consequences that tag along with a war. Spender thoroughly discusses this issue by throwing light on the killing of a “young” and “silly” boy.
The poem was published in Stephen Spender’s poetry collection “Poems from Spain.” It was written around 1937 when Spender was posted in Spain as a reporter.
The poem is set around the time when the Spanish Civil War broke out. It lasted from 1936 to 1939. In 1937, Spender was on a mission to observe and report on the sinking of the Soviet shop Komsomol. He could not enter Spain due to the political turmoil. Later he managed to travel to Valencia, the third-largest city in Spain. During his sojourn in war-ridden Spain, he observed how innocent lives were slaughtered by the dueling factions. In ‘Ultima Ratio Regum,’ he ruminates on a young boy whose body was lying dead under the olive trees near the border.
In this poem, Spender utilizes various literary devices such as metaphor, alliteration, repetition, caesura, etc. These devices ignite the desired spark in readers’ minds.
Here is a list of a few poems that similarly tap on the themes present in Stephen Spender’s poem ‘Ultima Ratio Regum.’
- ‘Romance Sonámbulo’ by Federico García Lorca — This poem is a mournful and beautiful dream sequence in which the poet longs for something attainable. It was written during the Spanish Civil War.
- ‘What Spain Was Like’ by Pablo Neruda — This piece harshly examines the social and political issues of contemporary times.
- ‘The Colonel’ by Carolyn Forché — In this poem, a colonel shares terrible stories of the war and his role in them.
You can also explore these haunting poems about war.