John Cornford

John Cornford

Birth
City of Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, England
Death 28 Dec 1936 (aged 21)
Andalucia, Spain
Burial Unknown
Memorial ID 124212619 · View Source
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"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."
[Margot Heinemann: "Grieve in a New Way for New Losses'"]

An English poet and communist. He was the son of Francis MacDonald Cornford and Frances Cornford, nee Darwin. He was killed in uncertain circumstances at Lopera, near Córdoba, Spain in the Spanish Civil War. The Hill near Lopera where he and Ralph Fox were killed is still called by the locals "The English Hill", ie in Spanish: 'la colina Inglés'.

"Cornford's life speaks for itself in a way that burns the imagination ... The fact that Cornford lived and that others like him still live, is an important lesson to the leaders of democracies. It shows that people will live and die and fight for democracy if it gives them the justice and freedom which are worth fighting for." Stephen Spender.

Cambridge Review, 5th February 1937 = "I had only a brief knowledge of John Cornford, but it will never pass from my memory...His belief in Communism was no youthful effervescence; it was a still water which ran deep...He had a first-rate mind; but he also had something greater - very much greater. He was one of those who are willing to stake heart's blood upon their convictions, turning them into a faith, and acting in the strength of their faith." [Quoted in 'Unlikely Warriors etc' by Richard Baxell, 2012]


His maternal grandparents were Sir Francis Darwin and his second wife Ellen Wordsworth Darwin, nee Crofts: she is buried in the graveyard of St. Andrews Church, Girton.

Sir Francis Darwin and his daughter Frances Cornford are buried together in the Parish of Ascension Burial Ground, Cambridge. His father (Francis Cornford) was cremated at Cambridge Crematorium on 6th January 1943; his ashes are presumed to have been buried in his father-in-law's grave and were followed by the interment of his wife Frances Cornford.

Poem by John Cornford:

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.

"John Cornford was one of the first British volunteers for the Spanish civil war. Born in 1915, he was the son of the classicist, Francis Cornford and the poet, Frances Cornford. They christened him Rupert John in memory of their great friend, the poet Rupert Brooke, but the first name was later dropped, as his father explained, because it seemed too romantic. John Cornford joined the Young Communist League at the age of 18, and became a full Party member at 20. Newly graduated from Cambridge, with a "starred" first and a brightly promising future, he left for Spain to fight for the Republican cause in August, 1936, and joined the anti-Stalinist POUM (The Workers' Party of Marxist Unification). He fought in the battles for Madrid and Boadilla, and was killed on the Cordoba front in December, either on or just after his 21st birthday.

...It is impressive that such a stately and achieved lyric should have been written under such pressure, and by a writer still only 20. As a "last letter" it is neither raw nor prosaic, and, with or without the reader's knowledge of Cornford's sacrifice, it stands as one of the most moving and memorable 20th-century love poems." (by Carol Rumen)


"John Cornford was born into a family of distinguished academics (he was Charles Darwin's great grandson). A devout Communist, he graduated from Cambridge University in the summer of 1936 and joined the Spanish Republican forces in August 1936. As as an international brigader he was directly involved in the defence of Madrid in November 1936. A month later, on his 21st birthday, he was killed in action. MI5 kept a file (see right).

Cornford arrived in Madrid on 8 November, just as the Nationalist troops were closing in on the outskirts of the city. In the centre of the capital the mood was one of fear mixed with a gutsy determination to stand and fight (see the Siege of Madrid). The Republican's famous slogan ‘No Pasaran!‘ (they will not get past) was tested to the full....

Elsewhere in the University city volunteers from the XI international brigade were fighting for their lives. Fred Jones, the British commander of a section of the Paris Commune division took a truck to inspect positions. It returned full of wounded but was mistaken for a fascist incursion: someone tied a cable across the road and Jones, in the front of the truck, was killed instantly, decapitated. Two New Zealanders, Steve Yates and McLaurin were found dead, shot up, still at their machine gun post. John Cornford and his friend Bernard Knox, also from Cambridge, were holed up in the faculty of Filosofia y Letras.

Bernard Knox was studying classics at Cambridge in 1936 when he was persuaded by his friend John Cornford to enlist in the International Brigades and fight in Spain. Knox subsequently became a professor at Harvard and wrote a vivid account of his experiences in Madrid called Premature Anti-Fascist. In this extract he describes life on the university sector of the front line:"Early in those days, we had our first casualties. One gun team was sent ahead to an advanced position but was overrun during the night by the Moorish troops, as we learned from the one man who returned. One of the dead was MacLaurin, a Cambridge man like John (Cornford) and myself...."

For the next ten days, International Brigaders like Knox and Cornford and thousands of Spanish miltia held the line at the University. The unremittingly bloody battle took a heavy toll on both sides but by the last week of November the Nationalist commanders recognised that the Republicans were fully entrenched and that there would be no breakthrough here into the centre of Madrid. Various further attempts were made by both sides to dislodge the other from the sector throughout the war but nothing to match the ferocity of those two weeks when the Republicans lived up to their famous slogan ‘No Pasarán!' – they will not get through.

from: "spanishsites.org/john-cornford-and-the-university/"

From Jane Bernal, daughter of Margot Heinemann and John Desmond Bernal:

"Heart of the Heartless world was written on John's first trip to Spain in the autumn of 1936 when he served on the Aragon Front, at Tierz, near Huesca with a POUM militia. He wrote 3 poems. Full Moon at Teirz: before the storming of Huesca, A Letter from Aragon and Heart of the Heartless World. The third verse begins, On the last mile to Huesca, The last fence for our pride..... Letter from Aragon is actually the last of his war poems , written after his first period of service in Spain, just before he came home on a brief leave to raise a group of volunteers among his friends. (see for example Galassi 1976 Understand the Weapon, Understand the Wound )"

Letter To Margot Heinemann also know as Heart Of The Heartless World:

"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."

By John Cornford, as was posted by Sandra on 25.8.14

John Cornford was arrested in Birmingham in the spring 1936 for distributing obstructing the footpath while giving out leaflets. The poet Louis MacNeice (1907-1963) gave him a lift from Cambridge to Birmingham where he was to face trial. He appeared before the Stipendiary Magistrate in Birmingham on April 9th 1936, and was fined 10/- or seven days imprisonment for obstruction. He successfully appealed against this conviction at the Birmingham Sessions held in July and at the end of the month he left Birmingham. [Taken from a letter from the Chief Constable's office to Sir Vernon Kell. National Archives KV-2-1996-2.]

In his autobiography, "The Strings are False" MacNeice wrote

"In the afternoon I drove back to Birmingham, giving a lift in my car to three oddly assorted young men. One was one of those Birmingham students who wanted to be Oxford aesthetes of the nineteen-twenties vintage; one was one of the new Cambridge undergraduates who were clever and careerist and Leftist and bristling with statistics; the third was John Cornford also a Cambridge undergraduate, clever and communist and bristling with statistics, but for him the conception of career was completely drowned in the Cause.; he was going to Birmingham to stand trial for causing an obstruction while distributing communist pamphlets in the Bull Ring (where the Chartist Movement had been launched in 1838). John Cornford was the first inspiring communist I had met; he was the first who combined an unselfish devotion to his faith with a really first-class intelligence.
He and the other Cambridge undergraduate sat in the back seat and talked about Trade Unions; the Birmingham aesthete sat beside me and talked about literary values. The Would-be Twenties and Hard-Fact Thirties cross patterned in my mind as my head throbbed and the car swung wildly on the road; when we reached the Birmingham suburbs we found we had been driving for miles with a puncture. The Thirties at once jumped out and were cheerfully efficient; the Would-be Twenties stood listlessly by, composing his face to a deliberate distain. That was the first and the last I saw of John Cornford. Later that year the war broke out in Spain and, being no careerist, he went out to fight there and was killed.

(MacNeice, 1996)

MACNEICE, L. 1996. The Strings are False. London: Faber & Faber.



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  • Created by: Martin Douglas Packer
  • Added: 26 Jan 2014
  • Find A Grave Memorial 124212619
  • Find A Grave, database and images (https://www.findagrave.com : accessed ), memorial page for John Cornford (27 Dec 1915–28 Dec 1936), Find A Grave Memorial no. 124212619, ; Maintained by Martin Douglas Packer (contributor 47912178) Unknown.