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CPR Classic Readings: “The Sunlight on the Garden” by Louis MacNeice

As Reviewed By: John Drexel

“The Sunlight on the Garden” by Louis MacNeice

The sunlight on the garden

Hardens and grows cold,

We cannot cage the minute

Within its nets of gold;

When all is told

We cannot beg for pardon.

Our freedom as free lances

Advances towards its end;

The earth compels, upon it

Sonnets and birds descend;

And soon, my friend,

We shall have no time for dances.

The sky was good for flying

Defying the church bells

And every evil iron

Siren and what it tells:

The earth compels,

We are dying, Egypt, dying

And not expecting pardon,

Hardened in heart anew,

But glad to have sat under

Thunder and rain with you,

And grateful too

For sunlight on the garden.

[private]Reviewing Stevie Smith’s Collected Poems in 1976, Seamus Heaney touched on “the whole question of poetry for the eye versus poetry for the ear.” One might be forgiven for momentarily thinking that the same question applies to the poetry of Louis MacNeice, which obviously is highly formal on paper but which gains much of its immediate appeal from its rhythms and the sound of its phrases. Indeed, according to George MacBeth, MacNeice “once said that if forced to choose between sound and sense he would have a slight preference for [sound].” However true this may be, I think it is safe to say that for MacNeice it ultimately is not a question of either/or. His is a poetry composed both for the eye and the ear; he is a poet whose eye for telling detail is allied to an ear attuned to the full resources of the English language and of English-language verse. Nowhere in MacNeice’s output is this more evident than in “The Sunlight in the Garden.”

MacNeice has long been viewed by some readers (though not the Irish) as an appendage to W. H. Auden. The fact that the two were contemporaries at Oxford in the 1920s and friends and collaborators in the 1930s may have made them seem representative of a certain literary sensibility related to their time and place, as has their appearance side by side in anthologies (with Auden inevitably given more weight).

Certainly MacNeice was always less political (and less religious) than Auden. At the same time, MacNeice wears his existential anxiety more openly on his sleeve than does Auden, who surveys his troubled landscapes from a great height, with a hawk’s eye. Even when MacNeice broods on the past or worries about the future, he is fully involved in the present moment, often obsessively so. It is a truism that Auden was concerned with goodness and truth, MacNeice with beauty. Perhaps the most useful thing that can be said about both poets in tandem is that they share a formal mastery. As Auden acknowledged in “The Cave of Making,” his tribute to MacNeice after the latter’s death in 1963, MacNeice was a “maker” who understood the “mystery” of the poet’s craft “from the inside.”

Be that as it may, MacNeice’s best poems, more so than Auden’s, rely on rhythmic vigor to help convey their emotional force. Like Auden a maker of memorable phrases, MacNeice often achieved poetic memorability by turning clichés on their head and by adapting the elemental rhythms and formulaic non sequiturs of nursery rhymes to his own uses.

“Sunlight on the Garden” belongs to MacNeice’s first great period, which can be said to have begun in early 1933 (coinciding with his personal reacquaintance with Auden and publication in Geoffrey Grigson’s New Verse) and which culminated in Autumn Journal in 1938–39. To call it an immensely creative if personally tumultuous time in MacNeice’s life is an understatement: Within these few years he departed Birmingham and settled in London for the first time; his wife abandoned him for another man, leaving MacNeice to care for their young son; he had a passionate affair with the married painter Nancy Coldstream; explored Iceland with Auden and collaborated with him on Letters from Iceland; and visited Spain twice, once while it was on the verge of civil war, the second time while Barcelona was being bombed. To this period belong “Sunday Morning,” “Snow” (his wonderfully concise celebration of “The drunkenness of things being various”), “The Hebrides,” “Bagpipe Music,” “Carrickfergus,” “Now that the Shapes of Mist,” and “Sand in the Air,” to name but a few. All these poems and others richly deserve, and reward, close attention.

Some critics have charged that MacNeice’s self-consciousness mars his poetry, that the poet is too present in the poems, too sentimental in his romanticism. His least successful poems-critics generally agree on a weak middle period, spanning much of the 1940s and lasting until the mid- or late 1950s-tend toward the prolix, prosy, and journalistic.

On a literal level, one can entertain objections to certain phrases and lines in “The Sunlight in the Garden.” I can well imagine a workshop group or a creative writing instructor, for example, advising the poet against adapting the line from Anthony and Cleopatra, let alone using it at all; and, for some readers, “soon, my friend, / We shall have no time for dances” might sound flippant, as, for that matter, might “The sky was good for flying.”

For that matter, what does MacNeice mean by “every evil iron / Siren”? A reader coming to this poem without any knowledge of its context might assume, not unreasonably, that MacNeice is referring to the Spanish civil war or to the Blitz-but for the fact that the poem predates those events. Peter Green asks “Was there ever a better encapsulation of pre-1939 European forebodings?” Maybe so; but might MacNeice’s aim have been simply-or not so simply-to communicate to the reader an intensely intimate and personal mood?

In any case, read as a whole rather than as merely the sum of its parts, “Sunlight” operates so brilliantly on so many levels that it amply illustrates Eliot’s observation that “genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” The reader coming to it afresh may be bowled over and yet at the same time may be at a loss to explain this reaction. The poem’s surface dazzle is immediately evident, but what does it all amount to? More to the point, how and why does the poem affect its reader so powerfully? Is it all just verbal smoke and mirrors, or is there something more at work beneath the surface? Is the poem about something important?-does it say something?-or is it purely musical?

The New Critics held that a poem can, and indeed should, be read as a thing in itself, without regard for the poet’s biography or of any references outside the poem. Certainly “The Sunlight on the Garden” lends itself to this kind of close textual reading; and yet, knowing what we know about MacNeice and about the circumstances of the poem, such a reading would seem to be unnecessarily limiting. Yes, we can read the text as text alone; but in the world outside the classroom, I would feel the poorer for considering it without also considering its context.

In his indispensable biography of MacNeice, Jon Stallworthy points out that “Within weeks of their divorce, he had written a love-song-it was entitled ‘Song’ at its first appearance in print-for the girl who had been ‘the best dancer in Oxford.'” Read in the light of this knowledge, “Sunlight” is primarily a love poem, a poem of regret and of foreboding, a lament for how the passage of time may destroy all one holds dear. At the same time, the poem is a technical tour de force, imaginatively and aurally teeming. In a mere twenty-four tightly structured yet subtly varied lines, MacNeice moves between hope and heartache, the memory of a paradisal state and the knowledge of its loss. Regret and self-reproach (“not expecting pardon, / Hardened in heart anew”) ultimately yield to acceptance (“glad to have sat under / Thunder and rain with you, / And grateful too / For sunlight on the garden.”)

Although it is a self-contained, stand-alone work of art, “The Sunlight in the Garden” is by no means an isolated expression of MacNeice’s concerns. He seems to have been working toward the poem even as he was writing other poems, thinking other thoughts, undergoing other experiences. Images and themes that run through other poems of the time work their way into this poem.

At the beginning of chapter twenty-four of his unfinished autobiography, The Strings Are False, MacNeice remarks that “marriage to Mariette promised a life where the clocks had been put back or even replaced by sundials.” (And where are sundials found but in gardens?) A similar tone is struck in the poem “The Brandy Glass,” with its opening lines an invocation: “Only let it form within his hands once more- / The moment cradled like a brandy glass.”

In “Postscript to Iceland” MacNeice speaks of “the litany of doubt” and “the fear of loneliness / And uncommunicableness.” A similar melancholy foreboding and obsession with time informs “The Hebrides”:

On those islands

Where no trains run on rails and the tyrant time

Has no clock-towers to signal people to doom

With semaphore ultimatums tick by tick,

There is still peace though not for me and not

Perhaps for long . . .

The inevitability of time passing, and the futile attempt to seize the moment in the face of the passage of time-to “cage the minute / Within its nets of gold,” as he so memorably phrased it in “The Sunlight in the Garden”-was to preoccupy MacNeice throughout his life. (See, for example, “The Slow Starter,” written some twenty years later, which might be read almost as “Sunlight Redux.”)

“June Thunder,” which MacNeice placed immediately adjacent to “Sunlight” in The Earth Compels (1938) and in Collected Poems, 1925-1948, shows the poet thinking along much the same lines and using the same imagery as in “Sunlight.” He describes a scene of “impending thunder / With an indigo sky and the garden hushed,” and in the final stanza begs for his lover’s presence if not for her pardon:

If only you would come and dare the crystal

Rampart of rain and the bottomless moat of thunder,

If only now you would come I should be happy

Now if now only.

All these anxieties, along with the images of hope, are present in “The Sunlight on the Garden” in an astonishingly compact and concentrated form, and expressed with a quicksilver verbal dexterity that would make the poem seem the product of a moment’s thought.

* * *

Peter Green has noted that “Sunlight in the Garden” achieves its greatness “in a structure as complex and minutely regulated as the movement of a fine watch.” For Green,

The variations of rhythm (trochaic, iambic, choriambic; stressed or syncopated); the final and internal rhymes and assonances; the verbal echoes, alliterations and repetitions: all these elements, not forced or artificial but natural and inevitable, combine in a perfect artifact to leave (as Eliot put it) “the whole consort dancing together.”

For anyone at all inclined to the exercise of diagramming the structure of a poem, “Sunlight in the Garden” presents an immense opportunity for enjoyment. First, there is the rhyme scheme. Taking any one stanza as a discrete unit, the scheme is ABCBBA. But mapping the rhyme scheme of the poem as a whole shows a slightly more complex pattern: ABCBBA // DEFEED // GHIHHG // AKLKKA. The two words comprising the A rhyme, garden and pardon, are reversed on their reappearance in the final stanza.

This, however, is not the whole story, for MacNeice’s use of partial serpentine rhyme allows us to extend the rhyme scheme and to view each stanza as containing six rhymes (i.e., one rhymed word at the end of each line) but eight (i.e., with the two serpentine-rhymed words at the beginning of lines two and four of each stanza. The serpentine rhymes here are underscored: AABCCBBA // DDEFFEED // GGHIIHHG // AAKLLKKA.

Thus, the simple rhyming of the first and last lines of each stanza, by the addition of a serpentine rhyme for each first line, creates a trio of A rhymes within each stanza: garden / {Hardens} / pardon; / free lances / {Advances} / dances; flying / {Defying} / dying; pardon / {Hardened} / garden. Moreover, the apparently unrhymed third line of each stanza now can be read as, in effect, part of a couplet: minute / Within its; upon it / Sonnets; iron / Siren; under / Thunder. The first two of these couples are not exact rhymes, and the third is an eye rhyme (i-urn / Si-ren). Moreover-and here I know I am stretching a point, but never mind that-minute almost is mirrored sonically by upon it, while Within its has a similar relationship to Sonnets.

MacNeice’s aural effects extend in other ways too. The first line of the third stanza contains a basic internal rhyme, sky and flying. As I have noted, the strict constructionist might consider this too much of a good thing, but MacNeice has already determined to throw all caution to the winds. In the poem’s third line we have the alliteration of cannot cage, and in the fourth line from the end of the poem there is the assonance of glad . . . have sat. The phrase every evil iron siren is a marvel of both assonance and consonance. The word soon in line eleven echoes the Sonnets of line ten. (Notice, by the way, the predominance of n sounds in the majority of the rhymed words and indeed throughout the poem.)

I must admit to having a curious theory concerning the word told at the end of line five: “When all is told / We cannot beg for pardon.” Perhaps I am reading too much into this or hearing something that isn’t there, but to my ear the word told suggests tolled. That is, “When all is tolled” (i.e., when the church bells-which might well be the passing bell; cf. Owen’s “Anthem for Doomed Youth,” a poem whose complex and intricate music I must believe would have fascinated MacNeice-of line fourteen have rung) it will be too late to beg for pardon. This is, I reiterate, a willful misreading on my part, based only on a tenuous aural suggestion; but to my mind it is not without its appeal. (More likely is that MacNeice is thinking of his Protestant clergyman father’s opposition to MacNeice’s marriage to a Jewish girl.)

As Green and others have pointed out, and as a line-by-line syllable count (never mind scansion) will quickly confirm, the poem is metrically irregular. Only the first lines and fifth lines of each stanza show a consistent metrical pattern throughout the poem. Indeed, certain lines seem to defy scansion. One might hold MacNeice’s fascination with nursery rhymes responsible. And one might think that the result would be an awkward, thumping kind of verse. But in fact, against all expectations, the poem flows naturally in the voice and in the ear. In the poem’s structure, as in its meaning, beauty triumphs over confusion.

I have touched on the New Criticism’s warning of the dangers of reading a poem with regard to the poet’s biographical details, the admonition that the reader must be wary of conflating the poet’s life with his art or of reading what one “knows” into the poem. That said, I would like to finish by drawing attention to the following passage from The Strings Are False. This passage might not be a key to understanding “The Sunlight on the Garden,” but nonetheless it is not without interest.

“I continued dreaming about bombs and the fascists, was worried over women, was mortifying my aesthetic sense by trying to write as Wystan did, without bothering too much with finesse,” MacNeice writes, speaking of a period during 1936 or 1937, roughly contemporaneous with the time of “The Sunlight on the Garden.” He continues:

Shortly after seeing the film of Dr. Mabuse I had the following dream. I had been invited to a houseparty. The party was given on a little peninsula in a marshy lagoon at the end of nowhere . . . . The peninsula consisted of a long neglected garden in the center of which was a knoll on top of which was a house [of which] remained only the structural beams and the staircase. There were many people-everyone I knew-being social in the garden . . . . [Then] . . . it happened. The alarm. Like sirens or bells but you could not hear it, it was more like the shiver on a pond when a breeze comes on it out of nothing. At once the people in the garden began flooding down towards the entrance in the narrow neck of the peninsula . . . . For They were coming. I . . . ran after my friends . . . . The sky was getting darker and the air itself denser . . . . I found myself walking along an overgrown path and in the flower borders on either side there was growing, instead of flowers, a regular row of swords planted with the point up as regularly as tulips, curving shining swords.

The dreamer finds his way blocked by “a soldier in khaki with a fixed bayonet.” When he turns to see the “cackling and leering” figure of Dr. Mabuse standing behind him, he awakes.

MacNeice’s dream, as he reported it here, has as much dissimilarity from the poem as it has similarities. But MacNeice, who a few years later would write the first full-length study of Yeats’s poetry, would have recognized that in dreams begins responsibility, and that dreams can sometimes be the stuff that poems are made of.[/private]

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- who has written 8 posts on Contemporary Poetry Review.

John Drexel's poems have appeared widely in magazines in the U.S. and Britain, including the Hudson Review, Oxford Poetry, Paris Review, Salmagundi, Southern Review, and Verse, and his work is included in A Fine Excess: Contemporary Literature at Play (Sarabande Books, 2001). A former editor at Oxford University Press and past recipient of an Amy Lowell Poetry Travelling Scholarship and a Hawthornden Fellowship, he works as a freelance writer, editor, and critic. He also directs occasional poetry workshop-seminars in Hay-on-Wye, Wales, and in Cornwall, England.

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One Response to “CPR Classic Readings: “The Sunlight on the Garden” by Louis MacNeice”

  1. Tom Hosty says:

    A really thorough and illuminating commentary on my favourite poem.

    Could I suggest that perhaps MacNeice’s defying of church bells and lumping them with ‘every evil iron siren’ reflected his rejection of the religion he grew up with. Church bells had been a powerful means of social control for centuries.

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