The Tawdry Halo of the
Idle Martyr: MacNeice's Autumn Journal
1963, after Louis MacNeice’s premature death of pneumonia, Philip Larkin
wrote that “his poetry was the poetry of our everyday life, of
shop-windows, traffic policemen, ice-cream soda, lawn-mowers, and an
uneasy awareness of what the news-boys were shouting . . . he displayed a
sophisticated sentimentality about falling leaves and lipsticked cigarette
stubs: he could have written the words of ‘These Foolish Things.’”
Larkin was a famous jazz buff, so this is not the pejorative it might have
been in the hands of a critic like Ian Hamilton, who wrote of MacNeice’s
“love of bright particulars,” saying he “loved the surface but
lacked the core.”
MacNeice—born a century ago this month and dead these 44 years—
typified himself as a poet of the 1930s but also proves to be a poet for
our times. To be fair, he was never quite the man of action the fascist
(or anti-fascist) era demanded: he could do polemic, but it made him
uncomfortable. He needed another way to engage the world around him, and
engage he did: he is utterly a poet we imagine lighting a cigarette,
catching a movie, arriving at a party. People who knew him may have
reported that although he was always in
the pub he was not of the pub;
that although he was a social creature he always kept himself aloof; but
I’m not sure why this should trouble anyone. It’s the condition of the
all that may be, MacNeice’s long poem Autumn Journal, which describes daily personal, social, and
political life during the decent into the second world war, stands now as
possibly his major achievement. His introspective bent gave him a capacity
almost unique among his contemporaries for realising how intertwined
political, cultural, and personal life are—the most important events
still being made up of silly little (“foolish”) things.
autumn, with dangerously high pressure in my glaucoma-ridden left eye, I
reread Autumn Journal at the
rate of about one section every two days. I had been told by a consultant
at Moorfields Eye Hospital that the pioneering laser surgery they were
going to use on me might not work, in which case I would need
surgery—which, due to specific conditions in my eye, “would carry a
significant risk of complications.” That was a euphemism, of course. The
eye drops I was using had a beneficial side-effect of making me less
far-sighted, but they also made everything look dark.
So, reading at just about the rate he had written, I went through my bad autumn—for all I knew, the last when I would have both my eyes—in what felt like “real time” with MacNeice and his autumn of 1938. The immediacy, the daily nature of the poem made it feel almost as if I had a companion throughout those weeks; and I was also reading the poem within a stone’s throw of (and sometimes actually in) the places he describes so vividly. This vividness, which makes London feel like a living character in the poem, is essential to the understanding of what was at stake for both of us, in our two parallel autumns—as in section V:
A smell of French bread in Charlotte Street, a rustle
Of leaves in Regent’s Park
And suddenly from the Zoo I hear a sea-lion
And so to my flat with the trees outside the window
And the dahlia shapes of the lights on Primrose Hill . . .
I got ready (potentially) to say goodbye to the sight in one eye,
preparing for pain and uncertainty, the poet said goodbye to a love—his
love affair with Nancy Coldstream (née Sharp, later Spender) ended that
autumn, and in 1939 his divorce would also be final—and so he inured himself to familiar sights being rendered unfamiliar and,
along with everyone else, prepared himself psychologically for war.
is, therefore, a personal reading of Autumn Journal, as well as a (however slightly) critical one. I knew
and loved the poem before last autumn’s rereading, but had never before
tried to master it as a whole before my subsequent rereading, this spring.
The very nature of it—long, sprawling, listy, as multifaceted as a
complicated person, and as crammed full of things as my own flat is—things utilitarian, sentimental,
beautiful, symbolic, bookish, personal, artistic, new and old—made it so
daunting that I took refuge in the shelter of Edna Longley’s wonderful
MacNeice study, as well as in other books. Once I’d done that, and going
through the poem again, I could hardly decide what to focus on, what to
say, which passages to quote and which to leave out. It was tempting just
to type out the whole 56 (or 80, depending on edition) pages and simply
let the poem speak for itself. Then, as I wrote, it became equally
tempting to break it down and write something three times the length; but
there is no time. There are many parts of the poem I haven’t talked
about, many themes and issues (like the Irish one) that should have been
expanded on more; maybe next
time. For that reason, this essay may feel like yesterday’s soup with
today’s leftovers thrown in, but for better or worse it is my current
take on Autumn Journal.
Journal now stands as a time capsule, a
56-page moment in which the reader just knows
what it was like to be alive, in London, in those few months. MacNeice is
worldly and, however tired, still full of appetite for the moment. His
viewpoint is subjective, and as such is by definition truthful. (In this
vein, he tells us in his prefatory note, “. . . poetry in my opinion
must be honest before anything else and I refuse to be ‘objective’ or
clear-cut at the cost of honesty.”) One reason for this is that the poem was written practically
in the moment: there was no time to reflect and repackage things into
something more palatable—even when Barcelona fell, after the poem was
completed but before it was published, MacNeice left the manuscript as it
was, as an accurate depiction of a moment in time.
being what it is, it’s almost—reading the poem now—as if MacNeice
knew how the next six years would pan out. Maybe he did: World War I
(still known even now in England as the Great War) is a palpable presence
throughout the poem, casting its cypress shadows everywhere. Certainly
people were prepared, once war broke out, for the Nazis to invade Britain.
his prefatory note he writes: “I am aware that there are overstatements
in this poem—e.g. in the passages dealing with Ireland, the Oxford
by-election or my own more private existence . . .
if I had been writing a didactic poem proper, it would have been my
job to qualify or eliminate these overstatements and inconsistencies. But
I was writing what I have called a Journal . . . . It is the nature of
this poem to be neither final nor balanced. I have certain beliefs which,
I hope, emerge in the course of it but which I have refused to abstract
from the context. For this reason I shall probably be called a trimmer by
some and a sentimentalist by others.”
personal element is important. Decades before we had “confessionalism,”
MacNeice was a very autobiographical poet. However reserved he was in
company, his life and his feelings are in the foreground of his verse. In
the autumn of 1938 MacNeice’s divorce was in progress; his love affair
was ending or had just ended; he was a lone observer of the panoply of
life, and feeling it. In those months MacNeice felt the
international crisis in light of his personal crisis, and vice versa.
just this way I read his poem last year in a state of generalised anxiety,
with newspaper headlines howling about a different international crisis,
on the chairs in hospital waiting rooms. This seemed very fitting at the
time, as of course any reading—which is a reciprocal activity—must
include the circumstances of the reader.
1937, in Modern Poetry: a Personal
(which itself revolves around three case
studies drawn from his own life), MacNeice had written the very template
for the type of poet he was: “I would have a
poet able bodied, fond of talking, a reader of the newspapers, capable of
pity and laughter, informed in economics, appreciative of women, involved
in personal relationships, actively interested in politics, susceptible to
physical impressions.” That description fits the poet of Autumn
Journal to a T. In fact, on February 7th 1939, Eliot wrote
to MacNeice with his own analysis that this was the strength of the poem:
“I have read through Autumn
Journal, and I think it is very good indeed. At times I was much
moved, and what is still more unusual in the case of a single long poem, I
found that I read it through without my interest flagging at any point.
That is due partly to the dexterity with which you vary the versification,
and, I think, to the fact that the imagery is all imagery of things lived
through, and not merely chosen for poetic effectiveness.”
(This passage strikes an odd note, given who the author of it was, and in
light of both Eliot’s own poetry and his theories about the annihilation
of the “personality” in poetry; however, that must be for another
time. The fact remains that Eliot was right about Autumn
November, Eliot wrote to MacNeice asking for a statement about the poem to
use for the catalogues, as Autumn
Journal was slated for spring publication. It’s worth quoting the
resulting statement in full: it is a perfect description of the poem, and
very interesting for showing us both the extent to which the poem was
conceived in toto and then
written, and the extent of MacNeice’s self-awareness: it seems uncanny
for a poet to be able to give so accurate an external description of his
own work—a work not yet even written.]
A long poem from 2,000 to 3,000 lines written from August to
December 1938. Not strictly a journal but giving the tenor of my emotional
experiences during that period.
It is about everything which from first-hand experience I consider
is written in sections averaging about 80 lines in length. This division
gives it a dramatic quality, as
different parts of myself (e.g. the anarchist, the defeatist, the sensual
man, the philosopher, the would-be good citizen) can be given their say in
contains rapportage [sic], metaphysics, ethics, lyrical emotion,
balanced by pictures.
Places presented include Hampshire, Spain, Birmingham, Ireland,
It is written throughout in an elastic kind of quatrain. This form
(a) gives the whole poem a formal unity but (b) saves it from monotony by
allowing it a great range of appropriate variations.
The writing is direct; anyone could understand it.
I think this is my best work to date; it is both a panorama and a
confession of faith.”
The poem opens (at last!) with a vision of normality in the shires—normality tinged with warning. It’s August, and MacNeice sits on a train (MacNeice is always good on trains) whose movement toward the city and the future is inexorable, although it is for the moment a capsule, an interlude. He is leaving Hampshire and going back to London. This section sets the First War as backdrop to the same peaceful gentility that is about to be blown apart by the second one:
Close and slow, the summer is ending in
Ebbing away down ramps of shaven lawn where close-clipped yew
Insulates the lives of retired generals
And the spyglasses hung in the hall and the prayer-books ready in
And the sunflowers’ Salvation Army
blare of brass
And the spinster sitting in a deck-chair picking up stitches
Not raising her eyes to the noise of the
’planes as they pass . . .
after talking of “. . . all the inherited assets of bodily ease / and
all the inherited worries, rheumatism and taxes, / and whether Stella will
marry and what to do with Dick,” all the reassuring convention which has
pertained for those past twenty years, which you and I know only from
novels, he goes straight into a present that presages the future:
South as I go north
for the dead leaves falling, the burning bonfire,
The dying that brings forth
harder life, revealing the trees’ girders,
The frost that kills the germs of laissez-faire;
Meon, Tisted, Farnham, Woking, Weybridge,
Then London’s stale and packed and pregnant air.
listing of the capital’s suburban satellite stations performs the
function of a litany or an invocation of the people in the towns who must
also face the threat—“the harder life”—together. The key phrase
here, though, may be “the germs of laissez-faire:”
Edna Longley, in her book Louis
MacNeice: A Study,
expands on this: “The term laissez-faire noticeably recurs throughout Autumn Journal,
and it covers economic, political, and moral sins of omission. Outworn
modes of thought as well as of behaviour contribute to laissez-faire.”
This includes, as we shall see, the outworn modes of thought and
behaviour of the people in the houses.
is indeed pregnant with something throughout the poem, and it manifests
itself both materially and in behaviour. London’s physical presence is
strong, and the depredations upon it cause MacNeice an almost physical
pain. This passage from Section VII is always, I find, shocking:
. . Hitler yells on the wireless,
The night is damp and still
I hear dull blows on wood outside my window;
They are cutting down the trees on Primrose Hill.
wood is white like the roast flesh of chicken,
Each tree falling like a closing fan;
more looking at the view from seats beneath the branches,
Everything is going to plan.
want the crest of this hill for anti-aircraft,
The guns will take the view
searchlights probe the heavens for bacilli
With narrow wands of blue.
day after this tree-chopping MacNeice went to stay with a friend, he was
so depressed by it. To this day there are no trees on the top of Primrose
Hill; one can only imagine it.
section ends with a cynical glimpse of modern love, or what passes for it,
and sweeps us down the escalator into the troubled final months of
1938—and beyond. I’ll quote it in full because the shifts in tone in
this section—the weary detachment giving onto felt love and grief,
giving onto anger and dread, as well as other feelings almost too fleeting
to notice—encapsulate the tones of the several themes of the poem.
the train’s rhythm becomes the ad nauseam repetition
Of every tired aubade and maudlin madrigal,
faded airs of sexual attraction
Wandering like dead leaves along a warehouse wall:
A jazz song,
handbag, a pair of stockings of Paris Sand¾
I loved her long . . .
my office hours, with flowers and sirens,
With my budget, my latchkey and my daily bread.”
description of the manner of love—and its overt mention of jazz—are so
evocative that I feel this is the moment to point out the debt this poem
owes the atmosphere and rhythms of jazz. MacNeice was, as his statement
about what a poet should be indicates, very much a man of his own time and
his own daily, physical world—an anti-“Romantic” sensibility that
can be found in poets from Catullus to the New York School (which of
course post-dates MacNeice by some decades). The London MacNeice lived in
that autumn was full of sex, cigarette smoke, drink, and music for
In Tottenham Court road the tarts and negroes
Loiter beneath the lights
And the breeze gets colder as on so many other
Pearls in wine—
sensibility of improvisation, looseness of syntax and beat, are everywhere
in this poem. Written at speed as events unfolded—a quality MacNeice
gave linguistic body to with his run-on sentences, lists, changes of
register and piled-on subject matter—Autumn
Journal is, in large part, a riff. Parts of it make almost no sense if you try,
like a Victorian schoolmarm, to parse them. The poem—like
life—works against that classifying aesthetic, as it flows and swirls.
closer the poet gets to his destination, and real life, the more the
personal and general are mixed together. Even while it’s still
technically summertime, the hard reality—the need to keep up with events
and get real—is on us, and applies to both letting go of a lover and
hanging on to a society: “That we cannot make any corner in life or in
life’s beauty, / That no river is a river which does not flow.” This
concept of a river—a river in spate—is central to the poem, recurs in
several contexts, and is even evident in the sweeping along of the passage
so to London and down the ever-moving Stairs
Where a warm wind blows the bodies of men together
blows apart their complexes and cares.
was afflicted all his life with nightmares; they were a big feature,
traceable back to the time when he was five, and his mother was taken away
to the asylum, never to return. “Spider, spider, twisting tight—” he
writes, in Section II; “but the watch is wary beneath the pillow— / I
am afraid in the web of the night . . . Noli
me tangere, my soul is forfeit.”
he said in his note to Eliot, the structure of the poem allows his
different personae each to get a say in turn, and the nightmare monologue
of Section II also contains, like the overture of an opera, many of the
motifs that follow. The poem’s continuous counterpoint of day and night,
light and dark, echoes the poem’s seesawing between the poet’s
temperamental optimism and a pessimism which may also be temperamental but
is also based on external circumstances. Throughout the poem night is
falling, or day is dawning, and neither of them is trustworthy—though
night always looks forward to day and day to night. Ultimately, as we see
in the poem’s final section, it is the coming day that must prevail, but
night has the last scene.
nighttime fear, here at the beginning, enacts the “worries and cares”
that the War, or course, cannot really blow apart—except to blow open.
It places the entire narrative within a consciousness of MacNeice’s
hidden terrors, which in turn serve as an internal reaction to a
complicated situation by a complicated man. The almost
stream-of-consciousness monologue gives us the parts of MacNeice—“the
anarchist, the defeatist, the sensual man, the philosopher, the would-be
good citizen”—one after another, as in this passage:
wonder now whether anything is worth
The eyelid opening and the mind recalling.
I think of Persephone gone down to dark,
No more a virgin, gone the garish meadow,
why must she come back, why must the snowdrop mark
That life goes on forever?
are nights when I am lonely and long for love
But tonight is quintessential dark forbidding
beside or below me; only above
Pile high the tumulus, good-bye to starlight.
the Platonic sieve of the Carnal Man
But good-bye also to Plato’s philosophising;
have a better plan . . .
quasi, or semi-didacticism of Autumn
Journal is just as personal as its other elements, in keeping with
MacNeice’s feeling that “it is difficult to speak for oneself without
speaking for others or to speak for others without speaking for
oneself.” Over and again
MacNeice describes the terrible cost the “status quo” (a condition
caused by the culpable laziness of “laissez-faire”) exacts of ordinary
people. The rich, seething life of the city—London,
but also every city—is lived by people (“the slaves”) who are not
reaping the rewards of the system. Of course, these very people need to be
spurred on to action to prevent the final disaster, the loss of the
freedom to live the very boring lives they are living. It is ordinary
people who will be killed in the ensuing war; it is ordinary people who
voted for Chamberlain and enabled the Munich agreement that, in the terms
of the poem, will prove disastrous for everybody.
people come back from holiday and resume their precious, but
mundane—precious because mundane—lives:
the till and the typewriter call the fingers,
The workman gathers his tools
the eight-hour day but after that the solace
Of films or football pools
of the gossip or cuddle, the moments of self-glory
Or self-indulgence, blinkers on the eyes of doubt,
blue smoke rising and the brown lace sinking
In the empty glass of stout.
life is everywhere questioned in the poem. MacNeice duly goes back to
work, teaching classics—“term
is again beginning”—and explores the big questions of thirties
politics: the system of privilege, and his place in it, the extent to
which the “system” can give everybody “a place in the sun.” While
he is absolutely an ordinary, not special, person in this churning London,
MacNeice is cynically aware that, as an educated, middle-class person with
reputation and contacts, he also enjoys a privileged status, and is
unflinchingly critical of his own hypocrisies:
. . . an utterly lost and daft
that gives a few at fancy prices
Their fancy lives
ninety-nine in the hundred who never attend the banquet
Must wash the grease of ages off the knives.
now the tempter whispers, “But you also
Have the slave-owner’s mind,
like to sleep on a mattress of easy profits. . .
What you want is not a world of the free in function
a niche at the top, the skimmings of the cream.”
And I answer that that is largely so . . .
The classical education, first received and now imparted by MacNeice, and
which is so integral to how he perceives and navigates the world, is a
large part of this uneasy self-image. It both signifies and embodies the
hypocrisy of society, and is the means by which he is able to see, and say
it. This paradox enables much of the best irony in the poem.
certainly it was fun while it lasted
And I got my honours degree
was stamped forever as a person of intelligence and culture
For ever wherever two or three
of intelligence and culture
Are gathered together in talk
definitions on invisible blackboards
In non-existent chalk.
refusing to man the barricades without having thought it through:
. . It is so hard to imagine
A world where the many would have their chance without
fall in the standard of intellectual living
And nothing left that the highbrow cared about.
last quatrain could also serve as epigraph to the “dumbing down”
debate that rages now, in 2007 when, in Britain at least, the level of
functional illiteracy is higher than in 1912. Today’s pundits worry that
the blogosphere, or the internet generally, is killing off literary
culture. Your reviewer thinks these rumours might be exaggerated, and that
“Big Brother” and “Next Top Model” might also play their part. But
the educated elite will always exist, if only as
an elite, and not only as a
function of class.)
goes through his days questioning his own motives and appearances as much
as, if not more than, the next person’s. Unlike his more comfortably
didactic friend W.H. Auden, he doesn’t trust, believe in, or espouse a
simple black-&-white formulation of “the truth”:
And the individual, powerless, has to exert the
Powers of will and choice
And choose between enormous evils, either
which depends on somebody else’s voice.
the blind faith of the slaughtered generation of 1914-18, this is the
modern conscience stirring: the private man testing his position. In
fairness even Auden later came a cropper on that issue with his poem “September
1, 1939”, which ended, “we must love one another or die.”
After the war he changed it to “we must love one another and
die” (my italics), saying it was the most dishonest thing he had
ever written; later still he excised it from his collected works.
MacNeice’s world is always, as in his famous poem “Snow,”
“incorrigibly plural,” and this is very much the world of Autumn
fact, so structurally embedded is this plurality that without it there
could be no Autumn Journal. The
sections, alternating between political, life, local colour, the past, the
inner life, are an argument MacNeice is conducting with himself. Section
VIII opens with a graphic description of a quotidian complacency, himself
in the starring role eight years previously. It was the depression years,
life was comfortable, life was fine
With two in a bed and patchwork cushions
checks and tassels on the washing-line,
A gramophone, a cat, and the smell of jasmine.
steaks were tender, the films were fun,
The walls were striped like a Russian ballet,
were lots of things undone,
But nobody cared, for the days were early.
. . We slept in linen, we cooked with wine,
We paid in cash and took no notice
how the train ran down the line
Straight into the sun against the signal.
we have the warning of consequences of taking no notice, of leaving things
undone. For one thing, the marriage broke down. In 1938 he is living in a
rented flat with his small son and a disapproving nanny. Of his own
circumstances he says, “Sun shines easy but I no longer / Docket a place
in the sun— / No wife, no ivory tower, no funk-hole.” And of the wider
situation it all comes, in the end, to where “the crisis is put off and
things look better . . . / And stocks go up and wrecks / Are salved . . .
only the Czechs / Go down and without fighting.”
Section IX goes further back than MacNeice’s own past to examine the causes of the present. Back at work (“Now we are back to normal”) he is “impresario of the Ancient Greeks.” The tone of voice in this section is almost as hard to catch as dapples of sunlight on water, moving between straight statement, irony, satire, self-accusation and a sort of incredible tiredness. “Conscious—long before Engels—of necessity / And therein free / They plotted out their life with truism and humour / Between the jealous gods and the callous sea,” he writes, then moves into pointed mode:
And for a thousand years they went on talking,
Making such apt remarks,
A race no longer of heroes but of professors
And crooked business men and secretaries and clerks
turned out dapper little elegiac verses
On the ironies of fate, the transience of all
carefully shunning the overstatement
But working the dying fall.
course he is talking, here, about the cognoscenti, the purveyors of the
“definitions on invisible blackboards in invisible chalk.” This irony,
always present and sometimes in the ascendant, eventually crystallises
into a sort of double bluff that seems to ironize itself:
And the trimmers at Delphi and the dummies at Sparta and lastly
I think of the slaves.
And how one can imagine oneself among them
I do not know.
It was all so unimaginably different
all so long ago.
as Autumn Journal itself tells
us over and over, everything is
unimaginably different. You can’t expect the past to solve
anything—just as you can’t expect the future to solve it.
The ever-present present has its moment in a description of the Oxford by-election, which was expected to influence the outcome of the crisis, and at which MacNeice volunteered to drive voters to the polls: a call for small, ordinary actions by small, ordinary people. “What is the use / Of asking what is the use of one brick only?” “That Rome was not built in a day is no excuse / For laissez-faire, for bowing to the odds against us. . .” It has been pointed out that this is the only place in the poem where MacNeice actually does anything, which seems unfair, as it is a poem, not an accounts-sheet. Here he is, driving home dejectedly after the election of the pro-Munich Tory candidate, Lord Hailsham:
Dawn and London and daylight and last the sun:
I stop the car and take the yellow placard
Off the bonnet; that little job is done
Though without success or glory.
The plane-tree leaves come sidling down
(Catch my guineas, catch my guineas)
And the sun caresses Camden Town,
barrels of oranges and apples.
passage, with its nursery-rhyme refrain, seems to hint at a London just as
apocryphal as it is really here. The barrels of oranges and apples call to
mind the “oranges and lemons” said by the Bells of St. Clements in the
old rhyme about London’s medieval churches. This nursery-rhyme element
comes up in other places too, in MacNeice’s device of repetition or
refrain, in some of his phraseology, and underlines the absolutely basic
everyday quality (the poet
had a small child at the time) of the experienced action.
the apple-cart is upset, and people are hanging on the words of the
newsboys (“. . . posters flapping on the railings tell the fluttered /
World that Hitler speaks, that Hitler speaks / and we cannot take it in
and we go to our daily / Jobs to the dull refrain of the caption ‘War’
. . . ”), though they don’t want to (“And we think ‘This must be
wrong, it has happened before, / Just like this, we must be dreaming’. .
And when we go out into Piccadilly Circus
They are selling and buying the late
Special editions snatched and read abruptly
the electric signs as crude as Fate.
suffocating air of panic, or paralysis, pervades the poem, underlined by
the constant breathless use of “and,” “and,” “and.” Although
the situation was rapidly, at that stage, crystallising itself, things
weren’t so clear-cut then as they now appear, especially in England
where Hitler and Mussolini had their supporters. Much of what we now know
about the war, the Holocaust, was then unknown. Edna Longley puts it
succinctly when she says: “The poem dramatizes our full human alarm when
historical forces move fast.” Like jazz
itself, and like the extemporaneous hurtling lines the poem is written in
(the alternate feminine endings impelling us to the next line always, but
the rhyme words themselves brutally short and simple), life is a question
of making it up as you go along. And MacNeice, for all his
self-questioning, is clearly impatient of those—like
the voters of Oxford—who can’t see what is right in front of them.
And they said “The man in the street is so naïve, he never
Can see the wood for the trees;
He thinks he knows he sees a thing but cannot
Tell you how he knows the thing he thinks he sees.”
And oh how much I liked the Concrete Universal,
I never thought that I should
Be telling them vice-versa
they can’t see the trees for the wood.
XV, which immediately follows the Oxford defeat, gives a form to the
public reaction to the crisis, as well as MacNeice’s private reaction to
the entire mise en scène,
including the breakdown of his love affair and ongoing divorce. “Shelley
and jazz and lieder and love and hymn-tunes,” he begins, “And day
returns too soon; / We’ll get drunk among the roses / In the valley of
the moon.” Desperate, maybe beneath the sign of Johnny Walker, who
“moves his legs like a cretin over Trafalgar Square,” MacNeice hymns:
Give me an aphrodisiac, give me lotus,
Give me the same again;
. . .
Let the old Muse loosen her stays
Or give me a new Muse with stockings and suspenders
And a smile like a cat,
With false eyelashes and finger-nails of carmine
And dressed by Schiaparelli, with a pill-box hat.
Let the tape machines go drunk,
Turn on the purple spot-light, pull out the Vox Humana,
Dig up somebody’s body in a cloakroom trunk.
Give us sensations and then again sensations—
Strip-tease, fireworks, all-in wrestling, gin . . .
But this bender can’t last:
Oh look who comes here. I cannot see their faces
Walking in file, slowly in file
. . .
Following the track from the gallows back to the town;
Each has a rope at the end of his neck. I wonder
Who let these men come back, who cut them down¾
And now they reach the gate and line up opposite
The neon lights on the medieval wall
And underneath the sky-signs
Each one takes his cowl and lets it fall
And we see their faces, each the same as the other,
Men and women, each like a closed door,
But something in their faces is familiar;
Where have we seen them before?
The panic continues blindly: “But take no notice of them, out with the ukulele, / The saxophone and the dice; / They are sure to go away if we take no notice ;/ Another round of drinks or make it twice.” Here the nightmare dialogue, woven throughout the poem, comes into its own, takes over the action. It is MacNeice’s nightmare, or complex, but it is everybody’s. “You can’t step into the same river twice,” he tells himself, “so there can’t be / Ghosts; thank God that rivers always flow. / Sufficient to the moment is the moment.” With the arrival of the ghosts that only he can see, MacNeice sets himself apart from the other drinkers, despising them although he knows he is like them.
Give us another drink;
This little lady has a fetish,
She goes to bed in mink.
This little pig went to market—
Now, I think you may look, I think the coast is clear.
Well, why don’t you answer?
I can’t answer because they are still there.
accounts must be paid, the debits must be cleared. Barcelona, the rallying
point and ideological crux of the intelligentsia, occupies two important
sections of the poem. One deals with—again—the past, which casts its
spectre, and the second with the present. The first, VI, recounts a visit
made just before the Spanish Civil War, with suggestions of a parallel
between Barcelona then and London during 1938—and the
nothing-to-do-with-me passivity at work in both:
the standard of living was low
But that, we thought to ourselves, was not our business;
that the tripper wants is the status quo
Cut and dried for trippers.
we thought the papers a lark
With their party politics and blank invective;
we thought the dark
Women who dyed their hair should have dyed it more often.
section ends with a reminder of what is to come—with the trippers
returning “home, forgetting Spain, not realising / That Spain would soon
denote / Our grief, our aspirations; / Not knowing that our blunt / Ideals
would find their whetstone, that our spirit / Would find its frontier on
the Spanish front, / Its body in a rag-tag army.”
penultimate section of the poem reprises this and finishes off the action
with stark auguries for the coming year. MacNeice lists the deprivations
of the Spaniards, much as he did in Section VI, but this time with more
feeling; he knows this scenario is his own future:
have come to a place in space where shortly
All of us may be forced to camp in time . . .
still they manage to laugh
Though they have no eggs, no milk, no fish, no fruit, no tobacco,
they live upon lentils and sleep in the Metro . . .
it appears that every man’s desire
Is life rather than victuals.
is feeling the cost this time, or feeling for it: “Here at last the soul
has found its voice / Though not indeed by choice. . .” and he examines
his own reluctance, which is borne out of his roots in Ireland (with the
history and dread of bloodshed) and his childhood during the Great War,
and sees that he is in no way—along with everybody else (“We who play
for safety, / A safety only in name”)—exempted from the disaster at
My broken rambling track
reaches so irregularly back
To burning cities and rifled rose-bushes
cairns and lonely farms
Where no one lives, makes love or begets children,
my heredity and my upbringing
Having brought me only to the Present’s arms—
arms not of a mistress but of a wrestler . . .
. . I have loved defeat and sloth,
The tawdry halo of the idle martyr;
have thrown away the roots of will and conscience,
Now I must look for both,
any longer act among the cushions
The dying Gaul . . .
“dying Gaul,” echoing the “dying fall” he mocked in the ancient
Greek poetasters, pulls MacNeice himself overtly into the frame in that
previous section. Critics of the poem have seized on this diffidence, this
self-accusation, to call the poem “The Bourgeois’ Progress”
or to describe it as “never very deep or certain in thought, rather too
conspicuously elaborating the picture of an easy-going but attractive
personality.” Today they
might, at least in England, ridicule MacNeice as “Guardian-reading:”
not a “proper” thirties poet at all. But anyone can go along with the
herd, and MacNeice—true to
the habits instilled in him, no doubt, by the education he describes so
vividly in Autumn Journal—is
more of a mensch, I think, for
examining his own motives. In Section XVI he writes:
We envy men of action
sleep and wake, murder and intrigue
Without being doubtful, without being haunted.
I envy the intransigence of my own
Countrymen who shoot to kill and never
the victim’s face become their own
Or find his motive sabotage their motives.
continues here, in a looping back to his childhood in Ireland: “So
reading the memoirs of Maud Gonne, / Daughter of an English mother and a
soldier father, / I note how a single purpose can be founded on / A jumble
of opposites.” Like his nightmares, this question of his Irishness, or
his relative Englishness, plagued MacNeice all his life—caught between
the affiliations of his parents and the servants as a child (“And one
read black where the other read white, his hope / The other man’s
damnation”), and of course later when he was sent to be educated in
England, where he lived most of his adult life—and he ruefully concludes
the whole section by calling Ireland (this will be one of those
overstatements, then) “a bore and a bitch:”
she gives her children neither sense nor money
Who slouch around the world with a gesture and a brogue
a faggot of useless memories.
may have been written in the thrall of memory, but the purpose of looking
back for MacNeice personally was to enable him to move forward with grace.
Over and again the poem warns of the dangers in trying to base the future
on the past; and the necessity of doing just that while at the same time
not doing it is one of the poem’s richest “old conundrums.” (George
Orwell an help us out here with the public consequences of this kind of
thinking: “Nothing was more desolating at the beginning of this war than
the way in which the whole of the older generation conspired to pretend
that it was the war of 1914-18 all over again. All the old duds were back
on the job, twenty years older, with the skull plainer in their faces.”)
is this very identified quality of not being able to be either one thing
or the other, but both—of seeing both “the wood for the trees” and
“the trees for the wood”—that ultimately defines this poem—though
I think it is equally obvious that the poem has a very strong moral core.
MacNeice, however uncomfortable in his conscious enjoyment of relative
privilege, was unequivocal about his horror in the face of the Munich
agreement and the responsibility everyone bears for the body civic and
politic. (Critics of MacNeice also usually forget to mention the vendetta
that still rages in England against Auden, who wrote out his diffidence
from the safety of 52nd St. This year’s centenary of Auden
has reawakened these discussions, at least in the English press.)
final section, XXIV, opens with the word “sleep:” but it is a false
sleep. “Sleep, my body, sleep, my ghost,” he writes, “Sleep, my
parents and grand-parents, / And all those I have loved most: / One
man’s coffin is another man’s cradle.” This is both lullaby and
prayer for the old year, and a prayer in the spirit of the old classic,
“If I should die before I wake.” He writes, “Tonight we sleep
/ On the banks of the Rubicon.” But:
serene, avoid the backward
Glance; go forward, dreams, and do not halt
you in the desert stands a token
pillar of salt).
the past, and wake, the future,
And walk out promptly through the open door;
you, my coward doubts, may go on sleeping . . .
poem ends, after all these exhortations (like those osmosis tapes you’re
supposed to listen to, to help you stop smoking in your sleep), with an
invocation of the day to come, the first day (as we now know, and as
MacNeice must have expected) of the year when the war will start.
any case, the two Barcelona sections are, for me at least, where
MacNeice’s self-questioning tendency comes closest to the mortal
weakness his detractors claim; but, as with most weak spots, it is also
his strength. These sections are central to his examination of his own
attitude to the impending war. He took his 1938 trip to Spain largely so
he would have “copy” for his poem; he travelled via Paris,
Christmassed in some degree of style, and stayed at the Ritz in Barcelona,
amid all the Spanish shortages. He carried food with him, including some
cognac and a salami. In other words, the common man could
be said to have kept himself out of the way of any unnecessary
his unfinished autobiography, The
Strings are False,MacNeice—not unaware of this aspect—gives this
trip an entire, vivid chapter:
December 1938 I accepted a suggestion that I should visit Barcelona in
company with some other English writers. The other writers falling out or
ill, I decided to go by myself, got a visa for Spain from the Spanish
Consulate in London.——
was very disapproving, said I only wanted to go to Spain to show off. I
answered that it was rather late in the day to show off in this way, as
nearly all literary London had long ago done the rounds of the trenches in
Madrid and hobnobbed with the Republican celebrities. I admitted, however,
that my motives were egotistical; I was sensation-hunting, testing myself,
eager to add a notch to my own history.
nobody can really avoid danger in a war. On New Year’s Eve a bomb fell
not far from the Ritz (“There had been eight minutes between the siren
and the bombs, unusually long, plenty of time to take shelter but people
had remained in the street thinking it was a raid on the port; the number
of dead was not certain”); the next morning MacNeice walked out “and
came upon a milling crowd, thought it was a food queue, a riot, a
political meeting, but no it was only the stamp collectors doing their
Sunday morning swapping.” He visited shelters, bomb sites, schools,
colonies for refugees. People kept cockerels, hens, even rabbits on their
window balconies and he was woken by cock-crow at all hours. He describes
the girls and women with high heels and lipstick.
And he goes home and writes: “Listen: a whirr, a challenge, an aubade— / It is the cock crowing in Barcelona.” After the lullaby ends at the end of the poem, and we are left in bed to fall asleep, it is this cock-crow at the end of the previous section—the previous day—that still rings in the ears. In other words, he’s made good. He fulfils his pact with the reader, with the poem, and certainly with me.
In the end I didn’t go half-blind last autumn; I had (pardon the pun)
cutting-edge laser surgery, twenty lasers to each eye, an accommodation
which may or may not prevent the need for more invasive action over the
longer term; the route home from Moorfields Eye Hospital took me through
Shorteditch, past St. Leonards Hospital, where MacNeice died.
Autumn Journal post-9/11, post-Danish cartoon crisis, with various
religious and political orthodoxies driving the cultural debate faster
than a speeding juggernaut, it was hard to put the poem’s current
relevance out of mind. It was tempting to wonder what MacNeice would have
written about the hysteria that attended the cartoon crisis: not that he
would have told us what to think; but he would have cast various colours
of light on the crisis, and helped us to see our own place in it more
completely. What would MacNeice have made of our own current readiness to
curtail our civic freedoms for the perceived greater good? Or the way in
which language itself is being used as a weapon in the War on Terror?
Ultimately each of us has a conscience, and it is how we use
it—precisely, our right to be private citizens in our new global
context—which is under discussion now. MacNeice was a private citizen,
and a man of conscience, par
Hamilton, writing in 1973, said that MacNeice was a perfect poet for
rediscovery by “a generation of post-war poets for whom such bafflement
represents the proper limits of political involvement and whose
intermittent nostalgia for more vigorous public contexts can be quenched
by his sharply documented local colour.”
As well as being a bit odd, considering how
actively engaged many sixties poets were in political life, this seems to
me just a cop-out. In judging MacNeice by the company that kept him,
rather than judging them by him, and in making a demand of the work to be
one thing, only to turn around and gleefully say it hadn’t succeeded,
Hamilton merely exposed his own prejudices.
a new book the poet and critic John Wilkinson launches at poor old
MacNeice the accusation of being “the most influential agent of a
middlebrow humanism for which ease and stability of reception constitutes
an ethical good”—referring to him dismissively in that context as
“the BBC radio producer Louis MacNeice”—and of “maundering.”
This may sound like nothing more than what Hamilton was saying 35 years
ago, but Wilkinson seems, more seriously, to consider MacNeice as a snob,
stuffy, a prime exponent of “the
reduced horizons of British and Irish poetry in the second half of the
the same essay he compares MacNeice unfavourably to Frank O’Hara, the
point of comparison being their respective poems about the deaths of two
popular entertainers: the music hall artiste Florrie Forde, in
MacNeice’s case, and Billie Holliday in O’Hara’s. The issue here
seems to be MacNeice’s “dismissive patrician” attitude: the direct
opposite of Hamilton’s beef and unfair to boot. If nothing else, “The
Day Lady Died” is one of O’Hara’s great poems. “The Death of an
Actress” is not quite as bad as Wilkinson makes out but it certainly
wouldn’t have put MacNeice on the map. This comparison seems worth
mentioning in connection with Autumn
Journal because of the dangers inherent in a misreading based on our
own changing cultural focus points. Of course O’Hara was “genuinely
democratic;” so, by his lights, was MacNeice, who had he not had to earn
a living at the BBC would not have died from collecting sound effects for
a radio play. MacNeice was democratic in a society which was less
democratic than pop-obsessed 1950s New York, and one which suffered two
major shocks in the first half of the twentieth century—shocks which Autumn
Journal is in fact about. Like O’Hara, MacNeice wrote poetry that is
faithful to the quotidian life he lived. Much as I admire Wilkinson’s
writing—and, generally, his analysis—this misreading of MacNeice seems
willfully whimsical (or whimsically willful).
For a bit of synchronicitous local context, and a salutary reminder of the nature of writers, here’s another quote from Orwell—talking about himself, not MacNeice:
am not able, and I do not want, to abandon the world-view that I acquired
in childhood. So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel
strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take
pleasure in useless [sic] scraps of information. It is no use
trying to suppress that side of myself. The job is to reconcile my
ingrained likes and dislikes with the essentially public, non-individual
activities that this age forces on all of us.
has proven, in the meantime, to be the wellspring of a renaissance of
Irish poetry, and poets my own age and younger, both Irish and non-Irish,
are claiming him as a serious influence. His raffishly immaculate (or
immaculately raffish) prosody is infinitely easier to work with than
Auden’s classical austerity. He loves the very surface of life—that
thing we are currently deluged under—and
he understands how it plays (or plays havoc) beneath. He insists that,
whatever our doubts and however desperate, we must remain true to a moral
core, but he does not pretend to show us what it is. He has heart; he has
sex; he has no fear of being seen walking around the streets in the rain
trying to hail a cab, nor does he fear a wide frame of reference; he has a
jolly nice overcoat; he has rhythm, he has music. Who could ask for