The Tawdry Halo of the Idle Martyr: MacNeice’s Autumn Journal

As Reviewed By: Katy Evans-Bush

In 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.”

[private]Louis 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 observer/reporter.

As 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.

Last 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

Confidently bark.

And so to my flat with the trees outside the window

And the dahlia shapes of the lights on Primrose Hill . . .

While 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.

This 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.

Autumn 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.

Hindsight 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.

In 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.”

This 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.

In 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.

In 1937, in Modern Poetry: a Personal Essay (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 Journal.)

Around 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.]

Autumn Journal:

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 important.

It 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 turn.

It contains rapportage [sic], metaphysics, ethics, lyrical emotion, autobiography, nightmare.

balanced by pictures.

Places presented include Hampshire, Spain, Birmingham, Ireland, &-especially-London.

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 Hampshire,

Ebbing away down ramps of shaven lawn where close-clipped yew

Insulates the lives of retired generals and admirals

And the spyglasses hung in the hall and the prayer-books ready in the pew

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 . . .

And, 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:
And I am in the train now too and summer is going

South as I go north

Bound for the dead leaves falling, the burning bonfire,

The dying that brings forth

The harder life, revealing the trees’ girders,

The frost that kills the germs of laissez-faire;

West Meon, Tisted, Farnham, Woking, Weybridge,

Then London’s stale and packed and pregnant air.

This 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.

London 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

And I hear dull blows on wood outside my window;

They are cutting down the trees on Primrose Hill.

The wood is white like the roast flesh of chicken,

Each tree falling like a closing fan;

No more looking at the view from seats beneath the branches,

Everything is going to plan.

They want the crest of this hill for anti-aircraft,

The guns will take the view

And searchlights probe the heavens for bacilli

With narrow wands of blue.

The 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.

This 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.

And the train’s rhythm becomes the ad nauseam repetition

Of every tired aubade and maudlin madrigal,

The faded airs of sexual attraction

Wandering like dead leaves along a warehouse wall:
“I loved my love with a platform ticket,

A jazz song,

A handbag, a pair of stockings of Paris Sand¾

I loved her long . . .

With my office hours, with flowers and sirens,

With my budget, my latchkey and my daily bread.”

This 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 dancing:

In Tottenham Court road the tarts and negroes

Loiter beneath the lights

And the breeze gets colder as on so many other

September nights.


Give us the songs of Harlem or Mitylene-

Pearls in wine-

Jazz’s 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.

The 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 below:

And so to London and down the ever-moving Stairs

Where a warm wind blows the bodies of men together

And blows apart their complexes and cares.

MacNeice 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.”

As 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.

The 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:

I wonder now whether anything is worth

The eyelid opening and the mind recalling.

And I think of Persephone gone down to dark,

No more a virgin, gone the garish meadow,

But why must she come back, why must the snowdrop mark

That life goes on forever?

There are nights when I am lonely and long for love

But tonight is quintessential dark forbidding

Anyone beside or below me; only above

Pile high the tumulus, good-bye to starlight.

Good-bye the Platonic sieve of the Carnal Man

But good-bye also to Plato’s philosophising;

I have a better plan . . .

The 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.

So people come back from holiday and resume their precious, but mundane-precious because mundane-lives:

Now the till and the typewriter call the fingers,

The workman gathers his tools

For the eight-hour day but after that the solace

Of films or football pools

Or of the gossip or cuddle, the moments of self-glory

Or self-indulgence, blinkers on the eyes of doubt,

The blue smoke rising and the brown lace sinking

In the empty glass of stout.

This 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

System that gives a few at fancy prices

Their fancy lives

While ninety-nine in the hundred who never attend the banquet

Must wash the grease of ages off the knives.

And now the tempter whispers, “But you also

Have the slave-owner’s mind,

Would like to sleep on a mattress of easy profits. . .

What you want is not a world of the free in function

But 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.

But certainly it was fun while it lasted

And I got my honours degree

And was stamped forever as a person of intelligence and culture

For ever wherever two or three

Persons of intelligence and culture

Are gathered together in talk

Writing definitions on invisible blackboards

In non-existent chalk.

But, 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

A fall in the standard of intellectual living

And nothing left that the highbrow cared about.

(This 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.)

MacNeice 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

Of which depends on somebody else’s voice.

After 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 Journal.

In 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,

But life was comfortable, life was fine

With two in a bed and patchwork cushions

And checks and tassels on the washing-line,

A gramophone, a cat, and the smell of jasmine.

The steaks were tender, the films were fun,

The walls were striped like a Russian ballet,

There 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

Of how the train ran down the line

Straight into the sun against the signal.

Here 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

Who turned out dapper little elegiac verses

On the ironies of fate, the transience of all

Affections, carefully shunning the overstatement

But working the dying fall.

Of 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

And all so long ago.

But 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,

The barrels of oranges and apples.

This 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.

But 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

Beneath the electric signs as crude as Fate.

This 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

That they can’t see the trees for the wood.

Section 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.

The 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:

And the standard of living was low

But that, we thought to ourselves, was not our business;

All that the tripper wants is the status quo

Cut and dried for trippers.

And we thought the papers a lark

With their party politics and blank invective;

And we thought the dark

Women who dyed their hair should have dyed it more often.

This 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.”

The 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:

We have come to a place in space where shortly

All of us may be forced to camp in time . . .

But still they manage to laugh

Though they have no eggs, no milk, no fish, no fruit, no tobacco, no


Though they live upon lentils and sleep in the Metro . . .

And it appears that every man’s desire

Is life rather than victuals.

MacNeice 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 Munich:
I admit that for myself I cannot straiten

My broken rambling track

Which reaches so irregularly back

To burning cities and rifled rose-bushes

And cairns and lonely farms

Where no one lives, makes love or begets children,

All my heredity and my upbringing

Having brought me only to the Present’s arms-

The arms not of a mistress but of a wrestler . . .

. . . I have loved defeat and sloth,

The tawdry halo of the idle martyr;

I have thrown away the roots of will and conscience,

Now I must look for both,

Not any longer act among the cushions

The dying Gaul . . .

This “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:

Nightmare leaves fatigue:

We envy men of action

Who sleep and wake, murder and intrigue

Without being doubtful, without being haunted.

And I envy the intransigence of my own

Countrymen who shoot to kill and never

See the victim’s face become their own

Or find his motive sabotage their motives.

He 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:”

And she gives her children neither sense nor money

Who slouch around the world with a gesture and a brogue

And a faggot of useless memories.

Autumn Journal 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.”)

It 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.)

The 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:

Sleep serene, avoid the backward

Glance; go forward, dreams, and do not halt

(Behind you in the desert stands a token

Of doubt-a pillar of salt).

Sleep, the past, and wake, the future,

And walk out promptly through the open door;

But you, my coward doubts, may go on sleeping . . .

The 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.

In 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 inconvenience.

In his unfinished autobiography, The Strings are False,MacNeice-not unaware of this aspect-gives this trip an entire, vivid chapter:

In 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.

But 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.

Reading 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 excellence.

Ian 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.

In 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 twentieth century.”

In 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:

I 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.

MacNeice 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 anything more?[/private]

About KEvans-Bush

Katy Evans-Bush was born in New York City and has lived in London since she was 19. Her poetry and criticism have appeared in journals and anthologies on both sides of the Atlantic. She is one of six poets featured in The Like of It, published in 2005 by Baring and Rogerson (London).
Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *