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House On A Cliff Louis Macneice Analysis Essay

1I am going to discuss certain aspects of MacNeice’s aesthetic as theorised in his prose and practised in his poetry. But some of the poems themselves include explicit or implicit literary criticism; and I will particularly refer to three of his "eclogues" in this connection. These poems might be termed "colloques" on MacNeice’s poetry. My overall theme will be MacNeice’s continual drive to reconcile the demands of form and content — or of "colour" and "meaning" as "When We Were Children" puts it. All poets share this preoccupation: MacNeice’s unusually acute version stems from the imperative of subject-matter in thirties Britain, and its impact on his early aestheticism. In some respects he underwent a representative rite of passage from the 1920s to the 1930s. But still further back the very origins of his creative impulse turn on a similar tension in the shape of relations between sound and then significance. His important essay "Experiences with Images" emphasises the formative influence of the aural as well as the visual. He says of the trains, foghorns and factory-hooters of Belfast Lough: "[These noises] had a significance apart from what caused [them]... a purely physical meaning which I would find hard to analyse". Thus MacNeice’s earliest poetry is often an attempt to get at meaning through sound. "River in Spate", for instance, at once imitates rushing water and reads dark implications into this mimesis. The sound-effects of the juvenilia prefigure a poetry full of onomatopoeic words and cadences, and of words for sound. Here’s a selection: hooting, clang, twang, "creaks and cawings", gulp, clatter, pop, click, clink, crackle, cackle, boom, blare, roar... Two later poems which especially project the poet as receiver and transmitter of sounds are "The Ear" and "Carrick Revisited". MacNeice’s responsiveness to sound evidently shaped his responsiveness through sound. Hence the importance of emphatic rhythmical punctuation — like assonance, internal rhyme and refrain — to his formal procedures. In such early poems as "Morning Sun" and "Snow" we can see how MacNeice translates the whole gamut of sense-experience into strongly accented sound — a word that occurs in both poems: "for the fire flames with a bubbling sound", "A turning page of shine and sound." Some critics consider these techniques superficial. But neither the ear’s "visitors" nor MacNeice’s sound-effects are necessarily consoling: "The yarn-mill called its funeral cry at noon", "Every evil iron/siren and what it tells." And his sounds and rhythms proved equal to the experiences of the 1930s, from the specialised instrumentation of "Bagpipe Music" to the full orchestra of Autumn Journal.

2Other speakers have commented on MacNeice’s attitude to politics in the 1930s. I want to highlight how politics affected his thinking about poetry. Being as amused as John Cornford by "the intelligentsia playing at revolution", he stressed not how poetry might help to change society, but how a raised social and political consciousness might help to change poetry. That the circumstances of the 1930s put a premium on content is indicated by the very title of MacNeice’s essay "Subject in Modern poetry" (1936), in which he objects to literary self-containedness:

Not only the muck and wind of existence should be faced but also the prose of existence, the utilities, the sine qua nons, which are never admitted to the world, or rather the salon, of the Pure Artist.

Art for art’s sake has been some time foundering... but on the whole, poets have ceased showing themselves off as mere poets. They have better things to do: they are writing about things again.

3This essay and "Poetry Today" contributed to the making of Modem Poetry (1938) whose opening chapter, "A Change of Attitude", draws together their attacks on the "escape art" of the nineties poets and the Georgian poets. MacNeice measures these earlier movements by the "degree of their failure to make the poet "organic to the community". Contemporary poets, on the other hand, "are working back from luxury writing and trying once more to become functional". Words themselves bring to poetry their status as "a community-product" and perform within poetry their function as "a vehicle of communication".

4MacNeice’s quarrel is not only with minor writing of the period 1890-1910, but more profoundly with Eliot and Yeats. I feel it is not yet appreciated how MacNeice and Auden absorbed and redirected the aesthetics of those predecessors. Modem Poetry gives Eliot due credit for introducing into poetry "the modern industrial city... [and] the background of European history" together with "the boredom and the glory of the contemporary world". But he criticises Eliot’s "bookishness" "defeatism" and the extent to which his poems are "studies from a corner"" In "Poetry Today" MacNeice finds Yeats less esoteric than Eliot in some respects, more so in others. Yeats scores in that the Irish Literary Revival was "healthily mixed up with politics" and "where it is possible to be a hypocrite it is also possible to be a hero, a saint or an artist". Modern Poetry, perhaps because more a manifesto than a survey, is harder on Yeats as a poet of the library, but still acknowledges that through "identifying himself with the Irish nationalist movement, [he] had to recognise the "palpable realities of living people and contemporary problems."

5Modern Poetry is less consistent on Yeats than on Eliot, probably because MacNeice’s quarrels with him had a deeper cultural basis. He does not really reconcile the Yeatsian poles of esotericism and public involvement. It took a full-length study to get Yeats into perspective. It also took the atmosphere of autumn 1939. A crucial passage in The Poetry of W. B. Yeats analyses a readjustment which is also relevant to MacNeice’s sequence "The Closing Album" originally titled "The coming of War".

As soon as I heard on the wireless of the outbreak of war, Galway became unreal. And Yeats and his poetry became unreal also.
This was not merely because Galway and Yeats belong in a sense to the past order of things. The unreality which overtook them was also overtaking in my mind modern London, modernist art, and Left Wing politics. If war made nonsense of Yeats’s poetry and of all works that are called "escapist" it also made nonsense of the poetry that professes to be "realist"... For war spares neither the poetry of Xanadu nor the poetry of pylons.

6MacNeice now feels that in Modern Poetry he "overstressed the half truth that poetry is about something is communication". And he realigns his comparative perceptions of Yeats and Eliot: "Eliot’s poetry itself is largely both mannerism and fantasy and... the daylight of "realism" is itself largely a fiction". I shall return to the effect of the war on MacNeice’s aesthetic ideas, on his perception of relations between form and content.

7Immediately I want to dwell on the years 1934-1936 and to look at how "An Eclogue for Christmas", "Eclogue by a Five-Barred Gate" and "Eclogue from Iceland" touch on the issues I have outlined. Indeed the very mode of the eclogue, a medium for discursiveness, a forum for debate, signals the pressure of "subject". "An Eclogue for Christmas" at once reflects, and reflects on, transition from the literary 1920s to the literary 1930s. MacNeice’s version of "The Decline of the West" owes something both to T. S. Eliot and to Karl Marx — a hybridisation common in the early 1930s. Like Eliot in The Waste Land he heaps up images of a civilisation which has lost its way. But in replacing Eliot’s elusive voices with spokesmen for town and country, for social contexts, MacNeice breaks with the mode of The Waste Land. And the eclogue documents and comments in a manner alien to what C. K. Stead calls Eliot’s "pure, non-discursive image". It acts on the shared doctrine of MacNeice and Auden that the poet should include the journalist. Again, its vision approximates more to Auden’s metaphors for a neurotic society than to Eliot’s symbolic spiritual desert. The speaker "A" diagnoses "the excess sugar of a diabetic culture/Rotting the nerve of life and literature". Here "culture", "nerve", "life and literature" carry social meanings with which Eliot is not primarily concerned. The people in the eclogue are socially symptomatic and MacNeice ascribes some of their moral emptiness to dependence on a corrupt class-system: "The flotsam of private property... the good things which in the end turn to poison and pus". The eclogue, as MacNeice puts it elsewhere, reacts from Eliot. And it explains its reaction in a passage which analyses the course of the century, and of the modern movement, as a process of abstracting the individual from himself and from society:

I who was Harlequin in the childhood of the century,
Posed by Picasso beside an endless opaque sea,
Have seen myself sifted and splintered in broken facets,
Tentative pencillings, endless liabilities, no assets,
Abstractions scalpelled with a palette-knife
Without reference to this particular life.
And so it has gone on; I have not been allowed to be
Myself in flesh or face, but abstracting and dissecting me,
They have made of me pure form, a symbol or a pastiche
Stylised profile, anything but soul and flesh...

8To paraphrase: aestheticism, and Modernism which partly descends from it, have denied and fragmented what MacNeice values as human wholeness. The speaker significantly prefers fleshly particularities to abstraction, symbolism and pure form. Similarly, in Modem Poetry MacNeice advocates a "concrete poet" responding as a whole to concrete living". One way in which "An Eclogue for Christmas" carries out this agenda is by putting flesh on the contemporary city. MacNeice has not yet received his due for making urban landscapes part of the regular fabric of poetry. In Modem Poetry he contrasts his approach with Eliot’s, and echoes the eclogue, when he says:

Living in a large industrial city, Birmingham, I recognised that the squalor of Eliot was a romanticised squalor because treated, on the whole, rather bookishly as décor. The short square fingers stuffing pipes were not brute romantic objects abstracted into a picture by Picasso, but were living fingers attached to living people — were even, in a sense, my fingers.

9In fact we might still find some "décor" in MacNeice’s "Birmingham" which curiously blends aesthetic impressionism, journalism and humanistic anger. However, the bold experimentation of "Birmingham" ultimately leads to the concretely living London of Autumn Journal.

10MacNeice’s arguments with Eliot and Yeats are not simply a generational quarrel: they channel his quarrel with himself. MacNeice is hard on aestheticism and "pure form" because that is where his own poetry partly came in. Modem Poetry charts not only developments in twentieth-century poetry, but the parallel growth of a poet’s mind. Pure form had been the creed of MacNeice’s mentor Anthony Blunt at Marlborough, and MacNeice gives this possibly exaggerated account of its effects.

For me, when I went to Oxford, anything was of interest and therefore nothing was of interest. Anything might seem equally well as material for me to put form upon; consequently my form suffered because the material itself ought to affect the form, but, to be able to do that, the material must be allowed to have rights of its own.

11A number of MacNeice’s poems of 1932-1933 worry about the whole issue of imposing aesthetic patterns on the flux of experience and consciousness, on "the living curve" — "Nature Morte", "August", "Train to Dublin". MacNeice’s obsession with flux and stasis has an aesthetic dimension, as well as emotional and philosophical aspects.

12"Eclogue by a Five-Barred Gate" establishes a dialectic between the claims of form and material, art and life, aestheticism and functionality. This eclogue is particularly close to the classical model of artistic contests between shepherds. MacNeice’s pastoral operates both as allegory and as irony. The rustic speech with which the shepherds begin the poem proves to be just one aspect of their literary affectation. This affectation insulates them against the reality represented by the third contributor to then-colloquium, Death. When Death asks for their credentials, the shepherd-poets reply in an idiom which veers from the pasture to the art-for-art’s sake salon. Death, a severe literary critic, rebukes them for "dialect... and pedantry". The shepherds tell Death at the outset that poets are "sleepers" given over to aesthetic reverie: "The sleeping beauty behind the many coloured hedge". When Death introduces the themes of spring and mortality they respond with poetry that seems to parody the Georgian earth-cult and the nineties sensation cult. It may also parody earlier MacNeice. Death believes in poetry’s responsibilities outside itself, in the poet as one who can "quote the prices/Of significant living and decent dying. "He tells the shepherds: "This escapism of yours is blasphemy." He then encourages them to recount their dreams. These dream-poems give their material more "rights of its own." They grow out of experience and at least show aestheticism in the process of becoming functional. The eclogue’s climax translates the "pastures new" of Milton’s "Lycidas" into a landscape of inescapable destiny: not "Thanatos in Greek" but "the thing behind the word" which the shepherds have been dodging.

13"Eclogue from Iceland" completes a meditation on the poet’s role which moves from the question of art in a decadent civilisation, to poetry’s social and universal responsibilities, to more specifically political choices. "Eclogue from Iceland" presents its two poets, Ryan and Craven, thin masks for MacNeice and Auden, as "escaping" not from ultimate realities but from the contingent reality of European political conflict, particularly the Spanish Civil War. They are also exiles from the economic inequalities of Britain and from Ireland "built upon violence and morose vendettas". In exploring the poet’s public responsibilities "Eclogue from Iceland" seems to "react from" Yeats as "An Eclogue for Christmas" reacts from Eliot. Indeed "Eclogue by a Five-Barred Gate" has already quoted Yeats’s phrase "A terrible beauty and aligned itself with Yeats’s epigraph "In dreams begin responsibilities." "Eclogue from Iceland" uses Yeats’s tactic of setting up heroic role-models to counteract the temptation to escape and to despair. These role-models are artists whose spirit prevailed over circumstance — Nijinsky who "danced the war" — or unappreciated men-of-action like James Connolly, the Irish socialist and nationalist. The third party in this colloquium, Grettir the outlaw saga-hero, is also a man of action. It is significant that he, not Death, now articulates MacNeice’s self-critical instincts. In part he resembles Yeats’s concept of the legendary Irish hero Cuchulain. But MacNeice "reacts from" Yeats by making him closer to the ordinary man, the "Everyman" to whom he thought the poet should correspond. Grettir is no authoritarian leader. Any proto-fascist tendencies are eliminated. He is "the doomed tough", "Joker and dressy, a lover of "the daily goods". He is also, perhaps a bit incongruously, a humanist. At the end of the poem he sets out the urgency of action, not in a particular political form, but as an irreductible human duty: "Minute your gesture but it must be made/your hazard, your act of defiance and hymn of hate/Hatred of hatred, ascertain of human values". This answer to the totalitarian "wall/of shouting flesh" amounts to an artistic as well as a personal programme.

14Autumn Journal fulfils that programme as it does the whole tendency of MacNeice’s evolving aesthetic in the 1930s. It transcends the eclogues themselves by absorbing "subject" and didacticism into MacNeice’s lyrical self-dramatisation, his "various and conflicting selves ". It reconciles, as he said, "pictures and generalisations", taking the pictures beyond impressionism but not leaving them as reportage. And it extraordinarily achieves the general thirties ambition of arriving at structures which betray neither history nor art or in MacNeice’s terminology neither flux nor pattern. I want to refer briefly to two aspects of MacNeice’s technique which contribute to the overall formal achievement of Autumn Journal. The first is the poem’s handling of language. Here again there is a break with the literary past. Wyndham Lewis said that T. S. Eliot had "instilled a fear of speech — a terror of the word." Geoffrey Grigson comments on this: "But Eliot’s spell was broken by the volubility of W. H. Auden, for whom words had no terror." MacNeice was equally voluble. His and Auden’s combined verbal flow swept away any linguistic decorums still guarded by Yeats and Eliot. If, as Modern Poetry declares, "the poet’s first business is mentioning things", then he must be open to a variety of vocabulary as well as of phenomena. Thus "subject" enters poetry as diction. Autumn Journal is a thesaurus of richly variegated language: "I loved her with peacocks’ eyes and the wares of Carthage,/With glass and gloves and gold and a powder puff/With blasphemy, camaraderie and bravado/And lots of other stuff. The detumescent colloquialism at the end of that quatrain also demonstrates that the diction of Autumn Journal does not just sit around admiring its own richness. It both exploits words as "a community-product" and criticises them as such. Principally it attacks the effects of politics on language: "blank invective" in Spain, "Hitler yells on the wireless", "free speech nipped in the bud" in Northern Ireland, ideas generally "travestied in "slogans." Autumn Journal, however, also goes behind politics to criticise the language of our academic and social education, which are not only inadequate to the Munich crisis but have contributed to it. In this connection MacNeice not only relishes demotic idiom, the impurities of slang, but makes it an agent of democracy and iconoclasm: "The land of scholars and saints: /Scholars and saints my eye". Or again: "So blow the bugles over the metaphysicians,/Let the pure mind return to the Pure Mind;/I must be content to remain in the world of Appearance/ And sit on the mere appearance of behind".

15The antidote to "the Pure Mind" and "Pure Form" is "impure poetry" as M. Haberer demonstrates. However, the opposite of Pure Form is not No Form but formal risk. The second point I want to make about the technique of Autumn Journal is its handling of metre. As regards metre, the collective thirties tendency was towards a renewal of traditional forms. In this context MacNeice emphatically opts for Yeats rather than Eliot. In The Poetry of W. B. Yeats he says "We admired him too for his form... Treatment of form and subject here went hand in hand. Yeats’s formalising activity began when he thought about the world; as he thought it into a regular pattern, he naturally cast his verse into regular patterns also. A similar process can be observed in W. H. Auden..." Thus the pressure of subject-matter paradoxically encouraged shape. A message required a more clear-cut medium than free-verse could usually provide. Hence the revival of set modes — verse-epistle, ode, eclogue, ballad, song — as well as of set stanzas. Just as the purging of poeticisms left poets "again free", as MacNeice said, to "decorate", so the free-verse purge freed them back into purposeful constraints. MacNeice says in Modem Poetry: "in general I myself prefer the more regular kinds of verse because I think that if you are going to poise your phrases at all they will usually need more poise than can be given them by the mere arranging of them in lines". However, MacNeice’s methods during the 1930s did not imitate Yeats’s stanzaic perfection any more than they did Eliot’s somewhat specialist irregularities. MacNeice’s onomatopoeic inclinations initially led him more to rhyme and rhythm than to overall shape. And discursive priorities compelled his forms, like Auden’s to operate more as vehicles and less as ends in themselves. The eclogues and other longer poems of the 1930s compromise in various ways between free verse, blank verse and rhyme. "An Eclogue for Christmas" and "Valediction", for instance, are written in unpredictable couplets. Conversely, MacNeice’s stanzaic poems depart from norms of line-length and even stanza-length. The luxurious quatrains of "Snow" play off longer lines against pentameter. MacNeice is strikingly fond of the long couplet, a scheme which can subvert the stanza or the sonnet (as in "Birmingham" "and" Spring Vows") and set up a counterpointing music. A flexible quatrain is the basic formal molecule of Autumn Journal and it resolves all the structural uncertainties of the eclogues, and all theoretical doubt as to the morality of colour in relation to meaning. Here indeed MacNeice achieves the ideal, ultimately articulated in The Poetry of W. B. Yeats, of "matter... finding itself in form and form... finding itself in matter." The most common modes of the quatrain rhyme ABCB and ABAC. These in fact alternate up to section XII, and they exemplify the quatrain’s double potential for closure and openness. For instance, the end of section IX leaves the Munich betrayal hanging unrhymed in the air: "only the Czechs/Go down and without fighting." On a larger scale, MacNeice can choose whether to stress the self-contained character of the quatrain, or to suppress some of its identity within a larger momentum. Thus MacNeice has found a medium which on the one hand finds a new synthesis of metrical formality and freedom (synthesises Yeats and Eliot perhaps); and on the other has the fluidity to accommodate the total subject-matter of the 1930s.

16I have not time to do justice to MacNeice’s artistic development from 1931 to 1946. In some respects he did not do justice to it himself until the late 1950s. But the war gradually re-orientated his entire aesthetic. I have already indicated how it initially reemphasised form, and the part played by The Poetry of W. B. Yeats in this process. An essay written in March 1940 rejected the polarisation of public and private poetry. It denies that the poet must choose between the "Brazen Tower of political dogma" and the Ivory Tower of "isolation from men in general." Later in the war a series of reflections called "Broken Windows" carried this theme further, and recorded shifts in practice as well as theory. MacNeice says: "I notice myself that my two old methods — reportage and lyric — are ceasing to suit me". This is because "different circumstances change the "message" — the content — and so the method — the style." One new method fostered by altered circumstances can be termed "parable". MacNeice himself does not regularly employ this term until later — when he calls The Dark Tower "a radio parable play", when he conceives his Clark Lectures in the early 1960s. But "Experiences with Images" (1949) analyses poems of the 1940s as exploiting images in a new way. And the terminology of the analysis approaches his subsequent definitions of parable. He cites certain poems as not only manifesting "a more structural use of imagery" and symbol, but as blending "rational allegory and dream suggestiveness". The poems he singles out are "The Springboard" "The Dowser" and "Order to View".

17Earlier MacNeice had occasionally written poems with such qualities. For instance, "Chess" is a rational allegory of historical necessity, of war’s logic or illogic: "Choose your gambit, vary the tactics of your game,/You move in a closed ambit that always ends the same." "Chess" also borrows suggestiveness, as do much later poems, from MacNeice’s fascination with the Alice books. The poems he wrote during 1939-1940 are poems of decision-making which lend themselves to the allegorical and emblematic varieties of parable. MacNeice’s indecision had to do with whether the Second World War was "my war" or not. Whether he should remain in Ireland, whether he should try to be a permanent expatriate in America where he went in January 1940. "Prognosis" and the last poem of "The Closing Album" are full of questions. "Entirely" examines the decisionmaking process itself. Poems which can be termed parables of choice are "Stylite", "Flight of the Heart", "Debacle", the properly biblical "Jehu" and "The Springboard". The contrast between "Stylite" and "The Springboard" suggests an advance in parable-technique. "Stylite" is certainly a stylised poem with its emblematic contrast between the saint who "bans" the world and the Greek God who concentrates on it. Their antithetical pillars might again be the poet’s ivory and brazen towers. "The Springboard" also depends on what MacNeice calls "a strong symbol", but invests it with greater tension and drama, not to mention dream-suggestiveness. The two years that separate the poems have also fed in the atmosphere of London at war: "He will dive like a bomber past the broken steeple".

18MacNeice’s wartime poems do not evoke London at war in documentary terms. He wrote some vivid prose "London Letters", but a bad journalistic poem like "Refugees" indicates that there was no return to a thirties aesthetic. What the poems convey is what Varieties of Parable terms "the inner feel" of the period. On the one hand, MacNeice co-opts wartime phenomena into "rational allegories" of the human condition. For example "Conscript", or "Convoy" "which rather heavily underlines its point: "This is a bit like us." On the other hand, some parables take an archetypal view of contemporary struggles. In doing so, they pursue the implications of "Prayer before Birth". And they act on MacNeice’s defence of "make-believe" and "fantasy" in The Strings are False: "in the epoch of Hitler-Siegfried Redivivus — it is not only a mistake but a disaster to ignore those underground motives which cause both art and war." Thus "Brother Fire", "The Trolls" and "Troll’s Courtship" psycho-analyse the Blitz by personifying fire and bombing as mythical creatures dangerously on the loose.

19During the war and in the immediately postwar period MacNeice increasingly stressed his dissatisfaction with what he variously terms "reportage", "journalism", "chunks of life." This exaggerates the documentary component in his own thirties writing. But it confirms that "subject" has relaxed its imperative. The fruition of MacNeice’s parabolic techniques (in his last two collections) lies outside your selection of poems. But several postwar poems anticipate the aesthetic future, while others richly consummate the past. To take the first category: in the mid-forties he wrote a group of poems based on a visit to Achill Island in the West of Ireland. That "western landscape" now usurps the place of social and political Ireland is itself significant. Irish images often proved to be the testing-ground for fresh approaches. This group includes "Littoral", "The Strand", "Last before America", "Under the Mountain" and "No More Sea". The landscape of Achill, compounded of mountains, sea and shoreline, functions as a topography for metaphysical enquiry, for working out the co-ordinates of man’s position on the earth. In this Irish context MacNeice is now not so much concerned with questions of social affiliation, as with our transitory affiliation to the planet. In "The Strand", for example, the figure of MacNeice’s father certainly implies a more solid relation both to the environment and to religious faith than that enjoyed by the poet. Nevertheless, the poem’s perspectives perceive both figures within a ceaseless fluctuation which erases marks of the human body and mind:

It was sixteen years ago he walked this shore
And the mirror caught his shape which catches mine
But then as now the floor-mop of the foam
Blotted the bright reflections — and no sign
Remains of face or feet when visitors have gone home.

20My second category, poems which consummate the past, includes "Woods", "Elegy for Minor Poets", and "Autolycus". These three poems share a six-line stanza, a closely woven verbal texture, and subtextual comment on MacNeice’s aesthetic. MacNeice’s handling of the relations between imagery and statement, form and informality, achieves a new richness. But in these poems he is also exploring the terrain of his imagination and it is not wholly settled. "Woods", despite anatomising cultural duality, is the most affirmative of the poems. It enjoys the complications of also having "this other, this English choice/Into what yet is foreign." Less comfortably, the minor poets run an allegorical obstacle course between "Promised Land" and "dark bogs." Nor does the poem’s speaker detach himself from the ordeal of these martyrs to the mysteries of the creative process. "Autolycus" holds out some kind of hope to those in a personal or aesthetic "fix." The poem celebrates Shakespeare too as the "master pedlar" who can reconcile all dialectics and dialects.

Eclectic always, now extravagant,
Sighting his matter through a timeless prism
He ranged his classical bric-à-brac in grottos
Where knights of Ancient Greece had Latin mottoes
And fishermen their flapjacks — none should want
Colour for lack of an anachronism.

21Terence Brown has commented on how "the hotch-potch of diction" in the poem itself captures Shakespeare’s "mixture of styles and forms" in the last plays. Thus MacNeice’s own "eclectic extravagance" backs up one of his basic critical themes: that necessary impurity which makes poetry a compound of talking "crystal" and "gabbing earth." "Autolycus" also implies that "colour" cannot go too far in its pursuit of meaning. This looks beyond the present relish of varied diction to the experimental extravagance of MacNeice’s last two books. Among other signposts are the fact that "Woods" is concerned with the stuff of myth, preferably beyond the reach of social ordering. And its allusion to Malory’s Morte d’Arthur portends the symbolic questing to come. The appeal of Shakespeare’s romances also underlines the growing attraction of fantasy and myth now that chunks of life are wearing thin. At the same time the perfectly planned "Elegy" is superstitiously conscious of poets "who knew all the words but failed to achieve the Word." MacNeice has learned that no aesthetic is permanently reliable.

SOURCE: Grennan, Eamon. “In a Topographical Frame: Ireland in the Poetry of Louis MacNeice.” In Facing the Music: Irish Poetry in the Twentieth Century, pp. 192-207. Omaha: Creighton University Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, which was originally written in 1981, Grennan analyzes the complex emotions in MacNeice's poetry about Ireland. Grennan notes that these poems contain a mixture of apprehension, love, nostalgia, distrust, and appreciation for Ireland's natural beauty.]

That we were born Here, not there, is a chance but a chance we took And would not have it otherwise. I cannot deny my past to which my self is wed.

That Louis MacNeice is an Irish poet is a fact his critical commentators do not ignore. Mostly, however, reference to the fact is of an incidental kind and tells us little about the poetry itself or about the nature and importance of MacNeice's relationship with Ireland.1 Terence Brown's comment on MacNeice's exile from his own country may, in fact, be the most revealing of all such comments: “exile from Ireland left him … a stranger everywhere.”2 My purpose in the present essay is to concentrate upon the Irish dimension in the poetry, but in order to examine the part MacNeice's varied response to Ireland plays in his work, the effect his relationship with his country has on his verse and on what might be called his poetic identity, that sense of the self emerging out of the poems. MacNeice's friend John Hilton once sent a telegram to the poet's parents which, because of a clerical error, read “Vouch for Louis' nationality.”3 What he had actually written was “Vouch for Louis' rationality,” but as far as MacNeice as poet is concerned the mistake contains a truth which I hope will be usefully illuminated by the end of this essay.


Apart from his half-humorous claim to be descended from Conor MacNessa, MacNeice himself often reiterates the importance to his work of Ireland and things Irish.4 First among the things that “conditioned my poetry” he placed “having been brought up in the North of Ireland”;5 his very last radio talk was about his childhood in Carrickfergus;6 and he began a late unfinished autobiography with biblical gravitas: “In the beginning was the Irish rain.”7 While MacNeice spent most of his working life outside Ireland, and while the poems with an explicitly Irish subject matter or setting are comparatively few in number, I would nonetheless argue that these poems and the experience they contain comprise a most important feature of MacNeice's work. They compose in outline a sort of allegorical autobiography of MacNeice's poetic identity, honestly if often obliquely keeping pace with his life.

If MacNeice's world were to be seen in eschatological terms, its heaven and its hell would be located in Ireland.8 Metaphorically, Ireland represents ecstatic emancipation and dreadful damnation, a spiritual dialectic MacNeice cannot resolve in any simple way. When fused with his childhood, the country becomes a kind of paradise lost elegiacally recalled by the poet bound to the purgatorial experience of time. Such an emblematic design, of course, over-simplifies the complex variety of MacNeice's career as a poet, but may be defended as a means of learning something about the importance of one particular aspect of his poetry.

As far as its social and political realities were concerned, Ireland was from very early on a demonic place in MacNeice's eyes. As a child he saw Belfast as “The city of smoke and dust.”9 It impressed him as being “essentially evil … grey, wet, repellent, and its inhabitants dour, rude, and callous.”10 The mill girls frightened him and he feared the men lounging and spitting on street corners, waiting for the pubs to open. Violence is endemic in this society, a social, sectarian, and sexual violence that hardens the realities of living into petrified mockeries of themselves. In an early poem, “Belfast,” the poet's horror transmogrifies the city into a wasteland: a chapel is “a cave of gloom,” the sea is “salt carrion water,” the ship-yard gantries “like crucifixes.”11 Life freezes into the frightening postures of nightmare, people stiffen into inanimate objects (a man is made of basalt and mica, a catholic woman is “shipwrecked … before the garish virgin”), and even the ordinary joys of life are “harsh attempts at buyable beauty.” This repulsive violence infects life at its cosmic and human sources: “The sun goes down with a banging of Orange drums,” and “the male kind murders each its woman.” Beyond the “mother-city” the whole North is an equally nightmarish place, a “country of cowled and haunted faces.” In another poem he sees Belfast (“devout and profane and hard”) in a similar way, a place where the benign juices of life have stopped flowing (“country of callous lava cooled to stone”), a frozen wasteland where even time itself is a solid and solidifying object:

Time punched with holes like a steel sheet, time Hardening the faces, veneering with a grey and speckled rime The faces under the shawls and caps.

(“Valediction,” 52)

Such imagery turns MacNeice's North into something like Dante's Hell, a place petrified in history, with no outlets channeled by redeeming time. Here the expectation endures “That Casement would land at the pier / With a sword and a horde of rebels,” and here too “the voodoo of Orange bands” draws “an iron net through darkest Ulster” (Autumn Journal, in CP, 31-2). Historical paralysis is mirrored in social immobility, a terrible inability to change:

And the North where I was a boy, Is still the North, veneered with the grime of Glasgow, Thousands of men whom nobody will employ Standing at the corners, coughing.


In this unalterable hell of perfect opposites, eternal antagonisms achieve an exquisite, ridiculous equilibrium:

Up the Rebels, To Hell with the Pope, And God Save—as you prefer—the King or Ireland.


This infernal immobilising of history is not confined to the North. In MacNeice's eyes the rest of Ireland is also subject to an equivalent corruption of spirit. The important and sufficient cause is that “history never dies, / At any rate in Ireland, arson and murder are legacies” (“Valediction,” 52). Historical paralysis, which drives MacNeice away as it drives his persona Ryan (in “Eclogue from Iceland”) into even more melodramatic exile, is rooted in the fact that Ireland is “a nation / Built upon violence and morose vendettas” (41). Here in Ryan's Dantean vision of political hell is the curse of history at a violent standstill: “My diehard countrymen like drayhorses / Drag their ruin behind them.” What repels MacNeice, as it does Ryan, is the saturation of historical time by mindless, bloody repetition. The poet fastens our attention to this by a recurrent imagery of metal and stone, of inanimation. History is an economic treadmill (“They make their Ulster linen from foreign lint / And the money that comes in goes out to make more money,” AJ [Autumn Journal], 133) and, socially, a vicious circle:

A city built upon mud; A city built upon profit; Free speech nipped in the bud, The minority always guilty.


What language and rhythm insist on here is a changeless, unchangeable condition, a non-democratic status quo.

The brute, impenetrable primitivism of the peasant and the cultural sentimentality of the Irish middle classes complete MacNeice's picture of Ireland as an infernal wasteland. By birth and upbringing he is cut off from the peasantry, from the “country of cowled and haunted faces.” His persona Ryan bitterly calls up

Those eyes which hang in the northern mist, the brute Stare of stupidity and hate, the most Primitive and false of oracles.


From this negative perspective MacNeice understands the peasant as a sensibility suspended in time, a fossilised malevolence infecting historical time with its hate and stupidity. The almost inchoate opening of “Valediction” strikes the same note of speechless terror:

Died by gunshot under borrowed pennons, Sniped from the wet gorse and taken by the limp fins And slung like a dead seal in a bog-hole, beaten up By peasants with long lips and the whiskey-drinker's cough.


Animal roughness translates the dead man into mere heavy flesh, his murderers into mindless automata, extensions of a landscape that has nothing to do with the more humane possibilities of historical time.

At the opposite extreme to this brutish, mindless malevolence is Irish cultural sentimentality (mainly in the South). It, too, however, is an important element in MacNeice's negative vision of Ireland. For cultural sentimentality also immobilises history, congealing the past into vulgar, outmoded icons of artificial piety, “the trademarks of a hound and a round tower, / … Irish glamour … sham Celtic crosses … souvenirs / Of green marble or black bog-oak” (53). Infecting the historical present with a plastic sentimentalised version of the past, cultural vulgarity draws from MacNeice a stinging denunciation: “Ireland is hooey, Ireland is / A gallery of fake tapestries” (52). He castigates the complacency that will, in spite of the tragedy of emigration, “Take credit for our sanctity, our heroism,” those “accepted names” that are only gilded replicas of the qualities they signify. His intense antipathy to ethnic and national complacency fuels his outburst against “Your drums and your dolled-up virgins and your ignorant dead” (54). What he rejects is frozen time, the constricting to a tiny repertoire of repeated gestures the infinite variety of human and historical possibility. In order to escape this wasteland and restore himself to a more human and humane relationship with historical time, in order not to “have my baby-clothes my shroud” (53), he chooses exile, fluency in time and space, as his only chance of holding onto his own soul.

The poems from which I have been quoting belong mostly to the Thirties. Corresponding to MacNeice's most actively ‘political’ period, they show one aspect, perhaps a fundamental one, of his need to feel in touch with history. He says of being in Galway when war broke out in 1939, “As soon as I heard … of the outbreak of war, Galway became unreal.”12 And elsewhere he tells us that in 1940 he left America to return to a war-time England because “I thought I was missing History.”13 From such a perspective it seems natural enough that certain aspects of Ireland should represent a hell from which he must escape to the fluent historical process of life in England. At the same time MacNeice's view of Ireland was never one of simple rejection. Bitterly negative as some of his feelings were, they were complicated by an intense love for the landscape of the country. Paralleling his rejection is a broad embrace of all that is free of history and time—the simple asocial and apolitical fact of space. Seen through this lens Ireland becomes a paradise, the delights of which MacNeice never tires of naming and celebrating.

This visionary tendency predates the poetry. As a child, in order to protect himself against the more unpleasant aspects of his existence, MacNeice was in the habit of constructing “various dream worlds,” the first of which was “the West of Ireland.”14 Even the name ‘Connemara’ “seemed too rich for any ordinary place.” What the summoned landscape gives him is a freedom that is at once imaginative and sensual, a place of exuberant generosity and spiritual emancipation:

It appeared to be a country of windswept open spaces and mountains blazing with whins and seas that were never quiet, with drowned palaces beneath them, and seals and eagles and turf smoke and cottagers who were always laughing and who gave you milk when you asked for a glass of water.

Such an epiphanal sense of freedom and perpetuity also rewards his first actual glimpse of the Atlantic, fulfilling the imaginary pattern his dreams had composed. It was, he says, the “biggest thing this side of God,” brimming with a sense of “infinite possibility” and “eternity.”15

Throughout his life and in different parts of Ireland he was to rediscover this ecstatic freedom in the Irish landscape. He describes, for example, a trip to Dublin from England just after the birth of his first child: “I felt I was born again, to be able to go to Dublin on my own. Dodds and I walked up the Wicklow mountains and, as I looked down on Dublin Bay, I felt that the world was open.”16 Here the factual sensation of release verges on the mystical (“born again”), turning the landscape into an occasion of near paradisal release; as he pursues the memory, MacNeice's style rises in lyrical intensity to match the experience: “I was wearing citified suede shoes and finding them afterwards soaked and scratched by heather had a sense of having cut loose; a great wild star of space was smashed in the hot-house window.”

The poems themselves everywhere testify to this felt sense of emancipation in the Irish landscape, which they render in approximate but unambiguously paradisal terms. And as the infernal aspects of Ireland are marked by images of mechanical petrifaction, paralysis and immobility, the images that express his paradisal version of the same place are naturally fluent, free, and sensually immediate. In a life constricted by “the monotony of fear” it is in his experience of the Irish landscape that MacNeice finds an occasional, precious freedom:

For during a tiny portion of our lives we are not in trains, The idol living for a moment, not muscle-bound But walking freely through the slanting rain, Its ankles wet, its grimace relaxed again.

(“Train to Dublin,” 27)

This sense of freedom anchors a metaphysical idea in physical phenomena, releasing MacNeice's imagination into gestures of expansive liberality:

I give you the disproportion between labour spent And joy at random; the laughter of the Galway sea Juggling with spars and bones irresponsibly.


Granting him in the same poem a freedom at once child-like (“the toy Liffey”), clownish (“irresponsibility”), and visionary (“the vast gulls”), his beloved sea springs him from the dutiful imperatives of history into the timeless, ecstatically contradictory domain of myth. From a world in which history is too much and too unalterably with us, he is released into one where history hardly exists at all. Clonmacnoise, site of the famous monastery, is a fitting emblem for this counterpoint of history and landscape, being “A huddle of tombs and ruins of anonymous men / Above the Shannon dreaming in the quiet rain.”17

From the vantage point of his delight in landscape MacNeice often translates history into a dynamics of pure sensation:

I give you the smell of Norman stone, the squelch Of bog beneath your boots, the red bog-grass, The vivid chequer of the Antrim hills, the trough of dark Golden water for the carthorses, the brass Belt of serene sun upon the lough.


Experience in this realm is fluent: hard Norman stone becomes subtle smell; the bog, elsewhere a murderous place, is merely the sound and sensation of boots sinking into its softness, the colour of its vegetation. Metal imagery is purged of its inimical associations, so water is richly golden and the lough's “brass belt” is only the benevolent serenity of sunlight. All the senses come to involuntary ecstatic life in this paradise of ordinary pleasures made extraordinary by the poet's vividness of apprehension:

Fuchsia and ragweed and the distant hills...

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