Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Louis MacNeice on Art

Hundreds of millions of words have been written, spoken and (probably) mimed on the nature of Art. Indeed, speculating and pontificating and blabbering about the nature of Art is all good clean fun, and does no harm, as long as nobody forgets to check on the casserole.

But I don't think anyone has ever written more sensibly on the subject than Louis MacNeice did in these lines from 'Autumn Sequel', a long poem that occasionally reaches heights as sublime as anything in poetry. I first came across it in one edition of The Oxford Book of English Verse, where one section was printed as an epilogue to the entire book. Some lines from this section were quoted, and indeed become a plot point, in an episode of the BBC comedy Rev (which follows the vicissitudes of an inner-city Church of England vicar).

You may not have heard of Louis MacNeice. He was a Northern Irish poet who spent most of his life and career in Britain. He lived until 1963. He was left-wing without being silly about it. Actually, a distaste for ideology was one of his themes. He wrote radio plays and other programmes for the BBC and the last one aired as he lay dying. He was fond of the booze and the ladies. His poetry is notable for its range of references-- he had a formidable classical education, but he was just as interested in all the banalities of twentieth-century life as he was in fifth-century Athens. Like Auden and Eliot and many others, his flights of genius are mixed up with a lot of wilfully obscure modernistic rubbish. His best poem is probably 'Snow'.

This extract is new to the internet, as far as I can tell. I hope the MacNeice estate consider it fair use; and, if they don't consider it fair use, I hope they don't notice it. (The poem is written in the demanding format of terza rima, the stanza form used by Dante in his Divine Comedy. If you don't see what's so demanding about it, try writing thirty lines in it yourself.)

Minx or mother, old witch, young coquette
And often as not a nun, the Muse will never
Conform to type, she uses a finer net

Than the fishing laws allow, she is not clever
So much as cunning, she often walks alone,
Sleep means as much to her as high endeavour,

And she can stare for hours at a polished stone
And see all heaven in the grain of a table;
At times she is monolingual, monotone,

At others mistress of the Tower of Babel;
She prefers the halt and the blind, the fanatical ones
And the simple-minded to the merely able,

She favours dying kings and setting suns
But also the egg that hatches, the lips that kiss.
She loves the drone of bees and the thud of heavy guns,

She will pirouette on a wire over the last abyss,
Is equally prone to cast the truth in your teeth
And slip it aside in a gabbled parenthesis.

Nor is she the best of employers, it being beneath
Her pride to pay on the day or sometimes at all.
She can pay a thousandfold with a funeral wreath.

Anyhow, it is employment, stand or fall.
And all I am fit for now, which is saying little
But claiming almost everything; life may pall,

She can restore its savour; it may be brittle,
She can prevent it breaking; it may be blind.
She can touch and cure its eyes with clay and spittle.

Post-script, written a day later: This post has received three views, according to my statistics. Very discouraging.


  1. Sorry, I had to leave this when it first came up in my feed-reader, because I knew it needed time to read properly. I'm glad I did, though I'm sorry it skewed your statistics.

    That extract has entirely changed my thoughts on the 'Autumn Journal'. I have some selected poems of MacNeice's with a different extract, but didn't get on with it. I had better give it another go, because I thought these lines were wonderful - unrelentingly tight without showing off.

    The MacNeice poem I like is 'House on a Cliff', even though I don't quite understand it.... 'Indoors the tang of a tiny oil-lamp. Outdoors the winking signal on a waste of sea...... Outside the chill, the void, the siren'. I can think of few other poems that clinch the feeling of the night sea like that. And there too he picks his structure and sticks to it seemingly effortlessly.

  2. Ah, just seen that this extract is from 'Autumn Sequel' and not 'Autumn Journal', sorry. I suppose that makes two to investigate!

    1. I think Autumn Sequel is actually better, though less praised.

    2. I suspect Autumn Journal gets the attention it does because its 'reportage' makes selections from it fit well in anthologies.

  3. Ah, I was being grouchy at that moment.

    Autumn Sequel is actually the sequel to Autumn Journal. It's much less of a 'journal', and more impressionistic, as MacNeice puts very well, when recalling his Autumn Journal in it:

    Our days are quick
    Quick and not dead. To lop them off with a knife
    In order to preserve them seems pure fake.

    There are some amazing lines. At one put MacNeice describes the process of history, where the seeds of one era are always planted in the previous one, thus:

    The black bureau
    Of history where pale clerks do sum on sum
    Carrying over and over.

    I'm so glad to hear from another reader of MacNeice. At his best he's amazing. I generally like people who have strong convictions, but MacNeice's poetry takes agnosticism, in the best sense, to its highest level-- I think. Or even fence-sitting!

    The most famous lines, the ones included in the Oxford Book of English Verse and alluded to in Rev, have been posted by someone else here:

    I like the lines you quote from House on a Cliff. I also like some lines from MacNeice that I don't quite understand. Like these:

    The glamour of the end attic, the smell
    Of old leather trunks – Perdita, where have you been
    Hiding all these years? Somewhere or other a green
    Flag is waving under an iron vault
    And a brass bell is the herald of green country
    And the wind is in the wires and the broom is gold.

    I don't know what it means, but it's incredibly haunting.

    My father often quotes his poem 'Dublin', which he knows by heart. I don't think any poem has captured the atmosphere of Dublin so perfectly. And MacNeice wasn't even a Dubliner.

    Thanks for that Dominic. I'm proud to have you as a reader of my blog!