The Burning Perch
Collected Poems, 1925-1948
Two years ago Louis MacNeice kindly spared a summer Saturday to come up from London and talk to an assortment of English provincial poetry-fanciers at a bleak technical college in the Midlands. I took the chair for him. As often when one takes the chair, I found myself listening to the tune and the tone more than the argument. Again and again, one very strange phrase caught my ear: “Midnight in turkeys…midnight in turkeys!” It was only over coffee and discussion afterwards that it suddenly hit me that what MacNeice had been saying was “mid nineteenthirties.” This fine poet’s voice, with its aspirated dentals, its noise of determined snorting through a permanent mild nasal catarrb, was an Irish countryman’s, almost an Irish peasant’s, voice. He was an Oxford graduate, a passionate Londoner, in Ulster itself his father had been a Church of Ireland clergyman who became a bishop. His childhood had been a lonely one, in a rambling vicarage, and one thing that had much influenced his poems (Perseus and the gorgon’s head, St. Sebastian feathered with his pet hours) had, he once wrote, been early confrontation with mental illness: he recurred, because of that, to images of petrifaction.
He sought hedonism often in his poems, but it was a haunted hedonism. There is a poem in his last volume which is a set of allusions to Horace, an ironical attempt at expressing urbane resignation: but, as MacNeice wrote in a letter from what he did not know was his death-bed to the English Poetry Book Society (The Burning Perch was one of their autumn choices), his resignation was even less convincing than Horace’s, because he had not a pagan background. He wrote how surprised he had been to find how bleak and dour, how much concerned with, in Mr. Eliot’s phrases, “boredom and horror” this last volume was. He wondered sardonically whether “fear and resentment”—like “lust and rage” for Yeats in his last volume—were what he now needed to “spur him into song.” But he noted rather wistfully that even in the most bored and the most horrified, the most frightened or resentful poems, there was often some image that stood for another kind of feeling: in one of the bleakest of these poems, for instance, the image of the sea, open, cleansing, leading anywhere, never far away. A few days after writing this piece of calm, inquisitive, slightly surprised, and by no means breathily intimate selfanalysis, he died.
Nobody expected this. Tall, bony, muscular, gaunt, with a face like a handsome horse’s with too many teeth in its mouth, MacNeice had played vigorous amateur rugby into his thirties, into his fifties would take long, long country walks in heavy hobnailed boots. Pneumonia caught him by surprise, as it catches many people. I never saw him not looking hard as nails. He drank enormous quantities of beer, as almost all B.B.C. producers do in the nervous waitings between rehearsals and going on the air, in the pubs and clubs round Portland Place in London W.I. I never saw him the worse or indeed the better for it. When he had drunk a great deal, he might perhaps seem more remote. He waited for people to come to talk to him, as they did. But his horsy sardonic smile always expressed a resigned dissatisfaction.
There was something one should have said, some topic to bring up, something to make a sad joke about. But one never knew quite what. Surrounded always by a court, part-time actors, free-lance script-writers, young near-poets, wildish intelligent young women and young men who in World War II would have been in the Commandos, MacNeice had the air, over his pints, of a Sinn Fein leader like Michael Collins or of a bandit chief. He had always that Irish air of being in the middle of some humorous, dangerous, probably heroically futile conspiracy, and of wanting to know about other people’s conspiracies. His gaiety came from that. His weary, contemptuous look as a man, and tone in his late poems, came from a feeling about the new world round him. One of the last longish conversations I had with him was about the Leavis-Snow controversy. I had intervened in this mildly, both because I knew and liked Snow as a person, and because I thought that in the central theme of his famous lecture, the duty of the rich nations to help to raise the plain, material conditions and expectations of living in the poor nations, Snow was grossly and obviously and incontrovertibly right. I had at the same time expressed the respect anybody must feel for Leavis as a critic, and my regret that he should have signed off at Cambridge with an exhibition of Jacobin rhetoric and hysterical ill-manners. MacNeice was simply bored. No social or political issue, possibly, had been very vividly real to him since the “midnight in turkeys.” He joshed me humorously, as a fat, breathless little man always just managing to climb on the back of the latest bandwagon. I pretended to care about poetry, didn’t I? What the divill had Leavis or Snow to do with poetry?
What did the “fear and resentment” come out of? MacNeice had never been, like Spender and Day Lewis, say, a naive romantic believer in the coming suddenly, through “the boys” getting control of everything, of some kind of Socialist utopia overnight. The deathwish, the gun-butt on the door, the unpredictability of politics and the awful and yet in some ways admirable obstinate habit-bound unsurrendering irrationality of man, were his great themes even in the 1930’s. He never felt small seeing a Communist, he never flattered what he called “the little sardine-men,” but he did not retreat, as Day Lewis retreated after the 1930’s, into classical translation and an attempt to re-do Hardy, Clough, and Browning. If, as F.W. Bateson has suggested, what Auden was really unconsciously announcing in his poems of the Thirties was not the arrival of a Socialist utopia, but that of the managerial society, nobody, in a way, was more managerial than MacNeice: to handle words as well as he did in B.B.C. features, men as well as he did as a B.B.C. producer, one needs an extraordinary, in some ways callous, manipulative skill. Men and words have both their inner lives; they will not, in the end, be chessmen. I suppose the obtrusiveness of the manipulative skill has been the main thing critics have worried about in his poetry.
What is best in the poetry comes out, I think, of the submerged Irish peasant in him, nursing dreams of flaming big houses and landlords shot from behind hedges, and meanwhile plodding to work along a claggy lane of battered feelings with heavy boots. What is most questionable comes out of the Irish countryman playing the role of the quick, flicking, up-to-the-moment metropolitan man. Something grim and perhaps Calvinistic in MacNeice’s physical and moral ancestry knew that you pay for your pleasures: lusisti satis…you have been a playboy long enough. The best poetry in him comes out of blockage, thwarting, heavy exasperation, a wild hell-defying pursuit of pleasure—“the moment cradled like a brandy-glass”—and this, also, was the deepest thing one felt about him as a person. That sour Irish strength, that bitter, mocking and self-mocking Irish gaiety forced expression over and through the blockage. The real poetic strength comes out as something primitive, strong, sullen, and unaccepting:
For we are obsolete who like the lesser things,
Who play in corners with looking-glasses and beads;
It is better we should go quickly, go into Asia
Or any other tunnel where the world recedes,
Or turn blind wantons like the gulls who scream
And rip the edge off any ideal or dream.
Incidentally, in MacNeice’s recording of that stanza, its effect is hugely reinforced by the cold-in-the-nose obstructedly trumpeting snuffle, and by the pounding repetition of all these semi-aspirated Irish d‘s: “midnight in turkeys” again! Nobody who does not know the Irish voice fairly intimately can hear MacNeice properly; just as nobody can hear Dylan Thomas properly who cannot spot the Welsh sing-song (so like the Indian sing-song) under the “cut-glass accent.”
The dedication of this last fine, bitter volume of MacNeice’s (like the dedication of the Collected Poems of 1948) is a love-poem. In the volume itself, one other poem, “Déja Vu,” is a love-poem of sorts: it is what the Elizabethans would call an invention or device, a new and surprising way of handling a commonplace topic. Two lovers, fairly newly meeting each other, suddenly feel: “This has happened before!” The ingenuity is in working the idea into the structure of the poem, in making the last line (to express the idea of odd, trivial, but actual eternal recurrence) the same as the first. Invention, ingenuity, handling a common topic without seeming trite or obvious, the prime gift of poets for Elizabethan critics like George Gascoigne, was MacNeice’s prime gift also. Reviewers who had not this gift themselves—I plead guilty among them—used to describe the gift deprecatingly or sneeringly as “cleverness.” But it can be a frightfully deep and disturbing cleverness.
There is a little poem in this last volume, “The Taxis,” which has been giving me bad dreams. A man, in four stanzas, takes four successive taxi-rides, feeling rather high or gay (the first line of each stanza ends “tra-la-la”). On the first ride, the taxi-driver eyes the passenger askance. On the second ride, the taxi-driver asks the passenger if he has left anything behind (the implication is a contraceptive), and charges sixpence extra. On the third ride, the taxi-driver charges one-and-sixpence extra, and the passenger, though he has nobody with him, has a vague sense of a whiff of perfume and a confused memory of Cannes. On the fourth ride, the taxi-driver says flatly that he cannot take “so many people, not to speak of the dog.” The poem is perhaps about the libertine, the egocentric man the solipsist who likes to think of himself as essentially free, but whose life, so far as it still exists, becomes finally merely an accretion of all the relationships he has lived by and refused to take seriously; the taxi-driver might be Love, Life, Opportunity, Fate. Death (on the fourth ride, you cannot take all your human and animal baggage with you). But the poem remains essentially baffling, like the sort of dream which one thinks one has solved—plain man’s Freudianism working even in dreams—while one is dreaming it, but is again stumped by when one wakes up.
The same sense of knowing and not knowing, of encountering something utterly familiar and yet being utterly at sea, assails the reader of a number of brilliant little character studies—or rather, insights into fate—called “As in Their Time.” One example:
For what it was worth he had to
Make a recurring protest:
Which was at least a gesture
Which was a vindication
Or excuse for what it was worth.
This is insight into the fate of being a moral coward, or rather into the fate of not knowing whether one is a moral coward or an ineffective and crippled moral hero. The brave protest tails off into the hollow gesture, the gesture rises grandly into the proper vindication, collapses limply into the mere excuse. The phrase “for what it is worth” is, grammatically, like enclosing brackets and morally like the blinkers, the prison cell, which this character could not break out of.
These short poems are destructive and brilliant. One thinks either, “Is this me?” or, “Somebody I know, but who?” But the poem that moved me to tears in this last volume was a farewell to London, with a refrain from Dunbar. I loved, once, old Gomorrah-on-Thames as much as MacNeice did: but the horrible new beehive apartment and office blocks, the Hilton Hotel, like Martian erections landed from the sky, are blocking and dwarfing the fine human, historical proportions; and, in greed and snarling and using your elbows, the old sophisticated sense of brotherhood—Shaw said you could live in London for years, without discovering that your best friend hated you, because of the London “system” of everybody being polite and kind to everybody else—is going, too. And it is no longer, as it felt even when I settled there among the debris and austerity of 1945, as it remained even maybe up to Suez and Hungary, a kind of moral capital. One—“one” meaning the young poet, the young critic, the young eager lover of art and literature—could in these days meet everybody, with no fuss, with no Establishment nonsense, if one knew the pubs to meet them in. The years 1945 to 1951 were a dinner of herbs, but a dinner of herbs with love. I have felt the smell of money more recently in London, as I never felt it before; I have met an editor of a national weekly who wants to pull down St. Paul’s and the churches in the Strand because you can preserve them in photographs, and they take up groundrent space that is worth billions for business. There was a sense of brotherhood in London after the war. We were all shabby, all underfed, all eager and sympathetic towards each other. And the Third Programme, of which MacNeice was a pillar, was cut savagely into five or six years ago (by Network Three, a programme for hobbyists); and television is the thing, a face, a gesture, a way of scratching your nose, nobody remembers the words. MacNeice felt all this:
And nobody rose, only some meaningless
Buildings and people once more were strangers
At home with no one, sibling or friend. Which is why now the petals fall Fast from the flower of cities all.
Angrily, gauntly, impatiently, contemptuously, MacNeice was for brotherhood: “God rest him all road ever he offended.”