The Collected Poems of Louis MacNeice
High and Low
Collected Poems 1930-1965
Probably most readers, like the present writer, have always felt vaguely amiable toward Louis MacNeice’s poems. They have been well-mannered and have exhibited commendable sentiments. They have shown obvious critical intelligence about the contemporary cultural and social scene without pedantry, and have not been afraid of a nostalgic wistfulness (duly disciplined) for a more attractive past while sensibly accepting the present. MacNeice could write lines with rhythms so insistent that they tyrannized the inner ear. I fully expect to go out at last with the verse
We are dying, Egypt, dying
And not expecting pardon,
Hardened in heart anew,
But glad to have sat under
Thunder and rain with you,
And grateful too
For sunlight on the garden,
ringing in the submerging consciousness.
Therefore it was with a certain anticipation that I opened his Collected Poems, discreetly edited by E. R. Dodds. But the event has proved more of a trial than a pleasure. The collection covers 575 pages of closely printed type. Few poets could be read in such quantity in a comparatively brief time without boredom settling in. But in MacNeice’s case the sensation of stasis is particularly acute. Last summer I reread Wordsworth’s The Excursion in three afternoons with a large preponderance of pleasure and satisfaction, but it has taken three weeks to make a reasonably adequate (skipping even so) investigation of MacNeice’s collection. As I continue to respect MacNeice’s work, this is a phenomenon that calls for some consideration.
There are two long poems in the book that seem to me especially symptomatic and revealing both of MacNeice’s strengths and weaknesses. Autumn Journal is a day-by-day record that MacNeice kept in rhymed but loose verse lines during the Munich crisis in the autumn of 1938. For one who happened to be seeing London for the first time in September of that year, there are many passages that, across so long a stretch of time, evoke the charged atmosphere of that English autumn with poignant vividness. There was an extraordinary sense of intensified national identity in the air that even a stranger was immediately aware of. I recently found it perfectly described in a letter V. Sackville-West wrote to Harold Nicolson, dated September 27, 1938:
I do not know whether you have found the same psychological experience going on in yourself as I am finding during these dreadful days: a sort of strange calm and resignation, a mood which scarcely fluctuates at all save in brief moments of human weakness. I feel almost exalted, and most strangely part of a corporate body called England, and not merely “England,” but of all whose ideals and principles are at this moment similar. I might put it like this: that the strings of one’s being are tuned up to their finest pitch.
Autumn Journal is not, of course, a patriotic poem, but it grows directly out of that same ambience, and reflects it everywhere. I recall that some of the first reviewers of MacNeice’s Journal attacked his sentimental nostalgia for an older England on its way out, or already gone—unfairly attacked him, as I thought then and think now. Neither in quality nor in sincerity does MacNeice, in his best passages of this nature, sink far below D. H. Lawrence in some of his letters written during the early years of World War I:
So much beauty and pathos of old things passing away and no things coming: this house—it is England—my God, it breaks my soul—their England, these shafted windows, the elm-trees, the blue distance—the past, the great past crumbling down, breaking down, not under the force of the coming birds, but under the weight of many exhausted lovely yellow leaves, that drift over the lawn, and over the pond, like soldiers, passing away, into winter and the darkness of winter—
There was something inherently right about the fact that the Munich crisis should have occurred in autumn. A terrible season was ahead, but the autumn in England underlines her peculiar vitality and virtues no less than her spring, and MacNeice was right to interlace his Journal with so many autumnal and weather passages. These are, on the whole, the best. One in particular, filling the whole of Section IV, must certainly stand with the very best poetry MacNeice ever wrote, or could write. Ostensibly the passage describes a brief London love affair; but the girl he describes seems at first to be a bright evocation from the city’s autumn air, and to end, marvelously, as a seasonal personification. Here are the concluding lines of the passage, which unfortunately lose a great deal by being removed from context:
Frivolous, always in a hurry, forgetting the address, Frowning too often, taking enormous notice
Of hats and backchat—how could I assess The thing that makes you different?
You whom I remember glad or tired, Smiling in drink or scintillating anger,
Inopportunely desired On boats, on trains, on roads when walking.
Sometimes untidy, often elegant, So easily hurt, so readily responsive,
To whom a trifle could be an irritant Or could be balm and manna.
Whose words would tumble over each other and pelt From pure excitement,
Whose fingers curl and melt When you were friendly.
I shall remember you in bed with bright Eyes or in a café stirring coffee
Abstractedly and on your plate the white Smoking stub your lips touched with crimson.
And I shall remember how your words could hurt Because they were so honest
And even your lies were able to assert Integrity of purpose.
And it is on the strength of knowing you I reckon generous feeling more important
Than the mere deliberating what to do When neither the pros nor cons affect the pulses.
And though I have suffered from your special strength Who never flatter for points nor fake responses
I should be proud if I could evolve at length An equal thrust and pattern.
I think it not altogether extravagant to see certain significant relations between this girl and Keats’s personification in “To Autumn.” I am thinking of course of how Keats might have done it had he written his great Ode not in the shadow of Winchester Cathedral, but in London during the stresses of that September. Evoked from, and identified with, both the city and the season, MacNeice’s girl embodies the vitality, integrity,and resolution that England was to draw on so largely. While rural and harvest imagery is not available to MacNeice in this urban setting, the seasonal presence that is pervasive through the lines manages to suggest the plenitude of September. Even that touch of crimson on the white cigarette stub seems to me to work in somewhat the same way as Keats’s poppies in the half-reaped furrow. Section IV taken as a whole adds up to a subtly wrought personification that makes the vital “thrust and pattern” of September imaginatively available in a time of crisis and in a place largely impervious to seasonal rhythms.
But MacNeice was not often up to this sort of thing. Autumn Journal has many good passages in it, but it lacks concentration. It might be argued that its rather aimless and meandering course reflects the intellectual and emotional lassitude of England guided by the uncertain expediencies of Chamberlain’s foreign policy. Perhaps: but that is only to say that Chamberlain was the most un-Periclean of prime ministers.
IN 1953 MacNeice published a still longer journal called Autumn Sequel. In this interminable poem of twenty-six cantos, written in terza rima, the comparative formlessness that was a defect in Autumn Journal becomes a positive vice. There is an excellent but unwitting description of the poem’s structure in Canto III:
The woodpecker, like a typist, taps away
Relentlessly; the record must be kept
Though the same larceny happen day by day,
The original and the final sin.
The question insistently presents itself: Why did a man of MacNeice’s large and unquestioned talent, intelligence, and honesty fail so completely to write a considerable body of poetry that we wish to return to, or even read once? The answer probably lies in the wilted character of the ethos he wrote in. All good art has to proceed out of a deeply held conviction of some kind. Reading his poetry, one feels that he wanted conviction desperately:
Say Yes instead of No. You need only knock,
There still are doors to open; some- where hidden
Beneath our clay there lies our basic rock.
And many doors. Some may be wormwood-ridden,
Some with a whining hinge and sour with rust,
But still can answer if correctly bidden
By the simple magic word.
MacNeice was too able and too honest a writer to fool himself into conviction by such tired lines as these, and for him the simple magic word remained unspoken, as it did for nearly all the poets of his generation. That is why he takes better to being anthologized than to being read in quantity. For some of his lyrics are delightful—among the choicest spots of color in several dull and drab literary decades.
In comparison with some of his earlier work John Betjeman’s latest volume of poems, High and Low, is disappointing. It may be that one is less prepared to accept the repetitive and the slightly fatigued from a writer of light verse than one is from, say, the writer of Ecclesiastical Sonnets. However that may be, there is nothing here that can in any way compare with an early piece like “The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel,” which ended with these stanzas:
A thump and a murmur of voices—(“Oh why must they make such a a din?”)
As the door of the bedroom swung open
And TWO PLAIN CLOTHES POLICE-
MEN came in:
“Mr. Woilde, we ‘ave come for tew take yew Where felons and criminals dwell:
We must ask yew to leave with us quoietly For this is the Cadogan Hotel.”
He rose, and he put down The
He staggered—and terrible-eyed,
He brushed past the palms on the staircase And was helped to a hansom out- side.
This is as good as what one normally finds in such masters of light verse as Praed, Hood, or Gilbert. It is as good in its way as some of Beerbohm’s drawings. But there is nothing in the new volume that approaches it. True, Wilde makes a brief reappearance in one of the poems of High and Low:
We’ld go for walks, we bosom boy- would (For Bobby’s watching sisters drove us mad),
And when we just did nothing we were good, But when we touched each other we were bad.
I found this out when Mother said one day
She thought we were unwholesome in our play.
My mother wouldn’t tell me why she hated The things we did, and why they pained her so.
She said a fate far worse than death awaited People who did the things we didnt know,
And then she said I was her precious child,
And once there was a man called Oscar Wilde.
This is unpleasantly coy rather than funny or witty, and it is a world away from the earlier poem. Betjeman returns to a favorite theme in these poems, the destruction of England’s landscape. In earlier verses—the monologue of 1948 called “The Town Clerk’s Views,” for example—Betjeman made his point with a good deal of humor and crispness. There seems little purpose in coming back to it repeatedly in inferior verse such as this:
Encase your legs in nylons,
Bestride your hills with pylons O age without a soul;
Away with gentle willows
And all the elmy billows That through your valleys roll.
In his volume of autobiographical verse, Summoned by Bells, Betjeman recorded how as a schoolboy he wrote poems in the manner of Scott, Campbell Tom Moore, and Longfellow (even showing them one day to the American master at his school, T.S. Eliot). Betjeman’s verse at its best displays a mildly ironic, critically humorous vision of contemporary society, heavily salted with nostalgia for Edwardian or late Victorian England. Superimposed on the conventional metrics and rhythms of his early admirations in poetry, the result has often been highly successful. But the irony has grown a little tried, the humor thinner, and those early admirations begin to show through too plainly.
ALTHOUGH A. D. HOPE, Australia’s foremost poet, is an accomplished and attractive writer, his Collected Poems leaves one with certain hesitations and doubts threading the satisfactions offered. At his best—and he is often at his best—his poems achieve a sustained, assured, and musical rhetorical mode of speech. At such times he recalls quite insistently the poetry of Rolfe Humphries. At other times, though less frequently, he appears to share with the late Roy Campbell a tendency to pass off over-definition of metrical structure as creative strength. In “Ode on the Death of Pius the Twelfth” one wonders at Mr. Hope’s ability to hoist high above his head with neither flinch nor grunt a line like, “I was at Amherst when this great pope died.” It has a quaint redemptive charm no doubt, but one shudders at the risk.
Hope is usually, but not always, intelligent in his poetry. One of the hesitations one feels about him is that he often seems to arrive at his intelligent ideas and clever arguments first, and wraps them up in skillful metrics later. This is no doubt a complaint that could be leveled against much poetry in a more or less rhetorical mode. Only very rarely does his language and his thought seem organically fused, to share one blood-stream, one flesh, one life, as it does in this fine image in “X-Ray Photograph”:
These bones are calm and beautiful;
The flesh, like water, strains and clears
To show the face my future wears
Drowned at the bottom of its pool.
The dust jacket announces that Hope’s poetry revives the technique of Byron. One or two poets in our time—notably Auden—have drawn on Byron for occasional effects. But Auden has always had a large sympathy for Byron. Curiously, it is precisely where Byron comes into question that Hope seems to blunder worst. In an early poem (1934), “The Damnation of Byron,” he presents a characterization that might do for a Regency Hemingway but which is grotesquely inappropriate as a description of Byron:
He is a kind of symbol of the male:
As a great bull, stiffly, deliberately
Crosses his paddock, lashing his brutal tail,
The sullen engine of fecundity—
and so on through a series of sex-spiked stanzas that appear to me an invidious distortion. Byron’s sexual personality, complexly laced with strong homosexual biases and infatuations, and veined with subtle misogynies, can’t be delineated with a mop dipped in these primary colors.
This imperceptiveness qualifies in a damaging way the influence of Byron’s poetry on several of Hope’s longer poems. In a recent long poem, “Conversation with Calliope,” thrusting a drink into the Muse’s hand, Hope makes her talk rather in the manner of Ava Gardner in an Esquire interview. His performance here is even unworthy of Byron’s The Vision of Minerva, to say nothing of the poised satiric mode Byronachieved in Beppo and The Vision of Judgment. He does better with “A Letter from Rome,” but even this is imitation rather than a personal assimilation of Byronic influence, and at its worst it is parody:
And since I’m launched now in ottave rima,
—For easy-going verse it’s just the thing—
I shan’t attempt the high poetic theme or
Pitch my note to make the welkin ring.
That “Roma non è più come era prima”
Which Byron heard the Roman workmen sing
Gives scope to write on anything at all
Since Romulus and Remus built their wall.
But it would be ungenerous to emphasize this darker corner of Hope’s work at the expense of his positive bright achievement. There are perhaps twenty poems in his collected volume that one can, and will, return to with admiration and pleasure. These poems are pretty much of a piece so that one’s preferences are likely to be arbitrary. The kind of verse Hope writes scarcely allows one poem to penetrate the depths of mind and personality more deeply than another, other, as Keats’s “Nightingale” penetrates immeasurably deeper than his “Isabella.” That is the worst penalty of public-speech poetics. But among Hope’s more successful poems my own favorite is “Totentanz: The Coquette.” It is a polished and decorative transposition of a scene from the Danse Macabre into near-contemporary images. In the first stanza Death is waiting in the lady’s room for her return from a ball:
Past Midnight! Silent in her charm- ing room,
Nobly proportioned, feminine, richly plain,
One elegant femur balanced across its twin,
Sits her lank guest in the deep armchair’s gloom,
The dandy’s pose, one hand upon his cane,
A bald skull and a melancholy grin.
Outside a car stops purring at the kerb,
Swift footsteps mount the stair; the door flies wide;
She sweeps in, brilliant as a breaking wave;
The shimmer and swirl of skirts, and the superb
Gesture with which she lays her Cloak aside—
The Watcher, sitting silent as the grave…
The poem concludes with two stanzas in which the starkness of a fifteenth-century woodcut is qualified toward fin-de-siècle elegance:
Now naked to her glass, alive, alone.
In scrutiny or question see her stand
Aware at last of her mysterious guest,
The hollow stare, the rigid mask of bone.
Under her arm the lattice of a hand
Clips cold on the ripe triumph of her breast.
Stiffly she stands, considering awhile
The challenge of the male, the frank embrace.
Then on one shuddering, voluptuous breath
Leans back to her gaunt lover with a smile,
Half turning with her plenitude of grace,
In sensuous surrender to her death.