Like the trees on Primrose Hill

Samuel Hynes

  • Louis MacNeice: A Study by Edna Longley
    Faber, 178 pp, £4.95, August 1988, ISBN 0 571 13748 2
  • Louis MacNeice: Selected Poems edited by Michael Longley
    Faber, 160 pp, £4.95, August 1988, ISBN 0 571 15270 8
  • A Scatter of Memories by Margaret Gardiner
    Free Association, 280 pp, £15.95, November 1988, ISBN 1 85343 043 9

In ‘The Cave of Making’, his elegy for MacNeice, Auden describes his friend as a ‘lover of women and Donegal’. The geography seems a bit wrong – the Irish counties in MacNeice’s heart were surely Antrim and Galway – but the terms are apt enough for the man in the poems: a lover, certainly, and of both women and the land of his birth. A full list of his loves would have to be longer than Auden’s, though. It would go on to include many other affections that composed his life: for friends, London, rugby, drink, Classical languages, fast cars, idle talk, clichés, pubs, and not most of all, perhaps, but most of the time – poetry.

MacNeice commonly presented himself in such terms, as a lover of ordinary pleasures, as in this passage from his book about the London Zoo:

The pleasure of dappled things, the beauty of adaptation to purpose, the glory of extravagance, classic elegance or romantic nonsense and grotesquerie – all these we get from the Zoo. We react to these with the same delight as to new potatoes in April speckled with chopped parsley or to the lights at night on the Thames of Battersea Power House, or to cars sweeping their shadows from lamp-post to lamp-post down Haverstock Hill or to brewer’s drays or to lighthouses and searchlights or to a newly cut lawn or to a hot towel or a friction at the barber’s or to Moran’s two classic tries at Twickenham in 1937 or to the smell of dusting-powder in a warm bathroom or to the fun of shelling peas into a china bowl or of shuffling one’s feet through dead leaves when they are crisp or to the noise of rain or the crackling of a newly lit fire or the jokes of a street-hawker or the silence of snow in moonlight or the purring of a powerful car.

This is a catalogue of the sensory pleasures that any Londoner might know (and note how carefully all five of the senses are brought into it). But it is also an act of self-definition, MacNeice claiming a role for himself, the Poet as Ordinary Bloke.

The particulars in the Zoo passage sound ordinary enough, but the telling of them is highly poetical, from the allusion to Hopkins’s sonnet at the beginning to the swirl of romantic images at the end – so poetical, indeed, that one might almost construct a new MacNeice poem out of the details. Almost, but not quite. To give it the true MacNeice flavour you’d have to heighten those features of the images that are not unambiguously pleasureable – that the movements are fleeting, the lights flickering, every sensory detail momentary, and that behind them lies a world of darkness, cold and death. The characteristic MacNeice poem has both elements: the naming of pleasurable things, and the recognition of their swift passing – loving, and the inevitable end of loving. Yeats, who was MacNeice’s master, put it all in two lines:

Man is in love, and loves what vanishes,
What more is there to say?

In Yeats’s case there was a lot more to say, but in MacNeice’s not much.

Because there was nothing more to say, MacNeice’s poems have an insistently dark side to them. In his critical writings he repeatedly affirmed the fidelity that a poet owes to his physical world – that his first duty is to mention things, that he must be content to live in the world of appearances, that he has a duty to the present moment. It was a faith that he kept, and it made his poems vivid and alive. But there was another truth to be told, too: that, for the sensual sceptic who feels his moments of pleasure intensely, there must also be fear – fear of time and loss and death, the nightmare against which scepticism provides no defences. MacNeice put that fear into his poems too; early and late, it never left him.

MacNeice described in a poem how the dark nightmare entered his own life in childhood:

When I was five the black dreams came;
Nothing after was quite the same.
Come back early or never come.

The poem is entitled ‘Autobiography’, but there is little in it of what one usually means by that term; the immediate occasion of his terror, the death of his mother, is not even mentioned. It is rather, a narrative of discovered isolation, a kind of fable of fear, like one of the frightful tales of the Grimms, powerful to move us because it isn’t personal. Powerful too, one must add, because of the consummate skill with which it is told – the economy of the child-language, the dark resonance of the imagery, and the haunting refrain. It is a disturbing poem, but it is also an elegant one.

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