Irish Papist

Irish Papist
Me and General Robert Lee

Friday, May 8, 2015

Louis MacNeice

Since my teens I have been an admirer of the Northern Irish poet Louis MacNeice. His best and most anthologised poem, "Snow", is one of those exceedingly rare poems which has described a particular idea so well that the idea itself has almost become the poet's property. The words "incorrigibly plural" now come unbidden to the mind of anyone who finds himself meditating on the life's giddy diversity. This is the kind of apotheosis of which every writer dreams. (I once had a t-shirt made up with the most famous lines from "Snow" on it.)

But he is far from a one-hit wonder. The poem 'Dublin', which my father often quotes, captures the soul of the city in a way that is uncanny. True, it's a Dublin that has all but disappeared now, and which had disappeared even in my own childhood; but its ghost lives on.

"Prayer before Birth", another much-anthologised poem, is unlike any other poem in the language (though it is rather reminiscent of Chesterton's "By the Babe Unborn"). And he has many other lyrics which are worth reading and re-reading. His long poem "Autumn Sequel" has passages of eloquence which, in my view, are in the absolute top rank of English poetry.

Like all my favourite poets, MacNeice was a deep thinker. And it's fair to say that, before I had actual faith, MacNeice's secular "faith"-- finding something sacred in mankind's straining after something transcendent, even in the most banal circumstances-- was the closest I came to it.

I want to write an extended essay about the poetry and thought of Louis MacNeice, though I don't know if I'll ever get round to it. But I've been reading some of his stuff again, and I was very moved by this passage from his unfinished biography, The Strings are False:

An American friend once said to me rebukingly: 'You never seem to make any positive choice; you just let things happen to you.' But the things that happen to one often seem better than the things one chooses. Even in writing poetry, which is something I did early choose to do, the few poems or passages which I find wear well have something of accident about them (the poems I did not intend to write) or, to put it more pretentiously, seem 'given'. So Magilligan Strand was like falling in love. For such occasions the word 'falling' is right; one does not step into love any more than one steps asleep - or awake. For awake, like asleep, is what one falls, and to keep falling awake seems to me the salt of life much more than existentialist defiance. We cannot of course live by Keats's Negative Sensibility alone, we must all, in E. M. Forster's phrase, use 'telegrams and anger'; all the same what I feel makes life worth living is not the clever scores but the surrenders - it may be to the life-quickening urge of an air-raid, to nonsense talked by one's friends, to a girl on top of the Empire State building, to the silence of a ruined Byzantine church, to woods, or weirs, or to heat dancing on a gravelled path, to music, drink or the smell of turf smoke, to the first view of the Atlantic or to the curve of a strand which seems to stretch to nowhere or everywhere and to ages before and after the combustion engine which defiled it.

11 comments:

  1. Hello, what do you think about vision in MacNeice s poetry, it s the essay I have to do, and I would like some help if it s possible. Many thanks

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    1. Sorry, I only saw this question now. 'Vision' is a very broad term! I think 'Star Gazer' by Louis MacNeice might be worth a read, you can find the text online, in this MacNeice writes about the fact that the light from stars only reaches us years later, and he compares his boyhood self looking at stars to the mature man remembering them. He tends to write about how we see the same event from different angles over different times; the opening lines of 'Autumn Sequel' are a good example. Good luck with the essay!

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    2. Thanks for you answer, indeed, star gazer is very interesting for this subject. I read selva oscura too, it refers to Dante's dark wood but what do you think about vision in this poem ?

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    3. I had never read it before; but like all Louis MacNeice's poems, it seems to concentrate on the uncertainty and partial perspective of our vision on the world. I really think this is the angle to come at it from.

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    4. Hello, i have just read your answer. As you said vision is a very broad term so I am struggling to find the main line of my work and i have never done an essay before and i didn't know Louis Macneice. What could be the main question ?
      Do you think "the paradoxical status of vision in Macneice's" poetry could be a good approach? the oppostion between vision and reality or perhaps the discrepancy between what he writes and what the reader sees? Many thanks for your help

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    5. You're welcome. In Macneice's poetry, reality never seems to be something that we can ultimately KNOW, so the opposition between vision and reality would have to take that into account, I think. We only have our own vision, not reality. I'm not sure what you mean by the paradoxical status of vision in Macneice's poetry, so I'm not sure this is a good angle.

      But please do remember that the wonderful thing about poetry is that YOUR opinion is as valid as anybody else's. Read ten Macneice poems and then ask yourself what YOU think. But really think about it so you are not just making it up out of thin air. If you give your own responses, and if they are based on examples that you can quote, you will do well. Your essay will be much better if it is coming from your own responses. Have confidence in yourself, I can tell you are serious about this essay and if you read the poetry carefully and think about the question, I have no doubt you will do well.

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    6. "Snow" might also be a good example, though I'm sure you've thought of it. 'Vision' can be understand in a purely physical sense but also in a metaphorical sense, as in somebody's vision of life (meaning their philosophy of life). And in this poem Macneice seems to be celebrating those moments when we suddenly see that life is bigger and richer than we ever supposed. In fact, I think this might be a good line of approach-- Macneice's poems are very often about 'suddenly seeing' something, a moment of vision and clarity. So are many poems, but especially Macneice's.

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    7. Thanks for your answer ! it's really helpful, indeed i thought about 'snow'.
      sorry i should have explained about the paradoxical status. I looked for synonym of vision (dream, imagination, foresight..) and it s antonym (being, existence, reality, truth) so i thought vision was opposed to reality. But when i read Macneice's poems, i realised his use of images, his vision reflects the reality of our life, reflects our own vision so there is a paradox, vision is not just a dream, while its antonym is reality or truth. I am not sure it s very clear..

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    8. To be honest, I don't think this line of approach is very promising. "Being, existence, reality, truth" is not, I think, a particularly obvious antonym for vision. My suggestion is that, instead of looking to the dictionary, think of how we use the word 'vision' in ordinary language and ordinary life. I really think that focusing on perspective and the subjective elements of vision is the way to go. Macneice is an extremely subjective writer and his poems, as far as I can tell, are nearly always from a point of view (his own or a fictional character's) rather than from a 'God's eye' view. I would concentrate more on this line-- and, again, ask yourself how the poems strike you and make you feel. Your opinion is as valid as anybody else's.

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  2. Many thanks for your help, it was really useful and more clear.

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    1. You're very welcome, I hope the essay is received well!

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