It was something of shock to encounter the 99 percent—not the phrase, but the demographic—deeply considered in the third section of Louis MacNeice’s long poem Autumn Journal (see Katy Evans-Bush’s excellent essay about it here), published in 1938. I had read the poem in my callow youth, but my ignorance of Britain between the wars was like a featureless river stone upon which the poem could simply not get a firm grip. I remembered it mostly for its tone—personal, notational, meditative, acerbic and humorous by turns—and didn’t appreciate exactly what MacNeice was trying to tell me. Now I do, and I hope you will, too. Section Three in particular makes a fine New Year’s offering:
August is nearly over, the peopleBack from holiday are tannedWith blistered thumbs and a wallet of snaps and a littleJoie de vivre which is contraband;Whose stamina is enough to face the annualWait for the annual spree,Whose memories are stamped with specks of sunshineLike faded fleurs de lys.Now the till and the typewriter call the fingers,The workman gathers his toolsFor the eight-hour day but after that the solaceOf films or football poolsOr of the gossip or cuddle, the moments of self-gloryOr self-indulgence, blinkers on the eyes of doubt,The blue smoke rising and the brown lace sinkingIn the empty glass of stout.Most are accepters, born and bred to harness,And take things as they come,But some refusing harness and more who are refused itWould pray that another and better Kingdom come,Which now is sketched in the air or travestied in slogansWritten in chalk or tar on stucco or plaster-boardBut in time may find its body in men’s bodies,Its law and order in their heart’s accord,Where skill will no longer languish nor energy be trammeledTo competition and graft,Exploited in subservience but not allegiance,To an utterly lost and daftSystem that gives a few at fancy pricesTheir fancy livesWhile ninety-nine in the hundred who never attend the banquetMust wash the grease of ages off the knives.And now the tempter whispers ‘But you alsoHave the slave-owner’s mind,Would like to sleep on a mattress of easy profits,To snap your fingers or a whip and findServants or houris ready to wince and flatterAnd build with their degradation your self-esteem;What you want is not a world of the free in functionBut a niche a the top, the skimmings of the cream’And I answer that that is largely so for habit makes meThink victory for one implies another’s defeat,That freedom means the power to order, and that in orderTo preserve the values dear to the éliteThe élite must remain few. It is so hard to imagineA world where the many would have their chance withoutA fall in the standard of intellectual livingAnd nothing left that the highbrow cared about.Which fears must be suppressed. There is no reason for thinkingThat, if you give a chance to people to think or live,The arts of thought or life will suffer and become rougherAnd not return more than you could ever give.And now I relapse to sleep, to dreams perhaps and reactionWhere I shall play the gangster or the sheikh,Kill for the love of killing, make the world my sofa,Unzip the women and insult the meek.Which fantasies no doubt are due to my private history,Matter for the analyst,But the final cure is not in his past-dissecting fingersBut in a future of action, the will and fistOf those who abjure the luxury of self-pityAnd prefer to risk a movement without being sureIf movement would be better or words in a hundredYears or a thousand when their heart is pure.None of our hearts are pure, we always have mixed motives,Are self deceivers, but the worst of allDeceits is to murmur ‘Lord, I am not worthy’And, lying easy, turn your face to the wall.But may I cure that habit, look up and outwardsAnd may my feet follow my wider glanceFirst no doubt to stumble, then to walk with the othersAnd in the end—with time and luck—to dance.
MacNeice was a classics professor who allowed his sensibility to color—”clarify” would be a better word—the then-current view of the Ancient World. Here’s how he puts it at the end of Section Nine:
So the humanist in his room with Jacobean panelsChewing his pipe and looking on a lazy quadChops the Ancient World to turn a sermonTo the greater glory of God.But I can do nothing so useful or so simple;These dead are deadAnd when I should remember the paragons of HellasI think insteadOf the crooks, the adventurers, the opportunist,The careless athletes and the fancy boys,The hair-splitters, the pedants, the hard-boiled scepticsAnd the Agora and the noiseOf the demagogues and the quacks; and the women pouringLibations over gravesAnd the trimmers at Delphi and the dummies at Sparta and lastlyI think of the slaves.And how one can imagine oneself among themI do no know;It was all so unimaginably differentAnd all so long ago.
This was a critique of the British imperial attitudes, of course, which were not “so long ago” when MacNeice wrote “Autumn Journal.” He understood they would not survive the coming war—and did not deserve to.
Now that the American Century is over (for it is as over as the British Empire was in 1938), we need more poets like MacNeice. Where are they? I know a few: Thomas McGrath, Adrienne Rich, Philip Levine, Bill Knott, Dale Jacobson, Thomas R. Smith. I know there must be others whose work I’ve missed or who aren’t springing to mind at the moment. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to seek them out, and I am completely open to suggestions!