I launched into three new classes this week (the first time I’ve taught so many at one time), so my notebook is thin—but rich. It’s full of poems by Louis MacNeice, whose Collected Poems, 1925-1948 I’ve been reading with great pleasure. How I would love to have his facility with cadence and his ferocious clarity about the historical moment in which he found himself! Here are a few I especially admire. The first is a section from “The Closing Album,” which recalls MacNeice’s return to his native Ireland, traveling by train from place to place; the rest are one-offs (as Bill Knott would call them)—match-flares in the dark:
SLIGO AND MAYO
In Sligo the country was soft; there were turkeys
Gobbling under sycamore trees
And the shadows of clouds on the mountains moving
Like browsing cattle at ease.
And little distant fields were sprigged with haycocks
And splashed against a white
Roadside cottage a welter of nasturtium
Deluging the sight,
And pullets pecking the flies from around the eyes of heifers
Sitting in farmyard mud
Among hydrangeas and the falling ear-rings
Of fuchsias red as blood.
But in Mayo the tumbledown walls went leap-frog
Over the moors,
The sugar and salt in the pubs were damp in the casters
And the water was brown as beer upon the shores
Of desolate loughs, and stumps of hoary bog-oak
Stuck up here and there
And a the twilight filtered on the heather
Water-music filled the air,
And when the night came down upon the bogland
With all-enveloping wings
The coal-black turfstacks rose against the darkness
Like the tombs of nameless kings.
There are many sounds which are neither music nor voice,
There are many visitors in masks or in black glasses
Climbing the spiral staircase of the ear. The choice
Of callers is not ours. Behind the hedge
Of night they wait to pounce. A train passes,
The thin and audible end of a dark wedge.
We should like to lie alone in a deaf hollow
Cocoon of self where no person or thing would speak;
In fact we lie and listen as a man might follow
A will o’ the wisp in an endless eyeless bog,
Follow the terrible drone of a cock chafer, or the bleak
oracle of a barking dog.
Together, keeping in line, slow as if hypnotised
Across the blackboard sea in somber echelon
The food-ships draw their wakes. No Euclid could have devised
Neater means to a more essential end—
Unless the chalk breaks off, the convoy is surprised.
The cranks go up and down, the smoke-trails tendril out,
The precious cargoes creak, the signals clack,
All is under control and nobody need shout,
We are steady as we go, and on our flanks
The little whippet warships romp and scurry about.
This is a bit like us: the individual sets
A course for all his soul’s more basic needs
Of love and pride-of-life, but sometimes he forgets
How much their voyage hoe depends upon pragmatic
And ruthless attitudes—destroyers and corvettes.
EPITAPH FOR LIBERAL POETS
If in the latter
End—which is fairly soon—our way of life goes west
And some shall say So What and some What Matter,
Ready under new names to exploit or be exploited,
What, though better unsaid, would we have history say
Of us who walked in our sleep and died on our Quest?
We who always had, but never admitted, a master,
Who were expected—and paid—to be ourselves,
Conditioned to think freely, how can we
Patch up our broken hearts and modes of thought in plaster
And glorify in chromium-plated stories
Those who shall supersede us and cannot need us—
The tight-lipped technocractic Conquistadores?
The Individual has died before; Catullus
Went down young, gave place to those who were born old
And more adaptable and were not even jealous
Of his wild life and lyrics. Though our songs
Were not so warm as his, our fate is no less cold.
Such silence then before us, pinned against the wall.
Why need we whine? There is no way out, the birds
Will tell us nothing more; we shall vanish first,
Yet leave behind us certain frozen words
Which some day, though not certainly, may melt
And, for a moment or two, accentuate a thirst.