Incorrigibly Plural: Louis MacNeice and His Legacy

Incorrigibly Plural: Louis MacNeice and His Legacy

by Fran Brearton

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Illuminating the work of a writer whose achievement and influence is increasingly recognized as central to modern poetry in English, this record is a celebration of the diversity and vitality of Louis MacNeice’s writing. With contributions by fellow poets and critics—such as Neil Corcoran, Paul Farley, Leontia Flynn, Derek Mahon, Peter McDonald, and

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Illuminating the work of a writer whose achievement and influence is increasingly recognized as central to modern poetry in English, this record is a celebration of the diversity and vitality of Louis MacNeice’s writing. With contributions by fellow poets and critics—such as Neil Corcoran, Paul Farley, Leontia Flynn, Derek Mahon, Peter McDonald, and Clair Wills among others—it features a memoir by MacNeice’s son, the late Dan MacNeice, and various biographical accounts. More than a retrospective work of criticism, this compilation also offers insight into MacNeice’s complex political awareness and his ability to bring historical moments to life.

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Incorrigibly Plural

Louis MacNeice and His Legacy

By Fran Brearton, Edna Longley

Carcanet Press Ltd

Copyright © 2012 Fran Brearton and Edna Longley
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84777-594-8



          Peter McDonald

At the end of his 1941 collection Plant and Phantom,
Louis MacNeice printed a poem entitled 'Cradle Song':

    Sleep, my darling, sleep;
        The pity of it all
    Is all we compass if
        We watch disaster fall.
    Put off your twenty-odd
        Encumbered years and creep
    Into the only heaven,
        The robbers' cave of sleep.

    The wild grass will whisper,
        Lights of passing cars
    Will streak across your dreams
        And fumble at the stars;
    Life will tap the window
        Only too soon again,
    Life will have her answer –
        Do not ask her when.

    When the winsome bubble
        Shivers, when the bough
    Breaks, will be the moment
        But not here or now.
    Sleep and, asleep, forget
        The watchers on the wall
    Awake all night who know
        The pity of it all. (CP 209)

The poem had already appeared between hard covers, in Poems 1925–1940, published in the USA at the beginning of 1941. There, too, it was the final poem in the book; there, too, it was assigned by the author a date of composition ('October, 1940'); and there it bore as a subtitle the dedication 'For Eleanor', which in Plant and Phantom is carried by the whole book, dedicated 'To Eleanor Clark'. As a love poem, 'Cradle Song' brings both of its volumes to a close on a seemingly personal (rather, that is, than a seemingly public) note. At the same time, both these poles of concern, personal and public, are in some ways ill-fitted to the poem's actual intent and effect; for 'Cradle Song' concentrates its autobiographical meaning in a repeated phrase – 'The pity of it all' – that fuses the attentiveness of a lover with a broader and more melancholy kind of watchfulness.

That lover's attentiveness, however, is itself far from uncomplicated. Although 'Cradle Song' operates with a deliberate simplicity of means, 'The pity of it all' brings into play matter not at home in the registers of straightforward love. The immediately obvious echo (which may or may not be an allusion) is of Othello: 'but yet the pity of it, Iago; O Iago, the pity of it, Iago!' (Othello 4.1.189–90). If this is an allusion, it could hardly, on the face of things, be more out of place: for what is the wounded rage of sexual jealousy doing in a lullaby? True, MacNeice takes away the staccato edge from Othello's words, smoothing and calming a repeated 'the pity of it' into 'The pity of it all', but this act of transformation cannot, all the same, completely erase the presence of the Shakespearean text. Moreover, the voice in MacNeice's poem is that of a lover addressing a young woman asleep – asleep on a bed, quite possibly – whose innocence shades into a kind of ignorance; like Desdemona, discovered on her bed asleep at the beginning of the last scene of Othello, she seems unaware of the 'cause' which will keep the speaker (and those 'watchers on the wall') so busy.

But here another (and arguably an incompatible) allusion becomes an equally persuasive possibility. For any poet of MacNeice's generation, 'pity' was a word charged with potent literary (and literary-political) content. This comes, of course, from Wilfred Owen's draft 'Preface': 'Above all I am not concerned with Poetry. / My subject is War, and the pity of War. / The Poetry is in the pity.' In October 1940, more than a year into the British war with Nazi Germany from which he had so far absented himself, MacNeice could not keep Owen's 'pity' from impinging on 'the pity of it all' through which Eleanor Clark is sleeping. In 1936, MacNeice had written of how with the Great War 'Pity reappeared in English poetry', and claimed that 'The pity of Owen, the Whitmanesque lust for life of Lawrence, and the dogmas of Lenin are now combining to make possible the most vital poetry seen in English for a long time' (SLC 63–4). Four years later, the poet might not have felt quite so fulsome about these positive effects, and especially about the benefits of Lenin; though the young Eleanor Clark was all for dogmas, albeit those of Trotsky in succession to those of Lenin, in relation to the artist. In 1940, MacNeice would still include Owen as one of the four finest modern poets in England (along with T.S. Eliot, Lawrence, 'and, within narrower limits, Robert Graves') in his book on W.B. Yeats – the same Yeats who had scandalously rejected Owen's appeal to 'pity' in excluding him from his 1936 Oxford Book of Modern Verse (PY 178). 'The pity of it all' builds Owen, and the arguments about Owen, into MacNeice's love poem, with an awareness both of the potency of 'pity' and (with Yeats casting his customary shadow) a sense of its inadequateness as a poetic principle. 'Passive suffering,' Yeats had pronounced, 'is not a theme for poetry'. Here perhaps there is a point of contact with the Othello allusion: 'Cradle Song' might summon the image of a Desdemona, and thus potentially of one kind of 'passive suffering'; but it opts instead to spare its Desdemona her suffering, and leave her her passivity. If it is a poem that uses Othello, its voice makes a point of not being Othello's; if it brings to bear Owen's 'pity', it has also absorbed a knowledge of 'pity"s limitations: 'The pity of it all / Is all we compass if / We watch disaster fall'. The pity, then, is not all, and it is not all there is to say, or do, in this situation: there is more, perhaps, that can be compassed here, and must be.

It is useful to explore the degree to which MacNeice blurs the boundaries of love poetry, and some of the ways in which, as a poet, he imaginatively absorbs and puts to use the power and the liabilities of 'pity'. MacNeice started the critical commonplace of an 'impure poetry' in the light of which so much of his own work has subsequently been read (MP xxxi); but readers and commentators have applied this largely to poems which have, one way or another, obvious public bearings, whether in the 1930s or afterwards. Yet MacNeice's love poetry, too, is 'impure'. The personal elements here have soaked up all kinds of difficult and recalcitrant material: not as things to be transfigured, as though poetry could effect some alchemical change in them, and they are not to be transcended, by assimilating them to the self-awareness of a transcendent poetic personality; instead, MacNeice lets (and makes) them do their worst to the poetry, and their worst in the poetry. In 'Cradle Song', 'pity' brings both private pain and public anxiety to the show, Othello's stricken cry and Owen's deliberate moral imperative finding a distinctly unhappy marriage in the repeated phrase.

To read a poem closely is sometimes to bring to bear all kinds of perspectives which may appear, to some, to be themselves 'impure'. Biographical elements are amongst these, but they are introduced inevitably in a poem like 'Cradle Song' where, after all, names are named, and dates are given. On a wider scale, MacNeice's writing is often autobiographical in part – if by 'autobiographical' we understand a kind of writing that uses particular life experiences, and returns to them with changing purposes and emphases, as parts of an essentially creative rather than a documentary effort. Both with and without a definite article, life is central to MacNeice's art: the life – like life – is written into this work. We need to be careful as readers, just as MacNeice himself was careful as an artist, to respect the differences between the absence and presence of those definite articles.

The Eleanor Clark 'Cradle Song' addresses was a young left-wing American writer with whom MacNeice was in love (and in whose company he felt, as he told E.R. Dodds, 'timelessly happy') from late 1938 (L 356). The poet's decision to go and work in the USA at the end of 1939, which seemed to have so many political meanings and ramifications, was probably attributable more than anything else to the need to see Eleanor again. In the autumn of 1940, having spent much of the year with her, MacNeice was recuperating from a serious case of peritonitis at Eleanor's parents' home in Connecticut. Here, several important poems – most notably, the poem 'Autobiography' – got themselves written. By this time, too, the love-affair itself was, if not cooling, then coming to terms with the insuperability of obstacles in its way. Some of these were decidedly public things: the war in Europe, above all, and Louis's adult responsibilities towards his infant son, whom he had left behind in 1939. Others were more private, and specific to the lovers: two, however, have something to do with 'Cradle Song'. Louis and Eleanor quarrelled, partly about politics. In a long letter sent to Eleanor in May, 1940, Louis rebukes her for her accusation that he has 'an awful lack of curiosity about the world'. The tone as well as the content of this rebuke is important:

I was curious about the world & suffering for my curiosity about it before you were born. And if you think you can judge my curiosity about the world by the fact that I don't look at newspapers when you're around, you show an appalling lack of feminine imagination. Apart from which, newspapers aren't the world anyway [ ...] And if you think the only way 'the world' impinges on me is through my nerves, you are – I am sorry to say, darling – a fool. When for the last week I have been feeling steam-rollers go over me all the time, that wasn't just nerves; it was imagining (with my brain & also – if I may be hackneyed for want of a better word – with my heart) what this war is going to do to England and Ireland as I know them & to particular people whom I know there ... (L 393)

MacNeice writes as Clark's elder here, and puts her right about his own relationship to the world events whose significance is clearly something at issue between the two. He lets her know, in these terms, that he is both capable of and pained by the process of watching 'disaster fall'.

There was a second issue lurking in this quarrel, though, and it was to prove finally too formidable a stumbling-block for the pair: although Louis and Eleanor were in some ways lovers, there was one sense in which they were not, since their relationship seems never to have reached a sexual consummation. In the May letter, which is full of recriminations about levels of 'curiosity' and the need (or otherwise) for a 'world view', it is Eleanor's nature as 'sexually inhibited & to some extent self-deceiving' which draws out Louis's harshest remarks:

As to your sexual inhibitedness I don't say this on the strength of you & me because for all I know I am not at all your type but it comes out in a lot that you do & say & I think it is a great pity because, even if the novelist is more concerned with the environment than instinct, I can't see how he can present the world at all adequately if he hasn't got inside knowledge of what is about the most important of the instincts. If he hasn't got that, his internal reality remains in a sense in the nursery. (L 397–8)

This is interesting – though not exactly disinterested – advice to give to a budding novelist. Although Louis and Eleanor did in fact share a bed in the summer of 1940, it appears from Louis's farewell letter when he embarked for Britain at the end of the year that his practical advice for Eleanor's writing career was not (at least with him) fully taken up. These particular circumstances impinge upon the poetic circumstances which 'Cradle Song' makes for itself: 'Sleep, my darling, sleep' – and just sleeping is, in this light, what Eleanor seems determined to do. But the cost of this, in the serene poem as in the fraught letter, is that Eleanor's 'internal reality remains in a sense in the nursery', just as the poem sets itself formally at an angle to the nursery rhyme to which it alludes – 'Rockabye baby, on the tree top'. 'When the bough / Breaks, will be the moment,' MacNeice writes, with the emphatic acknowledgement that the moment will be 'not here or now'. But what will this be the moment for? One kind of answer is known to this poem's speaking voice: it will be the moment for sexual love; another kind of answer, of equal importance in the poem, is known as well to 'The watchers on the wall', who can see things beyond the sleeping Eleanor's horizons in 'The pity of it all', such as 'what this war is going to do to England and Ireland as I know them & to particular people whom I know there'.

This 'pity' is clearly something apart from the feeling that Eleanor's refusal to become Louis's lover 'is a great pity'. The distinction here is performed very naturally, of course, by the definite and indefinite articles: consider, for example, the difference between's Owen's 'the pity of war' and a statement that 'war is a pity'. An early poem of Yeats, 'The Pity of Love', replaces the definite article of its own title in the first line:

A pity beyond all telling
Is hid in the heart of love:
The folk who are buying and selling,
The clouds on their journey above,
The cold wet winds ever blowing,
And the shadowy hazel grove
Where mouse-grey waters are flowing,
Threaten the head that I love.

'A pity' here leaves something in the voice exposed and vulnerable, open to the misconstruction of the weak 'it's a pity that ...', where the voice of the poem's title (so to speak) elevates itself into general significance. Yet the poem itself is perfectly specific when it comes to what it at stake, for things threaten a particular loved head, 'the head that I love'. If this short poem stands somewhere in the background of 'Cradle Song', it is more directly in view in W.H. Auden's 'Lullaby' (composed in 1937), with its prayer for protection of 'your sleeping head' and invocation of 'the winds of dawn that blow / Softly round your dreaming head'. It is likely that MacNeice's poem shadows Auden's; but of course both poems' generic situations, as lullabies, involve the theme of protectiveness, of an adult wishing to shield his child, or an older lover wanting to keep safe a younger partner.

'Cradle Song' is a revealing MacNeice poem, since it builds into its workings so many of the elements that make others amongst his love poems (and more than just his love poems) so distinctive. The autobiographical elements which are, on one level, so specific are on other levels complicated, shadowed and overlaid by other parts of the life, and other parts of life, from which MacNeice habitually drew poetic resource. To revert, for a moment, to the situation of 'Cradle Song': the poem's voice is awake while the object of its address is asleep. To that extent, generic convention is firmly in control. But wakefulness is important to MacNeice, and sleep is figured in his work either as something that does not come or, when it comes, as something which can contain nightmares and dreams: and the nightmares outnumber the dreams. The early poetry contains many vivid traces of the sleep anxieties which MacNeice's mature writing revisits and puts to work. In his juvenilia, these things are more stark, and the bed is routinely regarded as a grave. In Blind Fireworks (1929), the child's consciousness is wholly unprotected from night terrors that abound:

    The candle in his white grave-clothes, always turning is cowled
    Stood in his own shadow at the foot of my grave-bed,
    Ho, said the candle with his rich dark beard,
    How they howl like the dead!
    And wagging his cowled head,
    Ho, said the candle, they would make a body afeard.
        ('Candle Poems', CP 638)

    I fell in a nightmare down suddenly
    Into a hole without a bottom. Music
    Died above my head, died in silence.
        ('Child's Terror', CP 616)

    Yet all the time on the window-pane
    Shadow fingers of the trees
    Grope, grope, grope again
    After unseen fatalities.
        ('Impermanent Creativeness', CP 646)

The candle lights MacNeice to bed, but not to sleep; the nightmare is that of literally dropping off, into a limitless void; and the world outside the haunted bedroom enters only to 'grope, grope, grope again'. In a way, the voice of 'Cradle Song' tries to render these fears positively, as things that can now (in the person of the unsleeping lover) be guarded against:

    The wild grass will whisper,
        Lights of passing cars
    Will streak across your dreams
        And fumble at the stars ... (CP 209)

Now, it is not 'shadow fingers of the trees' but 'Life' that 'will tap the window'; but this will come 'Only too soon'. Instead of MacNeice's outlandish teenage Gothic, it is just 'Life' that waits to interrupt the slumber; but like the earlier grisly figures, this 'Life' is going to bring something to an end – something, potentially but nonetheless specifically, like love.


Excerpted from Incorrigibly Plural by Fran Brearton, Edna Longley. Copyright © 2012 Fran Brearton and Edna Longley. Excerpted by permission of Carcanet Press Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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