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Article by Michael Carley
As a depression approaches and the word `appeaser’ is current, Autumn Journal seems just the thing. At this distance, Louis MacNeice is the clearest-eyed of the Thirties poets: humane, rigorous and never sinking to the shameful trash of `September I, 1939′ or the `conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder’. His politics are a choosing of the right side, without allowing those on the same side to do his thinking for him, or to dictate his principles. Autumn Journal, written over the autumn and winter of 1938, is a long account of his activity in that time, of his recollections and of the approach of war.
The opening lines are as evocative an idea of England as anything in Brooke:
Close and slow, summer is ending in Hampshire,
Ebbing away down ramps of shaven lawn where close-clipped yew
Insulates the lives of retired generals and admirals
And the spyglasses hung in the hall and the prayer-books ready in the pew
And August going out to the tin trumpets of nasturtiums
And the sunflowers’ Salvation Army blare of brass
And the spinster sitting in a deck-chair picking up stitches
Not raising her eyes to the noise of the ‘planes that pass
Northward from Lee-on-Solent.
(What lost world is in that apostrophe before `planes’?)
In his collected poems, Autumn Journal takes up sixty-four well-thumbed pages. Divided into twenty-four parts, the poem covers MacNeice’s childhood and schooldays; a goodbye to an old love; a visit to Spain in 1936; the Oxford by-election; teaching classics in London.
MacNeice was the son of a Church of Ireland (Anglican) cleric who had supported Home Rule in what would become Northern Ireland. An outsider in Ireland, by virtue of religion, an outsider to his own tribe by virtue of politics, MacNeice was an Irish outsider in England, where he spent most of his life, starting at boarding school at seven. His relationship with Ireland was difficult, even before the war:
I come from an island, Ireland, a nation
Built upon violence and morose vendettas.
My diehard countrymen like drayhorses
Drag their ruin behind them.
Shooting straight in the cause of crooked thinking
Their greed is sugared with pretence of public spirit.
From all which I am an exile.
Eclogue from Iceland, 1938
Later he would write of Dublin that `she will not have me alive or dead’ and some of his bitterest work deals with Ireland’s neutrality during the war.
He took his position early: he can see the destruction of hope during the depression and of the decay of the great industries of Belfast where `each rich family boasts a sagging tennis-net’ in a city of `thousands of men whom nobody will employ’. Where other poets and writers of the time were driven into the Communist Party or fellow-travelling, MacNeice stands back from sectarianism. When he summarizes Belfast, it is hard not to hear some echo of an argument with a cadre:
A city built upon mud;
A culture built upon profit;
Free speech nipped in the bud,
The minority always guilty.
No more than growing poverty drove MacNeice to Communism, his inherited antipathy to Unionism did not make him sympathetic to Republicanism: `let them pigeon-hole the souls of the killed into sheep and goats, patriots and traitors’.
MacNeice’s politics in Autumn Journal is a broad solidarity: when he drove voters to the polls in the Oxford by-election, it is unthinkable that he would have it done it for anyone other than Labour, but he never joined a party. When he went to Spain, his sympathies were with the Republican side, but he joined none of the factions. MacNeice is a serious artist, a classicist with no intention of renouncing high culture, whose solidarity is with humanity.
That solidarity is not the flabby thing often passed off as left-wing thought. MacNeice sees the condition of most people as something inflicted on them, but not as inevitable:
Most are accepters, born and bred to harness,
And take things as they come,
But some refusing harness and more who are refused it
Would pray that another and a better Kingdom come…
His alternative, that of a clear-eyed artist, is a world `where skill will no longer languish nor energy be trammelled… exploited in subservience… to an utterly lost and daft system that gives a few at fancy prices their fancy lives’.
His honesty, however, forces him to admit his own privilege and habits of thought: `you also have the slave-owner’s mind… what you want is a niche at the top’. His answer, accepting the charge, but denying its inevitability is that `there is no reason for thinking that, if you give a chance to people to think or live, the arts of thought or life will become rougher’. Without being patronizing or inventing a cult of proletarian art, he hopes for a future where he need not feel shame at his position, where general equality raises the standard of life.
Renouncing the tribe for wider humanity, without stumbling into passivity or fanaticism, MacNeice kept his eyes open when other poets passed off indignation as passion and slogans as thought. Accepting of imperfection and irrationality in others and conscious of it in himself, he knew in his blood the attractions and dangers of the elect standing against the wicked world and chose to do what he could:
None of our hearts are pure, we always have mixed motives,
Are self-deceivers, but the worst of all
Deceits 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 outwards
And may my feet follow my wider glance
First no doubt to stumble, then to walk with the others
And in the end—with time and luck–to dance.
It seems as good a credo as any.
Michael Carley is an engineering lecturer who would rather have written Autumn Journal or designed a testastretta desmo.