Review: ‘Selected Poems’ by Louis MacNeice

Louis MacNeice was born in 1907. By his early 30s he had published four volumes of verse (as well as other material), sufficiently good and well-received for him to publish this early selection in 1940. The tone is set with the opening lines of the first piece, ‘An Eclogue for Christmas’:

A:  I meet you in an evil time.
B:                                The evil bells
    Put out of our heads, I think, the thought of everything else.
A:  The jaded calendar revolves,
    Its nuts need oil, carbon chokes the valves,
    The excess sugar of a diabetic culture
    Rotting the nerve of life and literature.

Throughout the book we have the passage of time with the deterioration of society, culture and one’s own life, expressed in a blending of old and new images, in rhyme. They are poems of the 1930s, of the Great Depression and the imminent war, all from the same man, all on the same theme.

And yet one or two stand out: ‘The Sunlight on the Garden’ is one of the best poems in the English language, casting a spell with its dazzling intricate rhymes sustained over four stanzas, insightful, wistful, immediately memorable, endlessly anthologised. It relates specifically to his first wife having left him – he wrote this “love-song” for her after their divorce was finalised.

The sunlight on the garden
Hardens and grows cold,
We cannot cage the minute
Within its nets of gold,
When all is told
We cannot ask for pardon.

‘Bagpipe Music’ is also very commonly anthologised because of its bounce, cynicism and humour:

The Laird o' Phelps spent Hogmanay declaring he was sober,
Counted his feet to prove the fact and found he had one foot over.
Mrs. Carmichael had her fifth, looked at the job with repulsion,
Said to the midwife 'Take it away; I'm through with over-production'.

A good question, then, is why these two poems stand out against the rest in the book. What makes them so successful, with their very different moods? I think their common quality, largely lacking in all the other pieces, is that they are very easy to learn by heart and recite, they are almost singable even on a first reading. Pure poetry.

5 thoughts on “Review: ‘Selected Poems’ by Louis MacNeice

    1. Robin Helweg-Larsen Post author

      Probably my earliest favourite, now my second–after ‘The Sunlight in the Garden’, which has an incantational quality that I find completely mesmerising. The really interesting thing for me is that all his poems seem to share the same sense of dissolution of time, person, culture, society, despite the huge variation in apparent mood, rhythm, etc.

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply
      1. Michael Burch

        I like both poems. I also especially like “Prayer Before Birth.” If you like incantory poems, you might like these new translations/interpretations of mine …

        I Have Labored Sore
        anonymous medieval lyric (circa the fifteenth century)
        loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

        I have labored sore and suffered death,
        so now I rest and catch my breath.
        But I shall come and call right soon
        heaven and earth and hell to doom.
        Then all shall know both devil and man
        just who I was and what I am.

        A Lyke-Wake Dirge
        anonymous medieval lyric (circa the sixteenth century)
        loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

        The Lie-Awake Dirge is “the night watch kept over a corpse.”

        This one night, this one night,
        every night and all;
        fire and sleet and candlelight,
        and Christ receive thy soul.

        When from this earthly life you pass
        every night and all,
        to confront your past you must come at last,
        and Christ receive thy soul.

        If you ever donated socks and shoes,
        every night and all,
        sit right down and slip yours on,
        and Christ receive thy soul.

        But if you never helped your brother,
        every night and all,
        walk barefoot through the flames of hell,
        and Christ receive thy soul.

        If ever you shared your food and drink,
        every night and all,
        the fire will never make you shrink,
        and Christ receive thy soul.

        But if you never helped your brother,
        every night and all,
        walk starving through the black abyss,
        and Christ receive thy soul.

        This one night, this one night,
        every night and all;
        fire and sleet and candlelight,
        and Christ receive thy soul.

        This is an adaptation of the old dirge, not a word-for-word translation.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Michael Burch

        I prefer “sleet” myself. From what I have read on the subject, there are different ancient versions of the dirge and “sleet” does appear in some of them. But there could have been some confusion with old-timey f’s looking like s’s. In any case, “Hearth and home and candlelight” doesn’t seem nearly as eerie to me.

        Liked by 1 person

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