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.