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Studies on Louis MacNeice

Jacqueline Genet
Wynne Hellegouarc’h

Louis MacNeice: aspects of his aesthetic theory and practice

Edna Longley

Texte intégral

1I am going to discuss certain aspects of MacNeice’s aesthetic as theorised in his prose and practised in his poetry. But some of the poems themselves include explicit or implicit literary criticism; and I will particularly refer to three of his "eclogues" in this connection. These poems might be termed "colloques" on MacNeice’s poetry. My overall theme will be MacNeice’s continual drive to reconcile the demands of form and content — or of "colour" and "meaning" as "When We Were Children" puts it. All poets share this preoccupation: MacNeice’s unusually acute version stems from the imperative of subject-matter in thirties Britain, and its impact on his early aestheticism. In some respects he underwent a representative rite of passage from the 1920s to the 1930s. But still further back the very origins of his creative impulse turn on a similar tension in the shape of relations between sound and then significance. His important essay "Experiences with Images" emphasises the formative influence of the aural as well as the visual. He says of the trains, foghorns and factory-hooters of Belfast Lough: "[These noises] had a significance apart from what caused [them]... a purely physical meaning which I would find hard to analyse". Thus MacNeice’s earliest poetry is often an attempt to get at meaning through sound. "River in Spate", for instance, at once imitates rushing water and reads dark implications into this mimesis. The sound-effects of the juvenilia prefigure a poetry full of onomatopoeic words and cadences, and of words for sound. Here’s a selection: hooting, clang, twang, "creaks and cawings", gulp, clatter, pop, click, clink, crackle, cackle, boom, blare, roar... Two later poems which especially project the poet as receiver and transmitter of sounds are "The Ear" and "Carrick Revisited". MacNeice’s responsiveness to sound evidently shaped his responsiveness through sound. Hence the importance of emphatic rhythmical punctuation — like assonance, internal rhyme and refrain — to his formal procedures. In such early poems as "Morning Sun" and "Snow" we can see how MacNeice translates the whole gamut of sense-experience into strongly accented sound — a word that occurs in both poems: "for the fire flames with a bubbling sound", "A turning page of shine and sound." Some critics consider these techniques superficial. But neither the ear’s "visitors" nor MacNeice’s sound-effects are necessarily consoling: "The yarn-mill called its funeral cry at noon", "Every evil iron/siren and what it tells." And his sounds and rhythms proved equal to the experiences of the 1930s, from the specialised instrumentation of "Bagpipe Music" to the full orchestra of Autumn Journal.

2Other speakers have commented on MacNeice’s attitude to politics in the 1930s. I want to highlight how politics affected his thinking about poetry. Being as amused as John Cornford by "the intelligentsia playing at revolution", he stressed not how poetry might help to change society, but how a raised social and political consciousness might help to change poetry. That the circumstances of the 1930s put a premium on content is indicated by the very title of MacNeice’s essay "Subject in Modern poetry" (1936), in which he objects to literary self-containedness:

Not only the muck and wind of existence should be faced but also the prose of existence, the utilities, the sine qua nons, which are never admitted to the world, or rather the salon, of the Pure Artist.

Art for art’s sake has been some time foundering... but on the whole, poets have ceased showing themselves off as mere poets. They have better things to do: they are writing about things again.

3This essay and "Poetry Today" contributed to the making of Modem Poetry (1938) whose opening chapter, "A Change of Attitude", draws together their attacks on the "escape art" of the nineties poets and the Georgian poets. MacNeice measures these earlier movements by the "degree of their failure to make the poet "organic to the community". Contemporary poets, on the other hand, "are working back from luxury writing and trying once more to become functional". Words themselves bring to poetry their status as "a community-product" and perform within poetry their function as "a vehicle of communication".

4MacNeice’s quarrel is not only with minor writing of the period 1890-1910, but more profoundly with Eliot and Yeats. I feel it is not yet appreciated how MacNeice and Auden absorbed and redirected the aesthetics of those predecessors. Modem Poetry gives Eliot due credit for introducing into poetry "the modern industrial city... [and] the background of European history" together with "the boredom and the glory of the contemporary world". But he criticises Eliot’s "bookishness" "defeatism" and the extent to which his poems are "studies from a corner"" In "Poetry Today" MacNeice finds Yeats less esoteric than Eliot in some respects, more so in others. Yeats scores in that the Irish Literary Revival was "healthily mixed up with politics" and "where it is possible to be a hypocrite it is also possible to be a hero, a saint or an artist". Modern Poetry, perhaps because more a manifesto than a survey, is harder on Yeats as a poet of the library, but still acknowledges that through "identifying himself with the Irish nationalist movement, [he] had to recognise the "palpable realities of living people and contemporary problems."

5Modern Poetry is less consistent on Yeats than on Eliot, probably because MacNeice’s quarrels with him had a deeper cultural basis. He does not really reconcile the Yeatsian poles of esotericism and public involvement. It took a full-length study to get Yeats into perspective. It also took the atmosphere of autumn 1939. A crucial passage in The Poetry of W. B. Yeats analyses a readjustment which is also relevant to MacNeice’s sequence "The Closing Album" originally titled "The coming of War".

As soon as I heard on the wireless of the outbreak of war, Galway became unreal. And Yeats and his poetry became unreal also.
This was not merely because Galway and Yeats belong in a sense to the past order of things. The unreality which overtook them was also overtaking in my mind modern London, modernist art, and Left Wing politics. If war made nonsense of Yeats’s poetry and of all works that are called "escapist" it also made nonsense of the poetry that professes to be "realist"... For war spares neither the poetry of Xanadu nor the poetry of pylons.

6MacNeice now feels that in Modern Poetry he "overstressed the half truth that poetry is about something is communication". And he realigns his comparative perceptions of Yeats and Eliot: "Eliot’s poetry itself is largely both mannerism and fantasy and... the daylight of "realism" is itself largely a fiction". I shall return to the effect of the war on MacNeice’s aesthetic ideas, on his perception of relations between form and content.

7Immediately I want to dwell on the years 1934-1936 and to look at how "An Eclogue for Christmas", "Eclogue by a Five-Barred Gate" and "Eclogue from Iceland" touch on the issues I have outlined. Indeed the very mode of the eclogue, a medium for discursiveness, a forum for debate, signals the pressure of "subject". "An Eclogue for Christmas" at once reflects, and reflects on, transition from the literary 1920s to the literary 1930s. MacNeice’s version of "The Decline of the West" owes something both to T. S. Eliot and to Karl Marx — a hybridisation common in the early 1930s. Like Eliot in The Waste Land he heaps up images of a civilisation which has lost its way. But in replacing Eliot’s elusive voices with spokesmen for town and country, for social contexts, MacNeice breaks with the mode of The Waste Land. And the eclogue documents and comments in a manner alien to what C. K. Stead calls Eliot’s "pure, non-discursive image". It acts on the shared doctrine of MacNeice and Auden that the poet should include the journalist. Again, its vision approximates more to Auden’s metaphors for a neurotic society than to Eliot’s symbolic spiritual desert. The speaker "A" diagnoses "the excess sugar of a diabetic culture/Rotting the nerve of life and literature". Here "culture", "nerve", "life and literature" carry social meanings with which Eliot is not primarily concerned. The people in the eclogue are socially symptomatic and MacNeice ascribes some of their moral emptiness to dependence on a corrupt class-system: "The flotsam of private property... the good things which in the end turn to poison and pus". The eclogue, as MacNeice puts it elsewhere, reacts from Eliot. And it explains its reaction in a passage which analyses the course of the century, and of the modern movement, as a process of abstracting the individual from himself and from society:

I who was Harlequin in the childhood of the century,
Posed by Picasso beside an endless opaque sea,
Have seen myself sifted and splintered in broken facets,
Tentative pencillings, endless liabilities, no assets,
Abstractions scalpelled with a palette-knife
Without reference to this particular life.
And so it has gone on; I have not been allowed to be
Myself in flesh or face, but abstracting and dissecting me,
They have made of me pure form, a symbol or a pastiche
Stylised profile, anything but soul and flesh...

8To paraphrase: aestheticism, and Modernism which partly descends from it, have denied and fragmented what MacNeice values as human wholeness. The speaker significantly prefers fleshly particularities to abstraction, symbolism and pure form. Similarly, in Modem Poetry MacNeice advocates a "concrete poet" responding as a whole to concrete living". One way in which "An Eclogue for Christmas" carries out this agenda is by putting flesh on the contemporary city. MacNeice has not yet received his due for making urban landscapes part of the regular fabric of poetry. In Modem Poetry he contrasts his approach with Eliot’s, and echoes the eclogue, when he says:

Living in a large industrial city, Birmingham, I recognised that the squalor of Eliot was a romanticised squalor because treated, on the whole, rather bookishly as décor. The short square fingers stuffing pipes were not brute romantic objects abstracted into a picture by Picasso, but were living fingers attached to living people — were even, in a sense, my fingers.

9In fact we might still find some "décor" in MacNeice’s "Birmingham" which curiously blends aesthetic impressionism, journalism and humanistic anger. However, the bold experimentation of "Birmingham" ultimately leads to the concretely living London of Autumn Journal.

10MacNeice’s arguments with Eliot and Yeats are not simply a generational quarrel: they channel his quarrel with himself. MacNeice is hard on aestheticism and "pure form" because that is where his own poetry partly came in. Modem Poetry charts not only developments in twentieth-century poetry, but the parallel growth of a poet’s mind. Pure form had been the creed of MacNeice’s mentor Anthony Blunt at Marlborough, and MacNeice gives this possibly exaggerated account of its effects.

For me, when I went to Oxford, anything was of interest and therefore nothing was of interest. Anything might seem equally well as material for me to put form upon; consequently my form suffered because the material itself ought to affect the form, but, to be able to do that, the material must be allowed to have rights of its own.

11A number of MacNeice’s poems of 1932-1933 worry about the whole issue of imposing aesthetic patterns on the flux of experience and consciousness, on "the living curve" — "Nature Morte", "August", "Train to Dublin". MacNeice’s obsession with flux and stasis has an aesthetic dimension, as well as emotional and philosophical aspects.

12"Eclogue by a Five-Barred Gate" establishes a dialectic between the claims of form and material, art and life, aestheticism and functionality. This eclogue is particularly close to the classical model of artistic contests between shepherds. MacNeice’s pastoral operates both as allegory and as irony. The rustic speech with which the shepherds begin the poem proves to be just one aspect of their literary affectation. This affectation insulates them against the reality represented by the third contributor to then-colloquium, Death. When Death asks for their credentials, the shepherd-poets reply in an idiom which veers from the pasture to the art-for-art’s sake salon. Death, a severe literary critic, rebukes them for "dialect... and pedantry". The shepherds tell Death at the outset that poets are "sleepers" given over to aesthetic reverie: "The sleeping beauty behind the many coloured hedge". When Death introduces the themes of spring and mortality they respond with poetry that seems to parody the Georgian earth-cult and the nineties sensation cult. It may also parody earlier MacNeice. Death believes in poetry’s responsibilities outside itself, in the poet as one who can "quote the prices/Of significant living and decent dying. "He tells the shepherds: "This escapism of yours is blasphemy." He then encourages them to recount their dreams. These dream-poems give their material more "rights of its own." They grow out of experience and at least show aestheticism in the process of becoming functional. The eclogue’s climax translates the "pastures new" of Milton’s "Lycidas" into a landscape of inescapable destiny: not "Thanatos in Greek" but "the thing behind the word" which the shepherds have been dodging.

13"Eclogue from Iceland" completes a meditation on the poet’s role which moves from the question of art in a decadent civilisation, to poetry’s social and universal responsibilities, to more specifically political choices. "Eclogue from Iceland" presents its two poets, Ryan and Craven, thin masks for MacNeice and Auden, as "escaping" not from ultimate realities but from the contingent reality of European political conflict, particularly the Spanish Civil War. They are also exiles from the economic inequalities of Britain and from Ireland "built upon violence and morose vendettas". In exploring the poet’s public responsibilities "Eclogue from Iceland" seems to "react from" Yeats as "An Eclogue for Christmas" reacts from Eliot. Indeed "Eclogue by a Five-Barred Gate" has already quoted Yeats’s phrase "A terrible beauty and aligned itself with Yeats’s epigraph "In dreams begin responsibilities." "Eclogue from Iceland" uses Yeats’s tactic of setting up heroic role-models to counteract the temptation to escape and to despair. These role-models are artists whose spirit prevailed over circumstance — Nijinsky who "danced the war" — or unappreciated men-of-action like James Connolly, the Irish socialist and nationalist. The third party in this colloquium, Grettir the outlaw saga-hero, is also a man of action. It is significant that he, not Death, now articulates MacNeice’s self-critical instincts. In part he resembles Yeats’s concept of the legendary Irish hero Cuchulain. But MacNeice "reacts from" Yeats by making him closer to the ordinary man, the "Everyman" to whom he thought the poet should correspond. Grettir is no authoritarian leader. Any proto-fascist tendencies are eliminated. He is "the doomed tough", "Joker and dressy, a lover of "the daily goods". He is also, perhaps a bit incongruously, a humanist. At the end of the poem he sets out the urgency of action, not in a particular political form, but as an irreductible human duty: "Minute your gesture but it must be made/your hazard, your act of defiance and hymn of hate/Hatred of hatred, ascertain of human values". This answer to the totalitarian "wall/of shouting flesh" amounts to an artistic as well as a personal programme.

14Autumn Journal fulfils that programme as it does the whole tendency of MacNeice’s evolving aesthetic in the 1930s. It transcends the eclogues themselves by absorbing "subject" and didacticism into MacNeice’s lyrical self-dramatisation, his "various and conflicting selves ". It reconciles, as he said, "pictures and generalisations", taking the pictures beyond impressionism but not leaving them as reportage. And it extraordinarily achieves the general thirties ambition of arriving at structures which betray neither history nor art or in MacNeice’s terminology neither flux nor pattern. I want to refer briefly to two aspects of MacNeice’s technique which contribute to the overall formal achievement of Autumn Journal. The first is the poem’s handling of language. Here again there is a break with the literary past. Wyndham Lewis said that T. S. Eliot had "instilled a fear of speech — a terror of the word." Geoffrey Grigson comments on this: "But Eliot’s spell was broken by the volubility of W. H. Auden, for whom words had no terror." MacNeice was equally voluble. His and Auden’s combined verbal flow swept away any linguistic decorums still guarded by Yeats and Eliot. If, as Modern Poetry declares, "the poet’s first business is mentioning things", then he must be open to a variety of vocabulary as well as of phenomena. Thus "subject" enters poetry as diction. Autumn Journal is a thesaurus of richly variegated language: "I loved her with peacocks’ eyes and the wares of Carthage,/With glass and gloves and gold and a powder puff/With blasphemy, camaraderie and bravado/And lots of other stuff. The detumescent colloquialism at the end of that quatrain also demonstrates that the diction of Autumn Journal does not just sit around admiring its own richness. It both exploits words as "a community-product" and criticises them as such. Principally it attacks the effects of politics on language: "blank invective" in Spain, "Hitler yells on the wireless", "free speech nipped in the bud" in Northern Ireland, ideas generally "travestied in "slogans." Autumn Journal, however, also goes behind politics to criticise the language of our academic and social education, which are not only inadequate to the Munich crisis but have contributed to it. In this connection MacNeice not only relishes demotic idiom, the impurities of slang, but makes it an agent of democracy and iconoclasm: "The land of scholars and saints: /Scholars and saints my eye". Or again: "So blow the bugles over the metaphysicians,/Let the pure mind return to the Pure Mind;/I must be content to remain in the world of Appearance/ And sit on the mere appearance of behind".

15The antidote to "the Pure Mind" and "Pure Form" is "impure poetry" as M. Haberer demonstrates. However, the opposite of Pure Form is not No Form but formal risk. The second point I want to make about the technique of Autumn Journal is its handling of metre. As regards metre, the collective thirties tendency was towards a renewal of traditional forms. In this context MacNeice emphatically opts for Yeats rather than Eliot. In The Poetry of W. B. Yeats he says "We admired him too for his form... Treatment of form and subject here went hand in hand. Yeats’s formalising activity began when he thought about the world; as he thought it into a regular pattern, he naturally cast his verse into regular patterns also. A similar process can be observed in W. H. Auden..." Thus the pressure of subject-matter paradoxically encouraged shape. A message required a more clear-cut medium than free-verse could usually provide. Hence the revival of set modes — verse-epistle, ode, eclogue, ballad, song — as well as of set stanzas. Just as the purging of poeticisms left poets "again free", as MacNeice said, to "decorate", so the free-verse purge freed them back into purposeful constraints. MacNeice says in Modem Poetry: "in general I myself prefer the more regular kinds of verse because I think that if you are going to poise your phrases at all they will usually need more poise than can be given them by the mere arranging of them in lines". However, MacNeice’s methods during the 1930s did not imitate Yeats’s stanzaic perfection any more than they did Eliot’s somewhat specialist irregularities. MacNeice’s onomatopoeic inclinations initially led him more to rhyme and rhythm than to overall shape. And discursive priorities compelled his forms, like Auden’s to operate more as vehicles and less as ends in themselves. The eclogues and other longer poems of the 1930s compromise in various ways between free verse, blank verse and rhyme. "An Eclogue for Christmas" and "Valediction", for instance, are written in unpredictable couplets. Conversely, MacNeice’s stanzaic poems depart from norms of line-length and even stanza-length. The luxurious quatrains of "Snow" play off longer lines against pentameter. MacNeice is strikingly fond of the long couplet, a scheme which can subvert the stanza or the sonnet (as in "Birmingham" "and" Spring Vows") and set up a counterpointing music. A flexible quatrain is the basic formal molecule of Autumn Journal and it resolves all the structural uncertainties of the eclogues, and all theoretical doubt as to the morality of colour in relation to meaning. Here indeed MacNeice achieves the ideal, ultimately articulated in The Poetry of W. B. Yeats, of "matter... finding itself in form and form... finding itself in matter." The most common modes of the quatrain rhyme ABCB and ABAC. These in fact alternate up to section XII, and they exemplify the quatrain’s double potential for closure and openness. For instance, the end of section IX leaves the Munich betrayal hanging unrhymed in the air: "only the Czechs/Go down and without fighting." On a larger scale, MacNeice can choose whether to stress the self-contained character of the quatrain, or to suppress some of its identity within a larger momentum. Thus MacNeice has found a medium which on the one hand finds a new synthesis of metrical formality and freedom (synthesises Yeats and Eliot perhaps); and on the other has the fluidity to accommodate the total subject-matter of the 1930s.

16I have not time to do justice to MacNeice’s artistic development from 1931 to 1946. In some respects he did not do justice to it himself until the late 1950s. But the war gradually re-orientated his entire aesthetic. I have already indicated how it initially reemphasised form, and the part played by The Poetry of W. B. Yeats in this process. An essay written in March 1940 rejected the polarisation of public and private poetry. It denies that the poet must choose between the "Brazen Tower of political dogma" and the Ivory Tower of "isolation from men in general." Later in the war a series of reflections called "Broken Windows" carried this theme further, and recorded shifts in practice as well as theory. MacNeice says: "I notice myself that my two old methods — reportage and lyric — are ceasing to suit me". This is because "different circumstances change the "message" — the content — and so the method — the style." One new method fostered by altered circumstances can be termed "parable". MacNeice himself does not regularly employ this term until later — when he calls The Dark Tower "a radio parable play", when he conceives his Clark Lectures in the early 1960s. But "Experiences with Images" (1949) analyses poems of the 1940s as exploiting images in a new way. And the terminology of the analysis approaches his subsequent definitions of parable. He cites certain poems as not only manifesting "a more structural use of imagery" and symbol, but as blending "rational allegory and dream suggestiveness". The poems he singles out are "The Springboard" "The Dowser" and "Order to View".

17Earlier MacNeice had occasionally written poems with such qualities. For instance, "Chess" is a rational allegory of historical necessity, of war’s logic or illogic: "Choose your gambit, vary the tactics of your game,/You move in a closed ambit that always ends the same." "Chess" also borrows suggestiveness, as do much later poems, from MacNeice’s fascination with the Alice books. The poems he wrote during 1939-1940 are poems of decision-making which lend themselves to the allegorical and emblematic varieties of parable. MacNeice’s indecision had to do with whether the Second World War was "my war" or not. Whether he should remain in Ireland, whether he should try to be a permanent expatriate in America where he went in January 1940. "Prognosis" and the last poem of "The Closing Album" are full of questions. "Entirely" examines the decisionmaking process itself. Poems which can be termed parables of choice are "Stylite", "Flight of the Heart", "Debacle", the properly biblical "Jehu" and "The Springboard". The contrast between "Stylite" and "The Springboard" suggests an advance in parable-technique. "Stylite" is certainly a stylised poem with its emblematic contrast between the saint who "bans" the world and the Greek God who concentrates on it. Their antithetical pillars might again be the poet’s ivory and brazen towers. "The Springboard" also depends on what MacNeice calls "a strong symbol", but invests it with greater tension and drama, not to mention dream-suggestiveness. The two years that separate the poems have also fed in the atmosphere of London at war: "He will dive like a bomber past the broken steeple".

18MacNeice’s wartime poems do not evoke London at war in documentary terms. He wrote some vivid prose "London Letters", but a bad journalistic poem like "Refugees" indicates that there was no return to a thirties aesthetic. What the poems convey is what Varieties of Parable terms "the inner feel" of the period. On the one hand, MacNeice co-opts wartime phenomena into "rational allegories" of the human condition. For example "Conscript", or "Convoy" "which rather heavily underlines its point: "This is a bit like us." On the other hand, some parables take an archetypal view of contemporary struggles. In doing so, they pursue the implications of "Prayer before Birth". And they act on MacNeice’s defence of "make-believe" and "fantasy" in The Strings are False: "in the epoch of Hitler-Siegfried Redivivus — it is not only a mistake but a disaster to ignore those underground motives which cause both art and war." Thus "Brother Fire", "The Trolls" and "Troll’s Courtship" psycho-analyse the Blitz by personifying fire and bombing as mythical creatures dangerously on the loose.

19During the war and in the immediately postwar period MacNeice increasingly stressed his dissatisfaction with what he variously terms "reportage", "journalism", "chunks of life." This exaggerates the documentary component in his own thirties writing. But it confirms that "subject" has relaxed its imperative. The fruition of MacNeice’s parabolic techniques (in his last two collections) lies outside your selection of poems. But several postwar poems anticipate the aesthetic future, while others richly consummate the past. To take the first category: in the mid-forties he wrote a group of poems based on a visit to Achill Island in the West of Ireland. That "western landscape" now usurps the place of social and political Ireland is itself significant. Irish images often proved to be the testing-ground for fresh approaches. This group includes "Littoral", "The Strand", "Last before America", "Under the Mountain" and "No More Sea". The landscape of Achill, compounded of mountains, sea and shoreline, functions as a topography for metaphysical enquiry, for working out the co-ordinates of man’s position on the earth. In this Irish context MacNeice is now not so much concerned with questions of social affiliation, as with our transitory affiliation to the planet. In "The Strand", for example, the figure of MacNeice’s father certainly implies a more solid relation both to the environment and to religious faith than that enjoyed by the poet. Nevertheless, the poem’s perspectives perceive both figures within a ceaseless fluctuation which erases marks of the human body and mind:

It was sixteen years ago he walked this shore
And the mirror caught his shape which catches mine
But then as now the floor-mop of the foam
Blotted the bright reflections — and no sign
Remains of face or feet when visitors have gone home.

20My second category, poems which consummate the past, includes "Woods", "Elegy for Minor Poets", and "Autolycus". These three poems share a six-line stanza, a closely woven verbal texture, and subtextual comment on MacNeice’s aesthetic. MacNeice’s handling of the relations between imagery and statement, form and informality, achieves a new richness. But in these poems he is also exploring the terrain of his imagination and it is not wholly settled. "Woods", despite anatomising cultural duality, is the most affirmative of the poems. It enjoys the complications of also having "this other, this English choice/Into what yet is foreign." Less comfortably, the minor poets run an allegorical obstacle course between "Promised Land" and "dark bogs." Nor does the poem’s speaker detach himself from the ordeal of these martyrs to the mysteries of the creative process. "Autolycus" holds out some kind of hope to those in a personal or aesthetic "fix." The poem celebrates Shakespeare too as the "master pedlar" who can reconcile all dialectics and dialects.

Eclectic always, now extravagant,
Sighting his matter through a timeless prism
He ranged his classical bric-à-brac in grottos
Where knights of Ancient Greece had Latin mottoes
And fishermen their flapjacks — none should want
Colour for lack of an anachronism.

21Terence Brown has commented on how "the hotch-potch of diction" in the poem itself captures Shakespeare’s "mixture of styles and forms" in the last plays. Thus MacNeice’s own "eclectic extravagance" backs up one of his basic critical themes: that necessary impurity which makes poetry a compound of talking "crystal" and "gabbing earth." "Autolycus" also implies that "colour" cannot go too far in its pursuit of meaning. This looks beyond the present relish of varied diction to the experimental extravagance of MacNeice’s last two books. Among other signposts are the fact that "Woods" is concerned with the stuff of myth, preferably beyond the reach of social ordering. And its allusion to Malory’s Morte d’Arthur portends the symbolic questing to come. The appeal of Shakespeare’s romances also underlines the growing attraction of fantasy and myth now that chunks of life are wearing thin. At the same time the perfectly planned "Elegy" is superstitiously conscious of poets "who knew all the words but failed to achieve the Word." MacNeice has learned that no aesthetic is permanently reliable.


© Presses universitaires de Caen, 1988

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