SOME THOUGHTS ON MacNEICE'S AUTUMN JOURNAL by Michael O'Loughlin
(Poetry Ireland News, September/October 2007)
The French Catholic poet and diplomat, Paul Claudel (who Auden assured us would be pardoned by time ‘for writing well’) is supposed to have said the following: ‘In the short space of time that remains to us after the crisis and before the catastrophe, let us drink a glass of champagne.’
What was the crisis? In September 1938, Chamberlain signed an agreement with Hitler in Munich, giving him the Sudetenland, and Chamberlain proclaimed ‘Peace For Our Time’. Orwell didn’t need to invent very much. Nobody believed it, except the stock markets which soared after his statement. It would be business as usual until the inevitable War broke out on September 1939, while the world turned its face away from the death throes of the Spanish Republic. That short space of time, that Autumn of the West World, with its fears, its boredom, its impotence, would be captured in Autumn Journal, one of the great English poems of the twentieth century.
Yeats once said that every poet is more of his time than of his place, and this applies to few poets better than MacNeice. There have been attempts to place him, as if the poet were a refugee standing at an immigration desk. Is he an Ulster poet, an Irish poet, an English poet? In some ways, in the most fundamental ways, he was all of these things.
His father was born on Omey Island, his mother in Clifden, and I like to see him as a sublimated, displaced, Connemara man, with the emphasis on displaced. The kind of Connemara man you used to meet years ago, who had never been to Dublin, but had driven gangsters around Chicago’s South Side, or knew every inch of the Edgeware Road. When MacNeice writes directly about Ireland, the strings often become false, he tends to lapse into sentimentality and dubious politics, in contrast to his other work.
If often seems to me that MacNeice is the poet that other people thought Auden was. Auden’s apocalyptics always had a cartoonish tinge, which made him sceptical about them later in life. A few rounds of Spanish Fascist machine gun bullets were enough to convince Auden that Spain was no place for English poetry, and send him scampering off to Greenwich Village and other more congenial realities. To be fair, he had work to do there, like mothering the English language. But MacNeice left America and returned to the dark womb of sex, drink and the BBC which was London in the Blitz. In MacNeice, the apocalyptic penetrated every concrete surface of life, and illuminated it.
In his book Modern Poetry, MacNeice wrote: ‘This book is a plea for impure poetry, that is, the poetry conditioned by the poet’s life and the work around him.’ This proves his Englishness, as this programme had nothing to do with Modernism, but could stand as the mission statement of a central strand of English poetry, and one which has produced many of its greatest works, from the Canterbury Tales to the Prelude and Autumn Journal. Indeed, Autumn Journal is the very model of the Ambitious Poem. In December 1938, he set out for Spain to get copy for it and had tea in Barcelona with Spanish poetry in the form of Antonio Machado. In TS Eliot he was lucky to have an editor who understood exactly what he was trying to do, and the extent to which he succeeded.
Auden’s ‘September 1, 1939’, another great English poem of this period, is a poem inspired by Hitler’s invasion of Poland at the start of WWII. It ends on a curiously affirmative note:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
Likewise, Autumn Journal ends on a positive, almost celebratory note:
There will be time to audit
The accounts later, there
Will be sunlight later
And the equations will come out at last.
This is no wonder. MacNeice knows he has achieved his ambition, and pulled off a major poem which, like Auden’s, is a triumph on its own terms. Thus, the end of Autumn Journal overshadows the End of the World. Which is as it should be. For an instant between crisis and catastrophe the glass of champagne blots out everything else.
One of the overwhelming sensations in reading Autumn Journal is MacNeice’s awareness that a world is about to die, that the game is going to change. Nothing will ever be the same. After 1945, we will all be post-war.
But, like all great poems, Autumn Journal is a mirror for our times. Alongside its celebration of the surfaces of life, it is haunted by the impotent emotion evoked by the awareness that a huge world-ending event is coming, but there is very little the individual can do to prevent it.
MacNeice dutifully marches on demonstrations and shoulders placards, pours scorn on the opponents in an election. But he knows it’s all useless. You can break the barometer but you won’t stop the weather.
He writes ‘the bloody frontier / converges on our beds.’ He was right. And now we can lie in bed and watch events unfold on the bloody frontier live on late-night TV.
‘Poetry is news which stays news’, said Ezra Pound. ‘I meet you in an evil time’, begins my favourite MacNeice poem. It is up to each generation, I suppose, to discover for itself that this is a greeting which is always apt.Michael O’Loughlin is currently Galway City’s Writer in Residence.