[Louis MacNeice was, after W. H. Auden, perhaps the most admired poet in England in the 1930s and 1940s. Often grouped by journalists and critics with Auden, Spender, and Day Lewis ("MacSpaunday"), he was in fact less political than they and is now ranked second only to Auden among this group. He was trained at school and university as a classical scholar.
The following commentary along with the text of MacNeice's poem is taken from a review of Jon Stallworthy's Louis MacNeice: A Biography (New York: Norton, 1996) by Peter Green, classics professor at the University of Texas, printed in The New Republic, August 12, 1996. It presents the poem as it was enthusiastically received by a schoolboy reader when it first came out, and the notes of appreciation furnish very useful hints for a modern reader's close examination of the poem.]
The poem which most unforgettably combined all MacNeice's varied talents, which hit me almost physically with its aching nostalgia and intricate perfection of structure, was "The Sunlight on the Garden." It is to be quoted in its totality or not at all, a s easily from memory as from the printed page:
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 beg for pardon.
Our freedom as free lances
Advances towards its end;
The earth compels, upon it
Sonnets and birds descend;
And soon, my friend,
We shall have no time for dances.
The sky was good for flying
Defying the church bells
And every evil iron
Siren and what it tells:
The earth compels,
We are dying, Egypt, dying
And not expecting pardon,
Hardened in heart anew,
But glad to have sat under
Thunder and rain with you,
And grateful too
For sunlight on the garden.
MacNeice cunningly blends private and public here -- nostalgia, tenderness, fatalism. (Was there ever a better encapsulation of pre-1939 European forebodings?) Even more impressively, MacNeice accomplishes this in a structure as complex and minutely regulated as the movement of a fine watch. The variations of rhythm (trochaic, iambic, choriambic; stressed or syncopated); the final and internal rhymes and assonances; the verbal echoes, alliterations and repetitions: all these elements, not forced or artificial but natural and inevitable, combine in a perfect artifact to leave (as Eliot put it) "the whole consort dancing together."
loved this poem, and drawn on it emotionally, for over half a century; but
not until I read Jon Stallworthy's biography did I know that MacNeice
wrote it for the wife who had lately left him -- and their son -- to marry
another man. Does that knowledge deepen one's appreciation of it? Against
the literary experts, my answer has to be: yes, it does, another layer of
meaning has been added. Back in the early '40s, however, I was restricted
to the poem itself, a delectable Ding an sich that I treasured like
a rare jewel. . . .
- "We are dying, Egypt, dying": echoes Antony's word to Cleopatra in Act 4 of Antony and Cleopatra.
- choriambic: the choriamb is "a foot of four syllables, the first and last long, the others short" -- Chambers's Dictionary.
- pre-1939 European forebodings refers to the fatalistic mood of the inevitability of a European war that prevailed after the rise to power of Hitler. World War II broke out in September 1939.