Tuesday, April 04, 2006

The Neutral Island

Second in an occasional series on the poetry of Louis MacNeice

The most powerful poems by Louis MacNeice were written in the runup to the Second World War. Literary works from that time generally fall into one of two categories: lighthearted escapist entertainment (e.g. P.G. Wodehouse), or works full of somber foreboding.

MacNeice’s poems from the late thirties fall into the latter category. “Autumn Journal”, written during the “Phony War” in late 1939, is probably the best exemplar of these twilight-of-peace poems.

Knocknarea, County SligoMacNeice was born and raised in Belfast before the Irish Republic attained independence, and later went to University and pursued his career in England. But his poetry often returned to Ireland. In the following poem he contemplated Irish neutrality in the conflagration that was to come.

By Louis MacNeice

The neutral island facing the Atlantic,
The neutral island in the heart of man,
Are bitterly soft reminders of the beginnings
That ended before the end began.

Look into your heart, you will find a county Sligo,
A Knocknarea with for navel a cairn of stones,
You find the shadow and sheen of a moleskin mountain
And a litter of chronicles and bones.

Look into your heart, you will find fermenting rivers,
Intricacies of gloom and glint,
You will find such ducats of dream and great
                                  doubloons of ceremony
As nobody to-day would mint.

But then look eastward from your heart, there bulks
A continent, close, dark, as archetypal sin,
While to the west off your own shores the mackerel
Are fat – on the flesh of your kin.

So here we see Ireland, squeezed between the darkness of a continent on the verge of war in the east, and the unforgiving ocean to the west. I like to think of the mackerel to the west as a representation of America, which had been greedily consuming the children of Ireland decade after decade for the previous century. Just think of all the “New York wakes” thrown after the departure of the emigrants by those left behind.

But Ireland’s neutrality during World War II was not uniform. On the one hand, various factions aided and abetted the Nazis, out of hatred for the Sassenach. On the other hand, Irish youth who longed for glory crossed the Irish Sea and joined the RAF.

From our vantage point more than sixty years later, we can see that 1939 was indeed the year “the end began,” at least for Europe.


Dymphna said...

On the other hand, Irish youth who longed for glory crossed the Irish sea and joined the RAF.

Ah, yes. My young Irish uncle lied about his age and found himself in the RAF in Burma at the age of 15.

I wish I had been smart enough to ask him about "his" war. But he died suddenly at 52, so his story went to the grave with him.

It makes me think that if everyone was a storyteller, all their narratives might be a balm for something...

mnc said...

Ireland always gets a bad rap for remaining neutral. Churchill in particular, British propoganda generally and the US Ambassador to Ireland during the war were extremely hostile to it.

In fact, through the late 30's as the chance of a new European war grew to certainty, Ireland made known its determination to remain neutral and not become a pawn of the Major Powers.

The negotiations to secure the handover of the Royal Navy bases in the republic were driven by two priorities, to get the British out, and to get them out before the war. Neutrality would have been impossible if the British still held the bases. The British knew this and handed them over in 1938 anyway.

Neutrality was hugely popular and was seen as an assertion of independence by a country whose entire political and military leadership had fought alone for independence against the largest empire in the world barely 18 years before.

There was some support for Germany but it was more of a passive Anyone vs England syndrome (that persists in sporting contests and in the sporting context is shared by Scots and Welsh) than ideological affinity. The relatively limited and totally unproductive IRA contacts with the Nazis were also primarily of the enemy-of-my-enemy type rather than ideological.

All of the North American and European Allies entered the war as a result of invasion or attack by the Axis, treaty obligations to an invaded country, or declaration of war by Germany. None of the North American or European Allies entered the war voluntarily. Had Ireland declared war it would have been the only Allied volunteer.

As the old joke goes, an Irish bombardier in an RAF Lancaster over Germany in heavy flak was heard to say over the intercom "thank f*ck Dev kept us out of this"

El Jefe Maximo said...

No, the end did not begin in 1939, but on 28 June 1914, when Mr. Princip murdered Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and brought down Armageddon.

Herr Hitler and his war of 1939 only continued what Princip unleashed. Christian Kingdoms were overturned; faith in progress and science were destroyed; murderous crackpots like the Communists and Nazis were liberated from the doss houses and bars they frequented and the false and destructive doctrine of Socialism given a real push forward. Even today, the problems we have with Islam mostly stem from that war.

I suppose some will argue that war brought good to some people (most Irish today probably think so). I beg leave to doubt it. If I could waive a wand and stop the bullet that killed the Archduke and his poor wife, I surely would.

Baron Bodissey said...

Well, Jefe, if you're going to go all pedantic-like on me, we could certainly assign some other dates as "the beginning of the end."

Working backwards in time:
1871, Paris Commune
1866, unification of Germany
1789, French revolution (my personal favorite for the award)
1517, Martin Luther's theses & the beginning of the Reformation
1066, the Norman Invasion
793, sack of Lindisfarne by the Vikings

I could go on, but you get the idea. Things just continue to deteriorate.

El Jefe Maximo said...

Didn't mean to go pedantic...but I take your point. I would definitely put the communards in the "bad" column, along with the French revolutionaries (although I confess a weakness for Napoleon, who I have never grouped with the revolutionaries).

But I take your point. I guess entropy sucks.

P.S. The Fall of Rome was a Bad Thing also.