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.
MacNeice 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.