Friday, March 31, 2006

The Unknown Is There

It seems that the poetry of Louis MacNeice has fallen out of favor in the last several decades. In preparation for this post, I searched the internet for some of the poems I wanted, but there didn’t seem to any web versions extant. In order to obtain digital versions, I had to scan and process the them from my ancient dogeared copy of the Selected Works.

It’s hard to believe that MacNeice was popular in the 1930s and 1940s, and well respected in the sixties, after his untimely death in 1963 at the age of 55.

He was from an Anglican Irish background, and was one of the “Thirties Poets”, along with W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, C. Day Lewis, et al. Most of the ’30s poetry is larded with a heavy dose of socialist political content, and has not aged well. But MacNeice was less politically doctrinaire than most of his cohort, and some of his work has survived the test of time. He remains a B-list poet — lacking the brilliance of Wallace Stevens or the technical excellence of William Empson — but much of his work is readable, and the best is very good indeed.

I will eventually tackle some of the most important works, such as “Autumn Journal”. Today, however, I am presenting part of a poem that touches on an issue that recurs frequently in Gates of Vienna: the tension between religious faith and atheism. It is light verse, and a good entry-level poem for the works of Louis MacNeice.

So, a4g — are you out there? — this one’s for you.

From “Jigsaws”
by Louis MacNeice

Although we say we disbelieve,
God comes in handy when we swear —
It may be when we exult or grieve,
It may be just to clear the air;
Let the skew runner breast the tape,
Let the great lion leave his lair,
Let the hot nymph solicit rape,
We need a God to phrase it fair;
When death curls over in the wave
Strings may soar and brass may blare
But, to be frightened or be brave,
We crave some emblem for despair,
And when ice burns and joys are pain
And shadows grasp us by the hair
We need one Name to take in vain,
One taboo to break, one sin to dare.
What is it then we disbelieve?
Because the facts are far from bare
And all religions must deceive
And every proof must wear and tear,
That God exists we cannot show,
So do not know but need not care.
Thank God we do not know; we know
We need the unknown. The Unknown is There.

I hope the poetic oeuvre of Louis MacNeice has moved into the public domain, because I intend to keep scanning and posting my favorites, in order to help establish his web presence.


MikeZ said...

"We need one Name to take in vain,
One taboo to break, one sin to dare."

As somebody pointed out long ago, how many of us take the name of Zeus in vain?

Dymphna said...

men build their religions and then proceed not to live up to their projections.

Which is not to say that religion is unneccessary. Everyone needs something larger than himself, some Ultimate Concern, as Tillich said. For some of us, it is relgion, or the spirituality contained therein.

Sex and spirituality arise from the same desire: union, the hope to transcend our aloneness, and to live in some center other than our mere selves...which are never, ever enough.

The regulated pursuit of both or either is a serious business.

linearthinker said...

Thanks for the McNiece sampler.
This reminds me of a college roommate from Tehran, many decades ago...he and his Iranian friends were prolific swearers, but seemingly using Christian curses only. After a few months of koombyahh, this got to wearing on me. One evening as we were wrestling with integral equations, he let out something that sounded like jeesus-CRITES! The devil whispered in my ear. I waited a few moments, and threw down my pencil, and let out ALLAH!!!
He turned to me in horror..."You must never say that!" I smiled and gave him the 60's equivalent of what-goes-around, comes-around...
The next semester I moved out and we went our separate ways.