Thursday, April 20, 2006

The Earth Compels

Fourth in an occasional series on the poetry of Louis MacNeice

Many writers have observed the similarity between our time and the waning days of the 1930s. Wretchard even finds an analogue with the “Phony War”, the period between Hitler’s invasion of Poland and the fall of France in 1940.

So we await our equivalent of the blitzkrieg and the end run around the Maginot Line, and then the real war can begin. In the meantime we can look back on the 1930s and find a commonality of experience.

The period leading up to the Second World War was a study in contrasts, a time of raucous celebration combined with a grim foreboding. As Al Stewart says, we were “laughing into 1939.”

It is this sense of impending doom, of the imminent end of all good things, which appears most strongly in the poetry of Louis MacNeice during that period. For example:

The Sunlight on the Garden
By Louis MacNeice

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.

Technically speaking, this poem is superb. A tight rhyme scheme ties the end of one line to the beginning of the next without destroying the rhythm of the poem or causing it to become stilted. I particularly like the conflation of Shakespeare’s Cleopatra with the biblical Pharaoh, bringing a double premonition of the disaster to come, tying the asp’s venom to all the locusts and frogs and boils that lie ahead for Egypt.

It’s a gloomy poem. But it was a gloomy time.