Aftermath, Louis MacNeice
I picked up a couple of Louis MacNeice books when I was down in Brighton recently. MacNeice was the son of a Northern Irish protestant rector and grew up in Carrickfergus although he was sent, aged 10, to English boarding school, after his depressed mother died. His reputation is generally attached to, and overshadowed by, W. H. Auden’s, with whom he collaborated on a travel book called ‘Letters from Iceland’. Born in 1902, he died in ’63 and I am just starting to get to know his work.
Apparently, he said “I would have a poet able-bodied, fond of talking, a reader of the newspapers, capable of pity and laughter, informed in economics, appreciative of women, involved in personal relationships, actively interested in politics, susceptible to physical impressions.”. Apart from what now seems to be a heavy dose of ableism and male heterocentrism (can you not be a disabled, woman poet who is ‘appreciative’ of men?), the general sentiment seems a good idea to me. He met the extravagantly named Giovanna Marie Therese Babette Ezra at Oxford, which left him, as he telegraphed his dad, “in gaol for drunkenness and engaged to marry a Jewess”. From such promising start, it seems like their whirlwind love affair which he tried to celebrate in a novel called Roundabout Way, “which purported to be an idyll of domestic felicity”, ended as abruptly as it began. Five years into their marriage she ran off with their American lodger and 1 year old son.
Leftist without being ideologically committed like the rest of the ‘Auden group’, he said, (complaining that marriage had prevented him from doing so), that he wanted “to write poems expressing doubt or melancholy, an anarchist conception of freedom or nostalgia for the open spaces”.
This poem comes from Holes in the Sky, Poems 1944-1947, published at a time when he was working at the BBC, writing and producing radio verse-dramas and married again to the singer Hedli Anderson.
Shuffle and cut. What was so large and one
Is now a pack of dog’s eared chances – Oh
Where is the Fear that warmed us to the gun,
That moved the cock to tousle the night and crow
In the gaps between the bombs? In this new round
The joker that could have been any moment death
Has been withdrawn, the cards are what they say
And none is wild; the bandaging dark which bound
This town together is loosed and in the array
Of bourgeois lights man’s love can save its breath:
Their ransomed future severs once more the child
Of luck from the child of lack – and none is wild.
It’s a tightly packed poem of melancholy disillusion. The war brought promise of what could be in among the destruction and death: a humanity ‘large and one’, levelled by shared suffering, emboldened by common danger to a point of reckless heroism. The fast-paced, enjambement, generally iambic rhythm and subtle but tight rhyme scheme create that sense of disorder amidst the greater, controlling forces. There is the feeling of late night, whisky fuelled poker: the time of crisis bringing opportunity and immense risk. London was playing cards, with death as the joker in the pack.
In a kind of reverse ‘The Second Coming’, the “mere anarchy” that Yeats was afraid of and which MacNeice celebrates as “the bandaging dark”, “is loosed” but instead of apocalyptic drowned innocence and unfettered immorality, a new order and oppressive morality emerges, lit in “the array / Of bourgeois lights”. Safe mediocrity and a return to the inequality and privilege that violently “severs once more the child / Of luck from the child of lack” means that, in a brilliant pun, “man’s love can save its breath”.
Interesting to read that view of the 40s now, when green movements and progressive economists are talking about returning to a wartime self-sufficiency and sustainability, united against the threat of climate change. Post-war, post-blitz, we are safe from sudden death but the violence is subtler. Any idealistic talk of building a society based on love – well, you can save your breath.
 Modern Poetry 1938, quoted in The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English