Archibald MacLeish 1892-1982
American poet, dramatist, critic, essayist, scriptwriter, educator, and statesman.
The following entry presents criticism of MacLeish's poetry through 1993.
Among the most distinguished American poets of the twentieth century, MacLeish examined the central philosophical and political concerns of his era in poetry and drama, seeking to reconcile individual experience and responsibility with an ideological age. In his writing, MacLeish employed a variety of poetic forms, including blank verse, the sonnet, and epic, while experimenting with varied line lengths and speech rhythms in an attempt to create a distinctly American voice. His mastery of lyric verse is evident in such pieces as “Ars Poetica” and “You, Andrew Marvel,” which first appeared in his noted collections Streets in the Moon (1926) and New Found Land: Fourteen Poems (1930), respectively. MacLeish's outstanding contribution to the epic form is Conquistador (1932), inspired by Spanish explorer Hernan Cortez's sixteenth-century encounter with the Aztec Empire in Mexico. He also composed a series of verse plays for the stage and radio, many of them based upon social themes, including the award-winning drama J. B. (1958), an imaginative reworking of the biblical story of Job in MacLeish's modern, liberal-humanist idiom. In addition to his considerable literary efforts, MacLeish was one of the most politically active poets of his generation. He served as Assistant U.S. Secretary of State from 1944 to 1945 and occupied several other government positions under President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the war years 1939 to 1945, including Librarian of Congress.
MacLeish was born in Glencoe, Illinois, a wealthy suburb of Chicago. Educated in Glencoe and at the Hotchkiss preparatory school in Lakeville, Connecticut, he later attended Yale University, where he was a successful football player, swimmer, and scholar. One of MacLeish's earliest poems was published in the Yale Literary Review during his freshman year, and a small collection of verse entitled Songs for a Summer's Day (A Sonnet Cycle) won the Yale University Prize for Poetry in 1915. After graduation that year, MacLeish entered Harvard Law School but temporarily suspended his studies to serve as an ambulance driver in France during World War I. He transferred to active duty shortly thereafter and rose to the rank of field artillery captain. Another of his early volumes of verse, The Tower of Ivory, was published in 1917 by a friend while MacLeish served in France. Following the war, MacLeish returned to complete his law degree as class valedictorian. After teaching constitutional and international law at Harvard for a year, MacLeish worked for a New England law firm until 1923, when he decided to pursue a full-time career as a poet. Moving to Paris with his wife and sons, he associated with many of the writers who were to revolutionize twentieth-century literature, including Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, and James Joyce. In the ensuing years, MacLeish published several volumes that distinguished him as one of his generation's most promising poets. After he and his family returned to the United States in 1928, they settled on a turkey farm in Conway, Massachusetts; however, MacLeish accepted an editorial position with Henry R. Luce's Fortune magazine shortly thereafter. During the 1930s, MacLeish expanded his public presence with the publication of further volumes of poetry, including Frescoes for Mr. Rockefeller's City (1933) and Public Speech (1936), and wrote the first of his verse plays for radio broadcast. During this time, he also chaired the League of American Writers, an antifascist organization that counted Hemingway and John Dos Passos among its members. In 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt appointed MacLeish Librarian of Congress. In the early 1940s, MacLeish also served as director of the U.S. Office of Facts and Figures and later as Assistant Secretary of State. Following the war, MacLeish became a member of the committee that drafted the constitution for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). With his wartime public career concluded, MacLeish issued a new collection of verse, Actfive and Other Poems, in 1948, his first in nearly a decade. While resuming his literary activities, MacLeish also began to teach literature and creative writing at Harvard in 1949. The publication of his Collected Poems, 1917-1952 earned him a Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, and Bollingen Prize for Poetry in 1952. The verse play J. B. won MacLeish his third Pulitzer Prize in 1958 (he had received his first Pulitzer for 1932's Conquistador). After retiring from teaching in 1962, MacLeish returned to his farm in Conway, where for the remainder of his career he concentrated primarily on the composition of verse dramas and essays and produced one final collection of original poetry, The Wild Old Wicked Man and Other Poems (1968), before his death in 1982.
While MacLeish's initial volumes of poetry including Tower of Ivory and The Happy Marriage and Other Poems (1924) largely contain conventional, generally minor verse, several of his first mature works, composed while he was living in France, are thought to chart early and innovative developments in his style and selection of subject matter. The Pot of Earth (1925) bears certain similarities to T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, most notably in its inclusion of death and resurrection symbolism from James Frazer's anthropological study of myth, The Golden Bough. Also in part demonstrating the early influence of Eliot and Ezra Pound on his poetry, MacLeish's Streets in the Moon features in such pieces as “The Silent Slain” and “Memorial Rain”—the latter an embittered elegy to MacLeish's brother killed in World War I—themes of alienation, despair, and war's destruction of cultural traditions. The volume additionally contains the much-anthologized piece “Ars Poetica,” an enigmatic and self-reflexive statement of MacLeish's early poetic theory that contains the line “a poem should not mean but be,” and the long blank-verse poem Einstein, a meditation on the triumph of human rationality in its apprehension of space-time. The verse drama Nobodaddy (1926) takes its title from one of William Blake's contemptible terms for God, and reveals MacLeish's developing interest in the potential of biblical themes as sources of modern, poetic insight. A tragic and gloomy mood informs The Hamlet of A. MacLeish (1928), which focuses on the internal torments of a sensitive man spiritually akin to Shakespeare's Prince of Denmark. New Found Land: Fourteen Poems, MacLeish's first collection of verse published after his return to the United States, documents the poet's efforts to depict the temporal nature of life through sensual imagery, allusions to the rise and fall of civilizations, and lyric evocations of landscape. It contains the piece “You, Andrew Marvell,” which expands upon the lines from the seventeenth-century English poet Marvell, “But at my back I always hear / Time's winged chariot hurrying near.” In his epic Conquistador, MacLeish updated the Tuscan form of terza rima, used by Dante in his Divine Comedy, to recount Cortez's expeditions in Mexico. Related from the point of view of Bernál Diaz del Castillo, a foot soldier in Cortez's army and author of The True History of the Conquest of New Spain, MacLeish's poem chronicles the destruction of native Mexican cultures by Spanish explorers.
In his subsequent work of the 1930s and 1940s, MacLeish increasingly invoked a tone of social engagement, often producing collections that are primarily didactic or exhortative in nature. Frescoes for Mr. Rockefeller's City castigates both Marxists and capitalists for manipulating culture to their own ends. Its title was inspired by an incident at New York City's Radio City Music Hall involving left-wing artist Diego Rivera and billionaire J. D. Rockefeller, Sr., in which Rockefeller ordered Rivera's commissioned fresco destroyed when he discovered that the artist had included a portrait of communist hero Vladimir Lenin. In the six irony-laden poems comprising Frescoes for Mr. Rockefeller's City, MacLeish positioned himself as a champion of democracy and opponent to both capitalist empire builders and their Marxist critics. MacLeish's burgeoning social voice is further evident in the poetic collection Public Speech, his verse plays Panic (1935), The Fall of the City (1937), and Air Raid (1938), and in his essays of the period, including The Irresponsibles (1940). A central thematic element in all of these works is a call for individual responsibility in an age marked by its unquestioning certainty in the dictates of historical determinism. Strongly polemical pieces also appear in the later collections America Was Promises (1939) and Actfive and Other Poems. The ironic title poem of the latter work, “Actfive,” offers a codification of many of MacLeish's principal themes from The Pot of Earth to his Hamlet, forming a dynamic synthesis of his thoughts on the human experience of an unjust world. Songs for Eve (1954) features twenty-eight lyrics drawn upon the Old Testament Book of Genesis, combining scriptural subjects with MacLeish's enduring interest in the poetics of space-time. The verse play J. B. is a modern refashioning of the biblical Book of Job and concludes with a strongly optimistic and humanist theme. Among the principal components of MacLeish's late volume The Wild Wicked Old Man and Other Poems is a sensitive and moving treatment of an elderly couple's love that recalls the poet's early volume The Happy Marriage.
In one of his personal statements on poetic composition, MacLeish acknowledged that his early verse “took off from Swinburne” and developed from there. Indeed, during the poet's lifetime, scholarly comment regarding the influence of other writers on MacLeish's work was plentiful. His poetry of the 1920s—a period marked by his expatriation to Paris with other lost generation writers, including Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and E. E. Cummings—has been noted for its similarities to T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land and Ezra Pound's early Cantos and Hugh Selwyn Mauberly. Like the works of Eliot and Pound, MacLeish's poetry of this era has been viewed as an attempt to revive broken cultural traditions through the use of literary and mythic allusions. His later thematic explorations of the process of aging and the spiritual exile of modern humanity have drawn critical comparisons to the work of Irish poet William Butler Yeats and French poet St. John Perse. Early designations of MacLeish's poetry as in part derivative have generally been put aside by contemporary commentators, however, some of whom have urged a formal and comprehensive re-examination of the writer's work. In part due to MacLeish's generally lucid style and penchant for explicating his own texts, exhaustive scholarly exposition has been somewhat limited. Among those works that have elicited a great deal of commentary are MacLeish's Pulitzer Prize-winning Conquistador and J. B. A lengthy historical poem, Conquistador has variously been praised as the closest thing to a great American verse epic of the twentieth century or denigrated, as in Randall Jarrell's assessment of the work as an internally inconsistent “melodramatic oversimplification” of historical events. The verse play J. B. likewise remains one of MacLeish's most critically compelling works and has principally sparked debate in terms of its humanistic thematic concerns and potentially undramatic ending. Among his verse plays for radio, Air Raid has been described as MacLeish's contribution to a social critique originating from Picasso's painting Guernica—both works acknowledging the threat to those who ignore the destructive potential of modern, total war. Complementary socio-political themes are likewise seen as central to most of MacLeish's works of the 1930s and 1940s. In contrast to his politically charged writings of the later Depression era and war years, MacLeish's earlier, lyric works have often been designated as his most enduring. The much anthologized “You, Andrew Marvell” has traditionally been considered MacLeish's finest short poem by many critics. The epigrammatic “Ars Poetica” remains another of his favored works, while Einstein is among those individual pieces of an extensive opus that has been singled out in the preliminary stages of a re-evaluation of MacLeish's poetry since his death.
Songs for a Summer's Day (A Sonnet Cycle) 1915
Tower of Ivory 1917
The Happy Marriage and Other Poems 1924
The Pot of Earth 1925
Nobodaddy (verse play) 1926
Streets in the Moon 1926
The Hamlet of A. MacLeish 1928
New Found Land: Fourteen Poems 1930
Frescoes for Mr. Rockefeller's City 1933
Poems, 1924-1933 1933
Panic (verse play) 1935
Public Speech: Poems 1936
The Fall of the City (verse radio play) 1937
Air Raid (verse radio play) 1938
Land of the Free—U.S.A. 1938
America Was Promises 1939
Actfive and Other Poems 1948
Collected Poems, 1917-1952 1952
The Trojan Horse (verse radio play) 1952
This Music Crept by Me upon the Waters (verse radio play) 1953
Songs for Eve 1954
J. B. (verse play) 1958
The Collected Poems of Archibald MacLeish 1963
The Wild Wicked Old Man...
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SOURCE: Zabel, Morton Dauwen. Review of New Found Land, by Archibald MacLeish. Poetry: A Magazine of Verse 36 (April-September 1930): 270-75.
[In the following review of New Found Land, Zabel concentrates on MacLeish's poetic style—which he finds to be strongly influenced by other poets, especially T. S. Eliot—and foresees the possible “dissolution of a fine poetic talent.”]
Mr. MacLeish's new book [New Found Land] is made up of fourteen poems, beginning with the familiar “You, Andrew Marvell” of five or six years ago, and ending with several poems in a somewhat later manner which have appeared in periodicals during the last year. The collection is distinguished, however, by a style which, for all its slack and discursive rhetoric, carries a definitive accent, unmistakably Mr. MacLeish's own. Even where certain external effects carry one back from these lines to the Swinburnian distension in the meters of The Happy Marriage or The Pot of Earth, there is no confusing the early uncertainty with the later stylistic sobriety and deliberation. MacLeish still handles his line with a kind of amateurish laxity from which the experimental note is not likely to disappear. More than any other poet of his standing, he has retained his affection for Eliot's early idiom. But this leaning, as it now reasserts itself after the discipline of The Hamlet, is less a...
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SOURCE: Monroe, Harriet. “Archibald MacLeish.” Poetry: A Magazine of Verse 38 (April-September 1931): 150-55.
[In the following essay, Monroe evaluates MacLeish as a poet of the age with a sensitivity to human suffering, but wonders whether he has the necessary forcefulness to interpret the modern world.]
One morning in late April a modest, melancholy, implacably sincere young man faced an audience of two or three hundred persons in the Arts Club of his native city of Chicago. The modernistic setting of the room—suave, never violent, a faultlessly tempered simplicity—was in harmony with the poet's mood; against it the beauty of his cadences was like the sound of a fountain in a garden, and through the windows the incessant motors slipping along Michigan Avenue struck the bass notes of a perfect chord.
It was manifest that a thinker confronted us, and that he was using his slow quantitative elegiac rhythms to express the break-up and remolding of the world. It was as if he saw some mighty hand crumbling the dried clay of worn-out systems to moisten and reshape it into a form unforeseen and strange. He stood beside the adventurous molder sensitively aware of risk, trembling lest the huge and massive figure of human society, still in the rough, should prove less symmetrical than the one now dissolved to powder, should prove indeed incapable of symmetry, casting upon the new age a...
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SOURCE: Zabel, Morton Dauwen. Review of Poems, 1924-1933, by Archibald MacLeish. Poetry: A Magazine of Verse 44, no. 3 (June 1934): 150-59.
[In the following review, Zabel traces MacLeish's development as a poet through the early 1930s and the publication of Poems, 1924-1933.]
“My development as a poet is of no interest to me,” says Archibald MacLeish in the preface to his Poems: 1924-1933, “and of even less interest, I should suppose, to anyone else.” What his statement lacks in candor it makes up in optimism. For this collection of his best work in ten years shows that like any serious and respectable poet, he has been interested to the point of painful obsession in his “development.” Self-knowledge (if not self-reverence and self-control) has been his involuntary goad in all the work he can now “read without embarrassment,” whether disguised by literary anthropology in The Hamlet, by American nostalgia in New Found Land, by romantic heroism in Conquistador, or, in “Cinema of a Man,” by post-War miasmas of exile and bewilderment, the poet plodding through simple sentences and assorted geography with “Ernest” (“they are drunk their mouths are hard they say qué cosa They say the cruel words they hurt each other”) toward the oblivion of racial orphanage and the Nirvana of dead time.
To such an exhibition the public...
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SOURCE: Jones, Llewellyn. “Archibald MacLeish: A Modern Metaphysical.” English Journal 24, no. 6 (June 1935): 441-51.
[In the following review of Poems, 1924-1933, Jones comments on the symbolic poem The Pot of Earth and MacLeish's more social works, such as Conquistador, Frescoes for Mr. Rockefeller's City, and the verse play Panic.]
It would perhaps be unfair to label Archibald MacLeish with even so inclusive a tag as metaphysical, were it not that the best metaphysical poets have also been poets of sense, and their work often simple as well as sensuous and passionate. Certainly the term is not meant to indicate any bounds limiting Mr. MacLeish's work but to suggest that pervading quality which, together with another, an Americanism that is the very antithesis of the popular one-hundred-per-cent variety, gives character to a body of work that is extraordinarily diversified.
Of Mr. MacLeish's peers in American poetry—and there are only two—Mr. Frost cultivates a fairly wide but a compact domain: his poetic realm does not include colonies; and the late Edwin Arlington Robinson, though he wandered farther in time and space than Mr. Frost does, and colonized in so far a region as that of King Arthur, yet disciplined his colonies strictly in terms of his own code. Both have been more or less men of one voice.
Mr. MacLeish on the other hand has...
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SOURCE: Van Ghent, Dorothy. “The Poetry of Archibald MacLeish.” Science & Society: A Marxian Quarterly 2, no. 4 (fall 1938): 500-11.
[In the following essay, Van Ghent presents a thematic overview of MacLeish's writing up to 1938, considering its concentration on metaphysical issues and human fate.]
MacLeish's first tentative poems were published by his university shortly after his entrance into the service during the World War. They were tentative, but they were stalwart in one theoretical position, and that was the poet's conviction that the ivory tower was the right place for him as an artist. The main poem in the book is written on the theme of Helen's apparition to Faustus, the antique symbol which, to the poet of the ivory tower, represents the only reality. MacLeish's latest book, printed in 1938, is a brief text written to accompany photographs taken largely from the collection of the Resettlement Administration, pictures of the ruined lands of the Middle West, of a scrawny child with deeply-ringed eyes packing shrimps in a Texas packing plant, of California migratory workers with spindle legs, swollen bellies, and faces starved and pinched into the least possible resemblance of human beings. The text is a simple statement of a social antinomy. By its clarity of apprehension it is also a call to arms. Reality for MacLeish has, during these twenty years, changed from a gilded Platonic...
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SOURCE: Mizener, Arthur. “The Poetry of Archibald MacLeish.” Sewanee Review, no. 46 (October 1938): 501-19.
[In the following essay, Mizener emphasizes the continuity of MacLeish's poetic work over time, despite shifts in the poet's emotional and philosophical responses to experience.]
The career of Archibald MacLeish has the appearance of having been a tortured series of unconnected allegiances. It is, after all, a long way from what Horace Gregory once called “the four-year illusion of supremacy at Yale” to the interest which lies behind “Pole Star for This Year”. It seems even longer when one stops to consider that it leads through the terrible and wonderful days of the exiles when the pages of transition were being filled with manifestoes on “The Revolution of the Word”; when Harry Crosby and Hemingway were drunk in the streets of Sargossa and “their mouths are hard they say que cosa”. MacLeish (“a few years older, but still affiliated with this present generation”) had not left Paris when Cowley, Josephson and the rest began issuing their blasts against the exiles (though still in the pages of transition), impressed by the fact that
'Tis said all poetry must and can Resolve the ways of God to Man. And yet when Ford or Morgan raise their face Poets paddle off to some french watering place.(1)
It seems an even longer way...
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SOURCE: Kohler, Dayton. “MacLeish and the Modern Temper.” South Atlantic Quarterly 38 (1939): 416-26.
[In the following essay, Kohler describes MacLeish as a “spokesman of the modern age” whose social poetry reaffirms the American ideal of human freedom.]
Archibald MacLeish has brought poetry back to the language of public speech, poetry that is once more a record of man's common fate. Written in an age of crisis, his work is an act of participation in the living world. For the problem of the modern writer is a search for the moral subject, one that will support a literature of belief and meaning, and relate that literature to the disordered life of our time. Nowhere is this search better illustrated than in the career of Archibald MacLeish. Step by step he has emerged from private association and the scholarly influences of his apprenticeship. Today his poems exhibit a craftsmanship of passion and intelligence. He has added his own intellectual equipment and the vigorous imagery of the present to the cultural tradition of the past, and the expression of his belief is an Americanism that goes beyond geographical or party loyalties.
For him the problem is also one of communication. Like all poets who have something to say, he has forged his own instrument of expression, and toward this end he has experimented daringly at times, attempting to enlarge the references of his themes...
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SOURCE: Waggoner, Hyall Howe. “Archibald MacLeish and the Aspect of Eternity.” College English 4, no. 7 (April 1943): 402-12.
[In the following essay, Waggoner explores the role of scientific thought in MacLeish's poetic representation of infinity and eternity.]
Since the time of Edward Taylor the chief philosophical problem for American poets has been the resolution of their beliefs in relation to the ever swelling current of positivistic naturalism. Responding to the insistent need of man to see himself and his life sub specie aeternitatis, our poets, from Bryant to MacLeish, have sought over and over to fit their intuitions into systems often too narrow or too vague to endure.
But the inadequacy of their metaphysics to make intelligible all the facets of experience and to satisfy all the demands of intuition has not removed the need for a system that would clarify the life of man as seen both in time and in eternity. In an age and a land predominantly secular, practical, and positivistic—an age and a land typified in Franklin, P. T. Barnam, and Edison rather than in Edwards, Emerson, and E. A. Robinson—they have endeavored to make their total experience intelligible by considering ultimate questions and answering them in terms of Calvinism, Nature, or the Divine Average. All our greater poets have wrestled with this problem, but the need of a satisfactory solution...
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SOURCE: Jarrell, Randall. Review of The Fall of the City, by Archibald MacLeish. Sewanee Review 51, no. 2 (April-June 1943): 267-80.
[In the following essay, Jarrell critiques MacLeish's political/allegorical radio play The Fall of the City, finding it riddled with inconsistencies and calling it a “melodramatic oversimplification.”]
Any successful play in verse—in a time when the phrase sounds like an Irish bull—is worth an analysis; and The Fall of the City has been extraordinarily successful. Almost anyone with a radio has heard it, almost anyone with an anthology has read it; even the college textbooks print it, with prefaces calling it a really topical play, one that has both comprehended and predicted the actual history of our times. “Pioneering in a new medium, the verse play for radio, MacLeish foretold the fate of Vienna by eleven months,” one editor writes; “Prague, Warsaw, Oslo, Amsterdam, Paris—the play was repeated with tragic variations.” But if this is so, The Fall of the City is exactly what everyone has been wanting—a good poetic drama about contemporary reality; Poetry and Drama and Society, miserably separated for so many ages, have at last been reunited. How has it been done?
The play begins with the “orotund and professional” voice of the Studio Director. After the conventional “Ladies and gentlemen: / This...
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SOURCE: Whittemore, Reed. “MacLeish and Democratic Pastoral.” Sewanee Review 61, no. 4 (October-December 1953): 700-09.
[In the following review of Collected Poems, 1917-1952, Whittemore highlights the pastoral element in MacLeish's poetry.]
Archibald MacLeish's Collected Poems, 1917-1952 contains perhaps eighty poems written since the publication of his earlier volume of collected poems (1924-1933). It also contains twelve poems written in the period covered by the earlier volume though not to be found in that volume, and several pre-1924 poems that, in 1933, MacLeish presumably thought of as juvenilia. Conversely only one poem, “Insomnia” (a poor poem), is to be found in the 1933 volume and not in the new one, so clearly the new volume gives a much more complete account of MacLeish's activities than the old. That it does not include his wartime radio verse plays (Air Raid, etc.) is a fact I can't bring myself to worry about, since his long-poem ventures are amply represented otherwise by everything, that I know of, from The Pot of Earth to The Trojan Horse.
In the old volume MacLeish asserted at the outset that “this book is not a ‘collected edition’ of my poems nor does it purport to trace my development as a poet.” In the new volume he asserted nothing, but I think I can safely say that it is a collected edition and that it does...
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SOURCE: Christensen, Parley A. “J. B., the Critics, and Me.” Western Humanities Review 15, no. 2 (spring 1961): 111-26.
[In the following essay, Christensen considers critical reaction to MacLeish's verse play J. B. and defends the work from its detractors.]
The publication a few years ago of J. B., a play in verse by Archibald MacLeish, was generally regarded as a literary event of exceptional importance. The critical reception of the play was warm, even laudatory. A critic of recognized stature called it “the play of the century.” Another said, “It may well become one of the lasting achievements of the art and mind of our time.” It drew a Tony citation and a Pulitzer award. Revised and adapted to production in the theater, it was successfully staged at home and abroad. Though pronounced too big for Broadway, it played there for many months to capacity houses. Posing as it does an age-old problem in religion, and drawing its inspiration from the Bible, it immediately challenged the attention of church, synagogue, and seminary. Eminent theologians, Protestant, Jewish, and Catholic, expressed with eloquence and vehemence varying degrees of pain and pleasure.
Much of the critical response was paradoxical. While agreeing quite generally on the excellence of J. B. as a poem and a play, the critics, literary and theological, disagreed quite sharply as...
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SOURCE: Sickels, Eleanor M. “MacLeish and the Fortunate Fall.” American Literature 35, no. 2 (May 1963): 205-17.
[In the following essay, Sickels tracks MacLeish's use of the Christian theme of the Fortunate Fall in his poetry, especially in Songs for Eve and the verse play J. B.]
Archibald MacLeish first treated the myth of the lost Paradise in the verse play Nobodaddy, which appeared in 1926. Though the fact that it was never reprinted argues that he came to consider this play unsatisfactory either in idea or in technique, it is a revealing expression of his mood in the mid-twenties, serving in particular as a companion piece to The Pot of Earth, written in the same period, in which he uses the pagan myth of the dying and resurrected fertility god to question the meaning of a girl's life absorbed and snuffed out in service to survival of the race. In the Foreword to Nobodaddy MacLeish says that he is using the myth not as metaphor but solely as a dramatic presentation of the plight of human consciousness in an indifferent universe, without anthropological implications.1 It is hard, however, to see how this use differs from metaphor, or from the reinterpretation of myth widely practiced from time immemorial. At all events, Nobodaddy, though not to be taken as identical with Yahweh, is here the nature god, aloof and incomprehensible,...
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SOURCE: Sullivan, Harry R. “MacLeish's ‘Ars Poetica’.” English Journal 56, no. 9 (December 1967): 1280-83.
[In the following essay, Sullivan explicates MacLeish's paradoxical poem “Ars Poetica,” viewing it as “a rarity among poems on the art of poetry.”]
Archibald MacLeish's “Ars Poetica” comes close to being the anthology piece of his poetry. It is also read aloud by the author in An Album of Modern Poetry as recorded for the Library of Congress. In 1946 Professor Donald A. Stauffer very excellently discussed this poem in The Nature of Poetry. Since it has become so familiar to students and since it does so remarkably image rather than define its author's conception of what a poem itself should be, a still closer examination into its specific symbolism and its tightly woven structure seems justifiable.
The poem is much more than an allusion-studded, cryptic collage or a painfully calculated, intellectual crossword puzzle. It is as cryptic as it needs must be, yet neither tortured nor willfully obscure. Its imagery is closely assimilated into the several related paradoxes of the poet's own conception of an organically unified poem. It is, in short, gratifyingly what it purports to be.
A poem should be palpable and mute As a globed fruit,
Dumb As old medallions to the thumb,
Silent as the sleeve-worn stone...
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SOURCE: Smith, Grover. “Archibald MacLeish.” In Seven American Poets from MacLeish to Nemerov: An Introduction, edited by Denis Donoghue, pp. 16-54. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1975.
[In the following excerpt, Smith offers an in-depth survey of MacLeish's poetry from his earliest verse to 1968's The Wild Old Wicked Man, focusing principally on subject and theme.]
… When MacLeish assembled his Collected Poems 1917-1952, he conformed to usual practice in suppressing most of the early work; but as one examines the early poems they are seen to relate, in various and sometimes contradictory ways, to his mature verse. The first volumes, Songs for a Summer's Day (1915) and Tower of Ivory (1917), display a lively interest in verse forms as such. The former contains sonnets only; but the latter includes, as well, a number of stanzaic exercises and one precocious dramatic piece, “Our Lady of Troy” (which, despite a Swinburnean promise in its title, is akin rhetorically to Jonson's humor plays). The sonnets in Tower of Ivory show the inevitable debt to Shakespeare; some of them, the best indeed, could only have derived from the “soldier” sonnets of Rupert Brooke. What is more significant, they imply a taste and probably a need for strict formal boundaries within which to manipulate tone, music, imagery, and argument. A few Keatsian couplets (in “A...
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SOURCE: Carruth, Hayden. Review of New and Collected Poems, 1917-1976, by Archibald MacLeish. Virginia Quarterly Review 53, no. 1 (winter 1977): 146-54.
[In the following review of New and Collected Poems, 1917-1976, Carruth lauds MacLeish's overall work as a poet while devoting particular attention to his epic Conquistador.]
Almost 60 years of poetry in just under 500 pages, this new book by Mr. MacLeish [New and Collected Poems, 1917-1976]. Think of it. On this account alone, though many poems have been omitted, especially from the early years, it is a remarkable accomplishment, an honorable and exemplary accomplishment, as it is on other accounts as well. Mind, I write as a fellow poet, no pretence of a view sub specie aeternitatis, which would be impossible anyway in the world as it looks today. Or tomorrow. Yet I do lay claim to the degree of objectivity that professionalism—no, no, no, not those terms! All wrong, and they smack of a discredited philosophy. Let's say I lay claim only to the sympathetic but realistic understanding of problems, triumphs, and defeats that long practice confers. And then let's say I also am very pleased to belong (if I do) to the company that includes Archibald MacLeish, the ancient company of poets. By virtue of many presences, but not least by virtue of his, it is a company not only honorable but intelligent, gifted, perceptive, and...
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SOURCE: Siegel, Robert. Review of New and Collected Poems, 1917-1976, by Archibald MacLeish. Poetry 130, no. 2 (May 1977): 102-14.
[In the following excerpted review of New and Collected Poems, 1917-1976, Siegel forms a list of MacLeish's most enduring works of poetry.]
The New and Collected Poems of Archibald MacLeish contains 493 pages of poetry chosen from eighteen volumes (not including the dramas) and covering fifty-nine years of a career practically coeval with the modern period. MacLeish has been involved with nearly every phase of American poetic and political life of that period. Every high school junior (at least before the scores declined) puzzled over “Ars Poetica” and the meaning of the famous lines, “A poem should not mean / But be.” What is a reviewer to do besides celebrate such an event?
To begin, he may remind the reader of the obvious: MacLeish is often, if not consistently, the most brilliant of craftsmen, the most musical of lyrists, the most protean of voices, even to the self-confessedly imitative. The Collected Poems are well-chosen to represent a poet by turns lyrical, dramatic, elegiac, hortatory, satirical, philosophical romantic, classical, colloquial, elegant, vague, and painstakingly lucid. It is in hope of identifying what is most permanent here that I invoked Emerson and the loosely defined “tradition” that is more...
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SOURCE: Cavanagh, Michael. “The Problems of Modern Epic: MacLeish's Conquistador.” Papers on Language & Literature 17, no. 3 (summer 1981): 292-306.
[In the following essay, Cavanagh analyzes MacLeish's effort to compose a Modernist epic poem in Conquistador.]
Since its publication and Pulitzer award in 1932, MacLeish's Conquistador has been neglected by critics, a neglect that seems increasingly unreasonable as commentary on a few other long poems grows almost daily. The Waste Land, Four Quartets, The Bridge, The Cantos, Paterson, Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction: apparently there exists something resembling a canon of modern long poems, which in a way is a sad and premature phenomenon. In attending to these poems, we have slighted other equally ambitious and interesting long poems from which we still have something to learn. Conquistador has been neglected for a number of reasons. From the beginning, the poem's critics have misconstrued it a Poundian or Eliotic poem—in other words, as a rather derivative 1920s poem that happens to appear in 1932. Some critics, moreover, have found the poem difficult to understand. For example, Grover Smith finds that the poem offers its readers only “an unrelieved sense of total confusion.”1 Allen Tate praises the poem's technical accomplishments, but finds it likewise “void” of meaning.2 Above all, no...
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SOURCE: Walters, Thomas N. “A Look at Selected New Lyric Poems by Archibald MacLeish.” In The Proceedings of the Archibald MacLeish Symposium, May 7-8 1982, edited by Bernard A. Drabeck, Helen E. Ellis, and Seymour Rudin, pp. 28-35. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1988.
[In the following essay, originally delivered as a speech in 1982, Walters praises MacLeish's mastery of the impassioned and human lyric.]
What I mean by love is … the kind of relationship which gives itself in praise and wonder and awe … something that is beyond the reach of the imagination to understand, and … worth believing in.
The Dialogues of Archibald MacLeish and Mark Van Doren
In his Poetry and Experience MacLeish quoted from Lu Chi's “Fu” concerning the poet's art, citing these words: “We poets struggle with Non-being to force it to yield Being; / We knock upon silence for an answering music. / We enclose boundless space in a square foot of paper; / We pour out deluge from the inch space of the heart.”
Those words impress with their eloquent power. And the quotation serves well as an adopted credo remarkably significant for the influence it had upon MacLeish's achievement as poet. Well known is how MacLeish met the often harsh demands of his roles as man, husband, father, lawyer, professor, as...
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SOURCE: Ellis, Helen E. “MacLeish and the Nature of Woman.” In The Proceedings of the Archibald MacLeish Symposium, May 7-8 1982, edited by Bernard A. Drabeck, Helen E. Ellis, and Seymour Rudin, pp. 88-95. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1988.
[In the following essay, originally presented as a lecture in 1982, Ellis discusses MacLeish's poetic rendering of the nature of women as closer to the “truly true” than the nature of man.]
Edward Mullaly points out in his introduction to Six Plays that at the center of MacLeish's work is “an exploration of the nature of man.” Mr. Mullaly, of course, means to include women in that word “man” and thus to say that Mr. MacLeish's work explores the nature of the human. Mr. MacLeish himself frequently uses the word in the same sense, implying that men and women share certain traits that are uniquely human. His exploration of human nature seems to me to concentrate particularly on what are perhaps the quintessential experiences shared by all human beings: awareness of life and death, symbolized in Songs for Eve by the green and dry trees; awareness of self and the other, recognized in the same work by Adam, who “sees / His own two hands … / His flesh, his bone and … / Knows himself, and is”; and, third, awareness of love.
Since these three experiences are shared by both men and women, they raise several...
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SOURCE: Pritchard, William H. “MacLeish Revisited.” Poetry 141, no. 5 (February 1983): 291-301.
[In the following essay, Pritchard illuminates the qualities of MacLeish's character that inform his poetry.]
Archibald MacLeish died last April just as he was about to be honored on his ninetieth birthday by a large gathering at Greenfield Community College (near the MacLeish home in Conway, Massachusetts) to which he had given his papers. His death prompted few attempts on anyone's part at revaluating his achievement as a poet, or even at thinking twice about his career as, preeminently, America's elder statesman of poetry. Increasingly since the death of Frost in 1963 he had played the role of America's poet laureate without portfolio. If Richard M. Nixon requested a poem from him on the occasion of the moon landing of 1969, MacLeish, a lifelong Democrat, courteously obliged; after all, the President in his inaugural address a few months previously had already quoted from his poem about the Apollo Eight mission. He was equally ready to celebrate the city of Boston (with “Night Watch in the City of Boston”) at the behest of a Bicentennial committee in 1976. There has scarcely been a poet of this century more ready to write poems employing public speech in the services of saluting heroism, political commitment, sacrifice in the service of some high ideal. And MacLeish's just published Letters...
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SOURCE: Lane, Lauriat, Jr. “‘Intimate Immensity’: On the Poetics of Space in MacLeish's Einstein.” Canadian Review of American Studies 14, no. 1 (spring 1983): 19-29.
[In the following essay, Lane analyzes the spatial imagery and dialectic pattern of MacLeish's long poem Einstein.]
In 1926 Archibald MacLeish included in part two, “Several Shadows of a Skull,” of Streets in the Moon, one longer poem, Einstein.1 Published separately three years later,2Einstein has been included in every collection of MacLeish's poetry since.3 Twice it was gathered with other longer poems in a separate section; in the latest edition it is placed chronologically with the other poems of the 1920s. It has been anthologized in a few collections of American poetry.4 But it has not, to my knowledge, received extended critical attention. Nor has it been fully appreciated for what it is: both one of MacLeish's most distinguished longer poems and one of the most distinguished longer American poems of this century.
The title and part of the approach of this paper come from Gaston Bachelard, who discusses “intimate immensity” in the eighth chapter of The Poetics of Space in terms strikingly close to the procedures of MacLeish's poem.5 For Bachelard, “immensity is a philosophical category...
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SOURCE: Lane, Lauriat, Jr. “MacLeish at Work: Versions of ‘Bleheris’.” English Studies in Canada 13, no. 1 (March 1987): 79-90.
[In the following essay, Lane investigates MacLeish's revisions of the tale of the Grail knight Bleheris in his The Hamlet of A. MacLeish.]
By 1926 Archibald MacLeish had left well behind both his career as one of Boston's promising young lawyers and the later Victorian/E. A. Robinsonian poetry of his The Happy Marriage and Other Poems (1924). In 1923 he had moved with his family to Paris; in 1925 he had published his first wholly successful major poem, The Pot of Earth, and earlier in 1926 his first major collection, Streets in the Moon, which included Einstein. A year later, December 1927, Houghton Mifflin was to accept The Hamlet of A. MacLeish.
Formally and thematically The Hamlet of A. MacLeish is more ambiguous and complex than either The Pot of Earth or Einstein. Including MacLeish's Hamlet among his evidence, Leslie Fiedler gives four reasons why the story of Hamlet appeals to the American literary imagination: (1) “anguish and melancholy,” (2) “the notion of suicide,” (3) “the inhibitory nature of conscience,” and (4) “an oddly apt parable of our relationship to Europe.”1 In the fourteen contrapuntal parts of his sequence MacLeish expresses these general concerns...
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SOURCE: Stout, Janis P. “Re-Visions of Job: J. B. and ‘A Masque of Reason’.” Essays in Literature 14, no. 2 (fall 1987): 225-39.
[In the following essay, Stout compares MacLeish's verse play J. B. and Robert Frost's dramatic poem “A Masque of Reason” as modern re-compositions of the biblical Book of Job.]
The hurrahs were repeated, drowning the faint organ notes. Jude's face changed more: he whispered slowly, his parched lips scarcely moving:
‘Let the day perish wherein I was born, and the night in which it was said, There is a man child conceived.’
—Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure
The Book of Job is one of those monumental texts that evoke allusions in great numbers, so that we seem to encounter them at every turn, from Herman Melville to Neil Simon.1 Thomas Carlyle pronounced it unsurpassed by anything either in the Bible or outside it. All this might not at first seem surprising, when one considers that Job raises the most profoundly evocative of questions and of necessity leaves them shrouded in mystery, inviting further questioning. Yet, on closer examination, the stature of Job is puzzling. The story of a pious man who loses everything and then,...
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SOURCE: Barber, David. “In Search of an ‘Image of Mankind’: The Public Poetry and Prose of Archibald MacLeish.” American Studies 29 (fall 1988): 31-56.
[In the following essay, Barber probes the strong social and public component of MacLeish's poetry, charting its development particularly over the period from 1930 to 1945.]
In the course of that long migration they had come of age as a people. They had conceived a good idea of themselves; they had dared to imagine and determine who they were.
—N. Scott Momaday, The Way to Rainy Mountain1
In 1931 Archibald MacLeish conceived a goal which he never afterward abandoned, though his idea of how to accomplish it changed: to identify or generate a vision for humanity, a motivating “image of mankind in which men can again believe.”2 This image, both in its American and its worldwide versions, would express and thereby advance democracy, cultural coherence, “brotherhood,” and human potential.
Who could accomplish this daunting task? MacLeish's various answers correspond closely to the activities of his own multiple career. Primarily he thought of himself as a poet, and his first hope was always that through poetry or other forms of art the needed cultural vision would come. But he also worked as a journalist. He wrote for Henry...
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SOURCE: Blum, John Morton. “Archibald MacLeish: Art for Action.” Yale Review 81, no. 2 (April 1993): 106-33.
[In the following essay, Blum recounts MacLeish's literary and political career, stressing the poet's liberalism and belief in democracy.]
Art encompassed experience: so believed Archibald MacLeish; and since politics was part of experience, art encompassed politics. On the contrary, politics encompassed art: so contended the Fascists and Communists of the 1930s and their spiritual successors who used the power of the state to brutalize art and artists. MacLeish condemned them for what they thought and what they did. He also exhorted his fellow American artists to abandon their posture of political neutrality and accept the responsibility of art for action. Only action would protect the freedom of the individual and of the states that nurtured that freedom from the attacks of the new barbarians ravaging Europe in 1940. Later MacLeish again exhorted Americans, artists not the least, to protect their tradition of freedom from the barbarians among their countrymen who were ravaging the politics of democracy in the postwar decades. As MacLeish saw it, a poet had no other choice. A responsible artist, a man or a woman of letters, had to be a man or a woman of action.
MacLeish, who was born in 1892 and lived to be ninety, reached that conclusion before his fortieth year. Then and...
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Zabel, Morton Dauwen. “The Poet on Capitol Hill.” Partisan Review 8, no. 1 (January-February 1941): 2-19.
Recounts the events of MacLeish's public career as chairman of the antifascist League of American Writers in the 1930s.
French, Warren. “‘That Never Realized, Never Abandoned Dream’.” Pembroke Magazine, no. 7 (1976): 123-31.
Claims that MacLeish's work has been generally under-appreciated by critics before surveying his radio dramas in verse The Fall of the City and This Music Crept by Me upon the Waters.
Gish, Nancy K. Review of Poetry and Experience, by Archibald MacLeish. Pembroke Magazine, no. 7 (1976): 52-6.
Summarizes the central tenets of MacLeish's theory of poetic composition contained in his Poetry and Experience.
Hamilton, Kenneth. “The Patience of J. B.” Dalhousie Review 41, no. 1 (spring 1961): 32-9.
Disparages the “romantic humanism” of MacLeish's verse drama J. B., arguing that it fails to adequately suit the religious realism of the biblical Book of Job, on which the work is based.
Heyen, William. “The Courage to Be: Archibald MacLeish.” Pembroke Magazine, no. 7 (1976): 39-47.
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