MacLeish, Archibald 1892–
An American poet, playwright, and editor, MacLeish is a man of eclectic achievements and has been involved in literature, art, government, and other facets of American cultural life. Often focusing on political topics in his work, MacLeish is, as James Southworth says, "not political in the party sense of the word, but in its larger connotation of the problem of man's relation to society." MacLeish's thematic concerns also encompass nature, love, and reminiscences. He has won three Pulitzer Prizes. (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
The past is a living creature with a talent for seeming stable at particular moments. The use of an old myth today may provide a scaffold for contemporary feelings and ideas. It may offer a form, capable of any degree of solidity, for the most abstract subject. Mr. MacLeish in his play, Nobodaddy, deals with "the dramatic situation which the condition of self-consciousness in an indifferent universe" seems to present. For his scaffold he has arbitrarily employed certain incidents in the myth of Eden. He has made an intense and very "modern" poem out of his theme, even though he has chosen blank verse as his method. There is of course no argument, no discussion, in the play; these are attitudes presented with the force of poetry, not ideas demonstrated by logic.
Nobodaddy was the name Blake used for the god of jealousy and reason, for the god of this world, the devil. Presumably, Nobodaddy is here also the human self-consciousness. (p. 339)
From the entry of Abel to the end of the play amid rain and thunder, the drama is real in the finest sense. The action results from the conditions given, and the words rise out of the action and have themselves the force and density of physical movement. (pp. 340-41)
But Eve was ill-served in this play. She was the source of both Cain and Abel; surely the pattern of the play demanded that Eve at the last should connect, or understand, the terrifying...
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Mr. MacLeish has a weakness for the large subject; he finds convenient fairways in the major myths; previous works of his have rehandled the material of Hamlet and of the Book of Job. In [Herakles] he is at one with many or most 20th-century poets…. Mr. MacLeish has certainly made it a central part of his business to "manipulate a continuous parallel" between the immemorial and the modern…. But I must admit that the grounds of his considerable success are, for the most part, opaque to me. I cannot understand why The Hamlet of A. MacLeish was ever taken with much seriousness…. His epic, Conquistador, is hardly any more readable than the general run of long narrative poems in our time, which means virtually that it is not readable at all. His most successful verse play, J.B., had a good run in the theatre, and I can only assume that it had some sort of theatrical vitality that made it worth watching; but on the page it is so disastrously inferior to the original as to be positively agonizing. I think if I were to spend an evening in the theatre following the story of Job, I would rather have someone come on to the stage, open the Bible and just read the story aloud; it is one of the greatest works of literature, quite arguably the greatest, and in MacLeish's treatment of it, as in his treatment of Hamlet, one has the uncomfortable sensation of watching the original "stiffen in a rented house."
In spite of all this, a new work by MacLeish is always worth...
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[My] rereading of MacLeish's poems in [New and Collected Poems, 1917–1976] has reaffirmed my admiration and has shown me excellences I had overlooked before. Above all I see a devotion to excellence in general, artistic excellence, which means not simply the excellence of craft but that of mind and heart, perhaps especially that of mind and heart. MacLeish began, like most other poets in the period of World War I, with more or less conventional, Georgian verses, but quickly fell under the influence of Eliot. Is that right? Was there a direct influence? (I am not a student of biographies.) Did Herrick write like Jonson because Jonson told him to or because that was the only way he could write—he and many others—with the example of Jonson before him? Certainly we know, with the example of "The Waste Land" (1923) before them, what American and British poets did, scores and hundreds of them who had no more acquaintance of His Grace than the look of his verses on the page (and who would have actively disliked him if they'd met). We know what MacLeish did…. The echoes [of Eliot] are unmistakable, cadences, modulations of sound, syntactical patterns…. One is distracted by these echoes at first, even irritated by them, but as one reads further, with closer attention to what MacLeish himself was doing, one comes to see—at least I have—that although the whole impact is slighter—yes, still, 50 years later; one is bound to acknowledge it—nevertheless MacLeish's poems contain passages better than anything Eliot ever wrote, more lucid, better integrated, with a more sensitive judgment of the qualities of diction: in short, in the manner, unquestionably, but not as mannered. It is the achievement of a very intelligent craftsman, and not many were able to do it.
With Einstein (1929) and New Found Land (1930), MacLeish began to hear his own voice more surely, a discovery coinciding more or less with his return to the U.S. after the years of expatriation. It came to full flower with Conquistador (1933). We know its characteristics, the faint rhymes, the falling line-breaks and sudden enjambments, the heavy reliance on connectives, the mixture of rough pentameters and hexameters and sometimes shorter lines. (pp. 147-49)
What to say of Conquistador, that splendid poem? One can hardly imagine a more compelling theme for our time, the conquest of Mexico, the confrontation between Cortés and Montezuma, those great men, incorporating everything we have...
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MacLeish's The Great American Fourth of July Parade is subtitled A Verse Play for Radio. It is a public speech to be broadcast—MacLeish's contribution to the bicentennial. It marks a return to a mode and to an obsessive theme. The mode was poetic drama for radio…. The obsessive theme, of course, is America…. [In his thirties poems such] as Frescoes for Mr. Rockefeller's City, Land of the Free and America Was Promises, and in Colloquy for the States (1943) MacLeish agonizes over the dark fields of the republic. The agony has become excited reverie in The Great American Fourth of July Parade—promises forty or 200 years after. To Jefferson's characteristically sanguine "A sovereign people never can despair," Adams, foreknowing Watergate, can respond
Even a sovereign people that's no longer sovereign?
Even a sovereign people that has learned
its servants have become its masters?
That those who govern, govern for themselves?
A knave in office and a palace guard of fools?…
MacLeish has already lived longer than Jefferson; may their common dream live long beyond them. (pp. 348-50)
James K. Robinson, "Sassenachs, Palefaces, and a Redskin: Graves, Auden, MacLeish, Hollander, Wagoner, and Others," in The Southern Review (copyright, 1978, by James K. Robinson), Vol. 14, No. 2, April, 1978, pp. 348-58.∗
The danger in reading a poet's prose is that one can too easily be swayed by sounds and syntax, forgetting that words must make sense, too. Fortunately, Archibald MacLeish's passion extends to meaning as well and, for the most part, what he has to say in [Riders on the Earth: Essays and Recollections] is worth listening to. In the first part of the book, he discusses from an intensely humanistic point-of-view subjects as various as Thomas Jefferson, the place of science in our lives, and contemporary fiction's flirtation with the absurd. The rest of the book is composed primarily of short autobiographical pieces, where the poet is at his most revealing and, consequently, his most entertaining, and brief...
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Ten years ago Archibald MacLeish published a prose collection called A Continuing Journey; it was a public book, addresses and essays on topics ranging from literary theory to the fate of the nation. Now he has published a new prose collection, Riders on the Earth; this one is a private book, filled with MacLeish's reminiscences, meditations, and convictions. They reveal behind the fine mind a generous spirit.
There are two kinds of essays here. In the more formal ones MacLeish examines the course of humanism in the last decade and makes a case for its future. In the others he discusses, fondly but with unsoftened clarity, his own past and the lives and careers of some of his friends...
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