Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“House on a Cliff” is a poem about the human condition and, more specifically, the perceptions of that condition in the twentieth century. MacNeice came of age as a poet in the 1930’s when the ideas of thinkers such as Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, and Karl Marx were beginning to gain widespread acceptance. Darwin, with his book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, published in 1859, had undermined faith in the biblical account of creation. Freud had posited the existence of the unconscious, a part of the mind ruled largely by drives for sex and power. Marx, in Das Kapital (1867, 1885, 1894; translated 1886, 1907, 1909) and Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei (1848; The Communist Manifesto, 1850) had described a purely materialistic world in which change was driven by struggle between different economic classes. MacNeice realized the importance of these thinkers for his own time. In an earlier poem, “Autumn Journal,” he called Marx and Freud “The figure-heads of our transition.”

By the time “House on a Cliff” was written, the universe in which many had come to believe was both much older and much larger than previously thought. Suddenly, many people doubted that God had created the universe or, if He had, that He had much to do with its day-to-day operation. Doubts about the existence of God crop up in a number of other poems by MacNeice, such as “The Blasphemies” and “London...

(The entire section is 521 words.)