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Louis MacNeice

Louis MacNeice Essay - MacNeice, (Frederick) Louis

MacNeice, (Frederick) Louis


MacNeice, (Frederick) Louis 1907–1963

An Irish-born English poet, critic, translator, playwright, radio scriptwriter, and novelist, MacNeice was connected with the left-wing literary movement of Auden and his circle in the 1930s. He was much praised for the fine sensory and visual qualities of his poems. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 4.)

T. Brown

MacNeice's interest in allegory and dream is most developed in his series of Clark lectures which comprise Varieties of Parable. This work is a broad survey of allegorical writing in English. A sensitive book, perhaps its most interesting aspect is its treatment of modern allegory, since this throws light on some of the poet's own experiments in the form…. MacNeice sees allegory as the exploration of an image, the creation of a 'special world' with a relationship of meaning to the real. Traditionally this relationship was fairly simple—image embodied concepts familiar to most readers, while the image was comprehensible to them since it received its significance from cultural authority, as, for instance, Bunyan's imaginative world in Pilgrim's Progress depends for its meaning upon the received cultural and doctrinal traditions of Puritan religion. With cultural pluralism the situation, as MacNeice sees it, becomes much more complex. Allegory and parable become much less didactically clear, since the poet has no accepted tradition of concepts and related imagery within which he can work…. By comparison with traditional allegory the modern parable is ambiguous, obscure. Its relationship with reality is conceptually vague…. The meaning of modern parable, the structuring and ordering of the work is, according to [MacNeice's] view, implicit within the work itself, not imposed upon it from beyond itself. The meaning is not imposed from without, by a necessarily ordered, meaningful reality, or by an intellectual system. The writer of a modern parable explores an image, creates a special world, self-consistent, yet tantalizingly without simple conceptual meaning. His 'conceit' is indeed a 'dark' one.

Throughout MacNeice's poetic career and particularly since about 1940, poems appear which have to be understood [as MacNeice suggests we understand the modern parable]…. They explore an image that ambiguously suggests a relationship of meaning to our world, but they do not make it explicit…. [In 'Order to View', for example, there is] a peculiarly unreal atmosphere. There is a strange fusion between subjective and objective experience as there is in a trance or delirium…. It is a special landscape, an image explored, a new disturbing world which we must attempt to interpret. Another poem of this semi-allegorical nature is 'The rest house'. This also opens in a haunting, dreamlike landscape: 'The thick night fell, the folding table unfolded …' The scene is nightmarishly alive, objects have an unpleasant, spontaneous life of their own. The description which follows: 'The hissing lamp had hypnotised the lizards / That splayed their baby hands on the wired window.' is particularly suggestive of nightmare experience. This seems to be no natural landscape, but an inner...

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'The Pale Panther' is one of the 'thumbnail nightmares', as MacNeice called them, in his last collection, The Burning Perch. It is not only one of the most terrible of the nightmares, but also one in which the mood of bleak despair is not balanced by any of his old sardonic optimism (though there is bitter wit), or any of the stoical determination of, say, his last-published poem, 'Thalassa', with its courageous message:

            Our end is Life. Put out to sea.

Our end is anything but Life in 'The Pale Panther'. Worse, it is not even Death.

MacNeice confessed he was 'taken aback by the high proportion of sombre pieces' in this collection, but could only say that 'they happened'…. If he was the spokesman for the '30's in ['An Eclogue for Christmas'], he was no less the spokesman for the '60's in 'The Pale Panther' and similar poems. (pp. 388-89)

I should like to glance at a useful comment of MacNeice's about what he called the 'properties' and the 'images' in a poem, especially in relation to their symbolic role, since the word 'image' has been upsetting some people almost as much as the word 'symbol'. In his chapter on imagery in Modern Poetry he wrote:

The properties are the objects which enter a poem by their own right, as flowers enter a poem about a garden, whereas the images enter a poem by right of analogy, as flowers entered Plato's descriptions of his mystical and abstract Heaven. But, conversely, the properties themselves may be, in the ultimate analysis, only symbols. Was, for example, Wordsworth's celandine really all celandine and nothing but celandine?

Now, in 'Experiences with Images' MacNeice warned that in some of his poems the images 'carry the weight of dream or of too direct an experience', and so 'will require from the reader something more—or less—than reason'. As 'The Pale Panther' is obviously very much a poem of this kind, where property and image merge into each other, and celandine is anything but just celandine, I hope I may use expressions like 'image', 'symbol' or 'emblem' without arousing hostility.

There is no image in this poem that is not pulling its load of double meaning. Several of these are favourite emblems of MacNeice's in contexts where he is dealing with similar themes. The poem is dominated, for instance, not by the pale panther and its death-spring so much as by the sun, that Heraclitean emblem of renewal, so dear to MacNeice from the start. (One must of course assume, though in emblematic rather than strictly visual terms, that the sun is the pale panther.) Above the elaborate interplay of images hangs the sun—pale and lifeless in the first stanza, the morning sun of a 'late and lamented / Spring', too weak and too late to renew the present dying cycle of creation; blazing at noon in the second stanza, but in a blaze of death, stirring to life only the death-dealing microbes; low on the horizon in the third, casting the long shadows of evening, not giving enough light to continue play. Thus it binds the poem, in terms both of structure and theme.

The sun not only dominates the poem, but is integrally connected with almost all the other images…. The untamable black panther had already represented elsewhere 'the brute Other', uncontrollable destiny, as he explained in 'Experiences with Images'. In 'Coal and Fire', in his first collection, Blind Fireworks, it was a 'coal-black sphinx', identified both with the blazing flames and with riddling, inscrutable destiny; and in 'Homage to Clichés' it was dreaded as the irresistible, impending movement of fate. MacNeice's mood in these poems was, in the first, excited acceptance of destiny and its puzzle, and, in the second, awe and dread, mingled with a thrill of apprehension. Now that the panther has made its threatened spring, it seems to have become, like the sun, old and weak…. The prevailing mood in the first stanza is 'too late': destiny should have struck sooner, when we were fit for death, before we had declined to the bleak, dim end of our generative cycle. This is the sense in which, in 'After the Crash', it was 'too late to die', and in which, in 'Charon', the ferryman said coldly, 'If you want to die you will have to pay for it'. (pp. 389-91)

This first landscape has the wavering physical aspect of a modern zoo, but its property/images, the ribs (of the cages), the giraffe-necked lamp posts, the (animal) excrement, the discarded newspapers, the tiny tractor, the fence (electrified or not), might just as well be the features of any unspecific industrial conurbation, or, more specifically, airport, or defence installation. They are the endlessly adaptable, because undifferentiated and colourless (even if, in the case of the electric fence, restrictive and forbidding) features of the landscape in which modern man, and the animal creation he dominates and corrupts, have their being. (pp. 391-92)

The cause of the slow-down, and then the full-stop, in our cycle of creation that MacNeice tirelessly emphasized was the familiar one that we have sought knowledge without understanding. There is no wisdom behind our technological skill, which is, moreover, quite unreliable as a skill: the stalled engine, caused by incompetent or absent-minded manipulation, is also used in other poems—for instance...

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Samuel Hynes

MacNeice had always been the least political writer of his generation, and his play [Out of the Picture] articulates a mood of the time unaffected by political ideas. The main plot-line concerns an indigent painter named Portright, whose only completed picture, 'Venus Rising', is seized by bailiffs for debts and auctioned off to a film star. Portright represents the artist and the individualist, and his painting, and Moll, the model for it, stand for art, love, and life. The film star and her psychoanalyst-adviser are the other side—society's parasitical life-deniers, the locus of money and power.

In these terms the play is simply another version (rather a conventional one) of the...

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