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.