Archibald MacLeish MacLeish, Archibald (Vol. 3) - Essay

MacLeish, Archibald (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

MacLeish, Archibald 1892–

MacLeish, a much-honored American poet, has been awarded three Pulitzer Prizes. A lyric poet with an epic imagination, MacLeish's themes are large in scope. His verse drama, J.B., was both a Broadway play and a best-seller. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Many persons are inclined to look upon Mr. MacLeish as the Joseph Addison of the New Deal. Such an attitude focuses attention on one small phase of his work, and that the least important from the point of view of his stature as a poet.

It is true that his most insistent subject is political, but he is not political in the party sense of the word, but in its larger connotation of the problem of man's relation to society. Other subjects, however, are equally important from the point of view of his survival as a poet. These are the subjects that concern every poet at some stage of his poetic life: autobiographic reminiscences, love, nature, the consciousness of and attempted solution of his aesthetic problems, and miscellaneous subjects. A better insight into his treatment of his materials would be their grouping as nostalgic, contemplative, and active; or into poems of feeling and poems of the intellect. But to divide into compartments is to abstract and deprive….

Although inclined to believe that nothing is at the end of the world, the poet realizes the impossibility of running away from life. But does he find some meaning to life in this complex world? He is aware of the waste land, he is unable to accept traditional religion, and he senses that we can never know ourselves. We must learn, then, to accept life without understanding it. The resolution of the conflicting elements one constantly encounters not only presents a problem to the poet, but is a resolution not often solved. Mr. MacLeish attempts it in 'The Hamlet of A. MacLeish,' inspired, I believe, by his awareness of Shakespeare's solution of a similar contemporary problem in his Hamlet….

His earliest poems are in every respect traditional in the manner of the Georgians, particularly Rupert Brooke, of whom there are innumerable echoes. This is to be expected since Brooke was at the height of his popularity in 1915 and 1916, particularly at Yale. The diction, imagery, and verse-patterns of this early work have little originality; at best they reveal a sensitive ear. In the work of the immediate post-war years and, in fact, until fairly recently, Mr. MacLeish attempted to give greater strength to his verse in the same way as the novelists like Hemingway and Dos Passos—by the use of strong Anglo-Saxon four- or five-letter words. He uses these words, however, with a self-conscious air and calls attention to them in a manner that one would not do in whose vocabulary they are at home. Instead, therefore, of these words investing the poem with greater masculinity, they have the opposite effect. On the whole, however, his vocabulary is simple and direct and becomes increasingly so in his later work….

Many influences are evident in his work. That of Mr. T. S. Eliot is too evident. Not only one or two, but almost every well-known poem of his is definitely echoed in some poem or other of Mr. MacLeish. This is natural but unfortunate. Mr. MacLeish has shown himself capable of writing poetry that is so complete a fusion of his influences that we have a new voice. It is in such work that we must expect to find the qualities of permanence.

James G. Southworth, "Archibald MacLeish," in his Some Modern American Poets, Basil Blackwell, 1950, pp. 122-34.

The presentation of J.B. impressed me as a salutary act which added dignity and luster to the Broadway stage. But as a critic I had serious reservations about both play and production. In his commendable effort to direct his poetic talent into the theatre MacLeish seemed to be functioning as a full-time poet, but because he resolved J.B. by means of various undramatized transitions he was only a part-time playwright. Toward the end of the play there was a conspicuous gap between God's voice and J.B.'s change of attitude which veered rapidly from one intellectual position to another. After J.B. submits to God's will in the next-to-last scene, he modifies his submission by maintaining that he can stand alone and can accept life even if there is no justice in the universe. But he also qualifies this position when his wife returns to him, by placing his reliance on human love….

Because J.B. and the other characters were morality play figures rather than fully realized characters it was impossible for me to subscribe to the generous opinion of those who hailed J.B. as the greatest play of the postwar period. Nevertheless J.B. was an exalted work of the dramatic and poetic imagination in a generally commonplace theatre. Though the poetry was rarely MacLeish's best, its quality was still measurably above the level of dialogue in most American prose drama. The work had what an English reviewer called tragic diction, the absence of which has been considered a major deficiency in the prose realism of our theatre.

J.B. is plainly a morality play, and to require it to provide rounded characters is to ask for something that MacLeish did not intend. It is a contemporary Everyman that is half poem and half discussion drama. As poem J.B. has mystery at its core, symbolism for its method, and ambiguity as its result. As discussion drama the play inevitably left much unresolved; to expect a solution to the problem of evil that would satisfy men of divergent conviction was to demand more than any contemporary work for the stage could possibly provide. The real test was whether we had experienced any mental stimulation and spiritual invigoration, and the play passed this test for me and for many other playgoers.

John Gassner, in his Theatre at the Crossroads: Plays and Playwrights of the Mid-Century American Stage (copyright © 1960 by Mollie Gassner; reprinted by permission of Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.), Holt, 1960, pp. 300-02.

From his early radio plays MacLeish has been interested in direct communication. Then, as his serious concern with verse drama developed, there appeared two types of presentation. One might be called the full-bodied play, with full characterization….

"Herakles" is an extension of the other prong of his effort, the play of poetical ideas…. The litheness, leanness, and efficiency of the language is everywhere apparent and in this play MacLeish has given us great quickenings of poetic imagery, flashes of profound insight set forth with staccato force, a vehicle of language so pliable and sharp as to catch the Greek spirit of lightness and truth.

Richard Eberhart, "Archibald MacLeish's 'Herakles'," in Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 43, No. 3 (Summer, 1967), pp. 499-503.

Archibald MacLeish is our poetic weathercock. A glance at his work in any decade will tell us which way the wind of thought and feeling and poetic fashion was blowing….

MacLeish has participated in every movement, learned from every poetic "generation" (with a new "generation" coming every decade or so), and never seemed even slightly old-fashioned or out of touch. Yet to many it seems less a capacity for growth than a responsiveness to external weather that keeps the poet always on the move. MacLeish has grown old gracefully, but it is not clear that his work of recent years, though wiser surely, is any better than the work that quickly brought him fame in the 1920's. With considerable lyrical talent, he has yet written only a handful of poems likely to be long remembered, out of the many that seemed unforgettable in the years in which they appeared….

The ideas and sentiments in MacLeish's recent work are as typical now, as much to be expected, as widely shared in liberal intellectual circles today as the ideas and sentiments in his poems of the 1920's were in their decade, or those of the 1930's were in theirs. An intellectual and poetic history of nearly half a century might be written on the basis of MacLeish's work alone. It would not need to omit any major shift of thought or feeling, any change in the cultural and poetic climate, except neo-orthodoxy.

All such a story would have to omit in addition would be the extreme and unpopular positions of reactionary or radical poets, who have gone it alone. Nothing transcendental and extraordinary, and nothing irresponsible, would be expected in the work of a poet who at every stage of his career has given expression to the historical situation as thoughtful people who were immersed in it saw it.

Hyatt H. Waggoner, "Melodies of Chaos: Archibald MacLeish," in his American Poets From the Puritans to the Present (copyright © 1968 by Hyatt H. Waggoner; reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company), Houghton Mifflin, 1968, pp. 486-92.

Archibald MacLeish has had a curious career. His vast output of poetry has been much admired but rarely taken with the complete seriousness accorded an Eliot or Yeats. Somehow, with a major poet, one expects gradually to discern a kind of spiritual configuration, a map of the psychic universe that he inhabits. Now, to celebrate his 80th birthday, MacLeish had done an interesting thing—he has put together The Human Season: Selected Poems 1926–1972 …, in which he arranges the poems by the provinces of his universe….

With this new book as a framework, one can now turn back to MacLeish's individual volumes to explore the ample poetic universe he has created, decade by decade.

Chad Walsh, in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), April 1, 1973, p. 13.