Archibald MacLeish

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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.)

R. P. Blackmur

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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 disparateness of her two sons. Their fate would have been the sharper, and her own; the plot would have seemed complete, and the interpretation, within its limits, final. Surely she might have understood her creations, and in her own voice have combined them, giving the play a kind of poetic, even philosophic finality which it now lacks. (p. 341)

The reason for the comparative failure of Nobodaddy is that its subject-matter was not completely exhausted. An attitude, more than an act, has its consequences; and in art they must all be dealt with. If irrelevant to the artist's interests, they may be swept out of sight, their figures excised from the emotional pattern. If relevant they must enter the structure and complete the symbol, and not otherwise than as their particular character demands. More than the popes, poets are the servants of the servants of God. (p. 342)

R. P. Blackmur, "A Modern Poet in Eden," in Poetry (© 1926 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), Vol. XXVIII, No. VI, September, 1926, pp. 339-42.

John Wain

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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,...

(This entire section contains 630 words.)

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opaque to me. I cannot understand whyThe 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 looking into; there is always the chance that he might have rung the bell; the evidence of his shorter poems is there to remind us that he is, or has been, a poet of true sensibility and originality. One of these, "Ars Poetica" (1926), must be one of the most often quoted of all modern poems, partly no doubt because it has provided a slogan for the modern criticism of poetry, but also because it is genuinely impressive…. Herakles, I am glad to report, is rather more successful in "being" than J.B. was. It is deftly constructed as one large-scale metaphor: of man's achievement resulting in a sharpened confrontation with what is tragic in his destiny. The play has two acts, and it presents two great achievers…. (p. 25)

MacLeish has got hold of a real subject, and he is too experienced to miss the opportunities inherent in it. Also, since there is no one clearly defined masterpiece, like the Book of Job, towering in the background, but only a tangle of stories which can well bear being told again, there isn't that crippling sense of secondhandness. The writing, line by line, is not very interesting, but probably speakable by actors. Rhythmically—and for the writer of verse drama rhythm is by far the most important single technical problem—MacLeish has kept well clear of the ten-syllable iambic that makes any play sound like sub-Shakespeare; the verse he uses most is a brisk four-beat line that derives, I suppose, from Eliot's Sweeney Agonistes. Eliot, one is bound to add, used it much better…. MacLeish has very few passages which come off quite successfully; the best writing, on the whole, is in set-pieces like Herakles' description of going down into Hades to fight Cerberus…. [Given the] general poise and expertness of the verse, Herakles should be attractive to directors, players and audiences; perhaps, to readers on the page also. Certainly, on the coolest analysis, it has something to say and it succeeds in saying it. (pp. 26, 30)

John Wain, "Mr. MacLeish's New Play," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1967 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 157, Nos. 4 & 5, July 22-29, 1967, pp. 25-6, 30.

Hayden Carruth

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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 come to feel about the European take-over of America, our pride and its voidance, our helplessness and self-reproach in the face of historical process. And the writing fits the theme; they are welded, they cling together. Still the poem is flawed. One can see how (again speaking as a poet) MacLeish was tempted by the chronicle of Bernal Díaz, the only account of the Spanish expedition possessing contemporary authenticity: there it was, all laid out, the plan and plot of the poem. But in the end MacLeish was hampered by Bernal, who became in the poem only a testy old warrior recalling the exploits of his youth, a tedious narrator. There is too much description in the poem, not enough drama…. I wish MacLeish … had been more willing to fictionalize, to mythologize; for isn't that what epic is all about—myth? And do not doubt me, MacLeish was writing the American epic. That is what he had in mind. Epic needs fiction, however, needs myth, and usually a good dose of it, not just history. Does anyone, for example, believe the argument between Achilles and Agamemnon was really that important in the siege of Troy? (And incidentally, what would Hart Crane have done with the long poem he was projecting on Montezuma, during those same years when MacLeish was writing Conquistador, if he had been able to carry it through?) Still and all, Conquistador is what we have, it is our best epic (and I do not except The Bridge), it is coherent, complete, and strongly conceived, and it contains many, many magnificent passages. It merits a good deal more attention than it has been given lately. (pp. 149-50)

After Conquistador, as we know, MacLeish moved further into poetry of political and social feeling, and we may as well say bluntly that these poems don't stand up. Plenty of strong feeling, no doubt, and sound reasoning too; ringing declarations, prophetic ironies, angers and maledictions; but in effect they were versified editorials, not poems. MacLeish committed the same error made by many young radical poets of the 1960's and early 1970's, namely, the failure to transmute feeling and ideology into dramatic or lyrical structures through the intercession of the artistic imagination. Asseveration does not make art; the Declaration of Independence is a political, not a poetic, document…. I think the main point to be made about MacLeish's politically inspired poems, once we aknowledge their artistic defect, is that they were definitely of the sustaining, not the destroying order…. MacLeish wrote not as a personal crusader, never as a political crank or lonely visionary, but instead as the spokesman of the people, and like all such spokesmen, if they are true to their roles, he wrote with humility, while his "ideology," if you can call it that, was humanitarian common sense and liberalism, as these could then still be understood without the taint of bourgeois insincerity they have acquired more recently. His poems were outgoing, in other words, products of basic poetic and human loving kindness, and whether or not they succeeded as poems they were works of humane purity and valor.

Without abandoning his political predilections, during the 1950's and 1960's MacLeish moved back again toward the personal lyric, where he has always been at his best: poems of love and death, friendship and other attachments, landscapes and seasons, cosmological and moral disconcertions. To my mind his most often quoted lyrics are not his best, such poems as "The End of the World," "Ars Poetica," and "You, Andrew Marvell," though because of their pointedness and self-containedness they make good anthology pieces. Others are better. (pp. 151-52)

Hayden Carruth, "Homage to A. MacLeish," in Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1977, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 53, No. 1 (Winter, 1977), pp. 146-54.

James K. Robinson

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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.∗

Peter Brunette

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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 mediations on other poets like Pound, Frost, and Sandburg.

Yet, no matter what the particular theme of a given piece, the general theme is always the continuing possibility of making men whole again….

Throughout, one senses a man who suspects he may really be one or two generations behind. He needn't worry. The book is not free of a few tiny blemishes, like the occasional, unconscious sexism. But by the end, one is left thinking how fine it would be simply to know this person who seems to care so extraordinarily much for his fellow human beings.

Peter Brunette, "Brief Notices: 'Riders on the Earth: Essays and Recollections'," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1978, The Washington Post), April 30, 1978, p. E4.

Tom Johnson

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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 and colleagues. He is the last of the race of literary giants that created modernism, and he has had to write these eulogies for some time now. (pp. cxxvi, cxxviii)

MacLeish has, and has long had, a bad name in literary circles that call themselves sophisticated because he is an optimist. Indeed, examining the events of the late sixties, MacLeish finds grounds for hope where many have seen despair. (p. cxxviii)

MacLeish's optimism is not born of naiveté; we should be naive to presume it of a man whose close friends have included not only Ezra Pound and Ernest Hemingway but also Niels Bohr and Franklin Roosevelt. The very range of his experience is astonishing. Perhaps the best reason we might have to take heart about our own futures is the optimism of a man such as this. (p. cxxx)

Tom Johnson, "Sturdy Sense and Vital Humanism," in The Sewanee Review (copyright © 1978 by The University of the South), Vol. LXXXVI, No. 4, Fall, 1978, pp. cxxvi, cxxviii, cxxx.


MacLeish, Archibald


MacLeish, Archibald (Vol. 3)