Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 521

“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.”

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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 Rain.” The outdoor portions of “House on a Cliff,” with their descriptions of vast, empty spaces, of the “waste of sea” and “the empty bowl of heaven,” exemplify the bleakness MacNeice saw as inherent in this new view of the universe. The indoor portions symbolize a human civilization that, though it may afford a certain amount of shelter and comfort, is still a very fragile thing. It is important to note also that the man, while sheltered, is unhappy and alone. There are many problems society cannot cure and some it may well make worse.

The view of human nature had also changed considerably. Darwin’s idea that human beings were, in some fashion, descended from lower animals was a considerable blow to the ego. In addition, Freud’s theories of the unconscious made the ancient Greek admonition to “know thyself” seem far more difficult. The contents of the unconscious were either those drives that society required be kept in check or incidents in childhood that were simply too painful for the conscious mind to remember. These drives and memories were thought, however, to reveal themselves in dreams. The man in “House on a Cliff,” as he “talks at cross/ Purposes, to himself, in a broken sleep,” provides readers with a concrete picture of this newer, more conflicted picture of human nature. This is not to say that such a bleak view of human life must necessarily follow from the conclusions of Darwin, Marx, and Freud. Some poets have been inspired by what they see as humankind’s new freedom from divine interference. Wallace Stevens’s poem “Sunday Morning,” for example, invests the idea of a godless world with considerable grandeur. MacNeice, however, was never able to share this optimism uncritically.

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