The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“House on a Cliff” is a sixteen-line poem in flexible iambic pentameter rhymed abcb and divided into three stanzas of four lines each. The title sets the scene and, to a certain extent, the mood as it creates an image of a life lived in a precarious place exposed to the elements. The poem is written in the third person, and the narrator is seemingly omniscient, moving quickly and repeatedly from descriptions of the interior of a house and its inhabitant to descriptions of the night outside and back again.

“House on a Cliff” begins indoors, where the poet notes “the tang of a tiny oil lamp,” a detail that gives the impression of a confined, stifling space. The scene then switches immediately to a view of the “waste of sea” outside. This formal procedure of alternating between descriptions of the interior of the house and the outside environment will be followed throughout the rest of the poem. The stanza continues with a mention of the wind before concluding indoors with images of emotional frigidity: “the locked heart and the lost key.”

The alternation of outdoors and indoors continues in the second stanza, which begins with a depiction of the inhospitable elements outside. There is, however, an important difference in this stanza: A character, the inhabitant of the house, is introduced. From this point on, this man, rather than the physical setting, is the focus of the indoor sections of the poem. The description...

(The entire section is 516 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In “House on a Cliff,” Louis MacNeice is able to convey a sophisticated worldview in a very few lines, chiefly because of his use of form. The most striking formal device in the poem is the way the poet switches back and forth between “indoors” and “outdoors,” consistently using these two words as signposts for the reader. It is not unlike the quick cuts a film director might use. This technique, combined with the metaphors it allows the poet to pair, ensures that the reader will find parallels and relationships between the two environments. The poem’s short length makes it ideal for this technique. If it was any shorter, the poet would not have sufficient space for the picture he wants to paint; if it was any longer, the constant alternation would grow tiresome.

The correspondence between indoors and outdoors is not always as simple as in the first two lines, where the “tiny oil lamp” is paired with “the winking signal.” Indeed, if the relationships between the indoor and outdoor sections were always this close, the poem would seem too neat. MacNeice sidesteps this danger by making the pairings that follow less closely related. What is the reader to make, for example, of “the locked heart” and “the lost key” being compared to “the chill, the void, the siren”? The first is much more obviously a metaphor. The second, aside from an allusion contained in the word “siren,” which could be either a warning sound or a...

(The entire section is 486 words.)