The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 516

“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 of him in this stanza—“The strong man pained to find his red blood cools”—implies that he is aging and growing less vigorous. He is also very much aware of the ticking clock. However, the clock does not really grow “louder, faster” as the poem says it does; rather, this description is an indication of the man’s preoccupation with time. The stanza ends outdoors with “the silent moon,” another symbol of time.

The final stanza begins, “Indoors ancestral curse-cum-blessing,” a phrase that characterizes the situation of the man mentioned in the previous stanza. The poet, by his use of the Latin preposition cum (together with), suggests that the man is both cursed and blessed by all the things—biological and cultural—he has inherited from his ancestors. When the perspective switches back to the outdoors, the reader is presented with a picture of the “empty bowl of heaven, the empty deep.” The moon was out in the previous stanza, so the heavens cannot be literally “empty” nor does empty seem a plausible description of the sea, with all of its creatures. The poet means that the sky and sea are empty because they are missing the god or gods once thought to dwell there. The last two lines of the poem bring the reader back to the inhabitant of the house, who has fallen asleep. The man, described as “purposeful,” “talks at cross/ Purposes, to himself, in a broken sleep.” When two people are talking at cross purposes, they have somehow misunderstood each other. The poem ends, therefore, with the image of a man troubled by his lack of self-understanding.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 486

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 creature from Greek myth who lures sailors to their deaths, could be a straightforward naturalistic description. The poet, by placing them side by side, compels the reader to search for resemblances. “The chill, the void, the siren” become, in this context, a counterpart to the stunted emotional life being lived in the house.

MacNeice, like his contemporary and friend W. H. Auden, was a master of traditional forms and an expert at using meter, rhyme, alliteration, and assonance in such a way that they reinforce meaning. The last line of the first stanza is a good example of this: The crowding together of strong stresses, combined with alliteration and assonance—“the locked heart and the lost key”—creates a feeling of tension that reinforces the sense of the words. Another example is the second line of the second stanza, where the use of one-syllable, strongly stressed words in “The strong man pained to find his red blood cools” causes the line to move very slowly, thus complementing this description of the man’s ebbing vitality. The reader should not take this sort of analysis to extremes. Meter cannot be expected to match meaning perfectly in every case, and there are other effects in the poem that are more or less ornamental. Taken as a whole, however, “House on a Cliff” is a fine example of how a poet can use meter to convey a message more effectively.

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