There is a wide range of achievement in the poetry of Archibald MacLeish, but there is nearly always high technical excellence and the student of technique will be greatly rewarded by discovering in MacLeish’s work the subtlety of the rhyme and assonance, the complexity of the metrics, and the variety of his forms. Although many of MacLeish’s shorter poems make pleasant reading, the longer poems are perhaps more interesting in that they reveal more fully the fabric of his thought. Among the shorter poems, one might consider “The Happy Marriage,” “The Silent Slain,” “The End of the World,” “Selene Afterwards,” “No Lamp Has Ever Shown Us Where To Look,” “Hearts’ and Flowers’,” “Ars Poetica,” “You, Andrew Marvell,” “Land’s End,” “American Letter,” “Empire Builders,” “Invocation to the Social Muse,” “Words in Time,” “Thunderhead,” “The Snowflake Which Is Now and Hence Forever,” “Ship of Fools,” and “Reasons for Music.” One would do well to consider among the longer poems: “The Pot of Earth,” “The Hamlet of A. MacLeish,” “Einstein,” “Conquistador,” and “America Was Promises.”
It is appropriate to consider MacLeish’s poetry in relation to his successful public life, for he holds as one of his ideals that the world of thought should be related to the world of action. His theory is that the public world of our time needs the kinds of meanings that poetry alone can discover. MacLeish feels, moreover, that the thinking man should be actively involved in the political and social movements of his time. In the offices MacLeish has held, as well as in his speeches, one may see to what extent he was himself committed.
MacLeish does not exploit in his poetry, as might be expected, what must have been so close at hand for him, the language of social discourse. In fact, he never makes use of such language in the witty and ironic manner of T. S. Eliot, but speaks nearly always in a tone that might be described as “personal” or “characteristic,” sinking at its worst to an undistinguished and lethargic solemnity, but attaining at its best a bardic, although individual, authority. He has sought rather to relate the “public world” to the “private world” in a more direct way. In CONQUISTADOR he has successfully produced an epic of the Americas and has tried the relations of private sensibility and history. In other instances, MacLeish seems to feel that the role of the thinker in history is to engage in summing up and pronouncement, as in “America Was Promises,” in which sociology is grafted upon poetry in such a manner that neither survives.
MacLeish says in his POETRY AND EXPERIENCE that the deepest human need is to make life coherent and meaningful, and that poetry is one of the valid means—perhaps the most important—by which such sense and order may be achieved. The poet, he says, quoting the Chinese poet Lu Chi, is one who “traps Heaven and Earth in the cage of form.” Poetry is a means of achieving meaning. He says in “Reasons for Music” (written for Wallace Stevens) that in this world there is no rest from the effort to impose order on confusion—order achieved in the still, adamant form of art. One may say of MacLeish in this respect that what should properly have been a hope, and possessed of an appropriate reticence, became a somewhat strident conviction. In his better poetry, in THE POT OF EARTH and CONQUISTADOR, for example, this predilection for form results in the achievement of an elevated and gracious order, but in his bad poetry the impulse degenerates into banality and truism. Often MacLeish’s poetry does not assume, much less suggest, the variety of experience, and often he is even bold enough to violate, with his rigid schemata, the rightful multiplicity of the world.
On occasion MacLeish cannot resist the temptation to make a felicitous phrase, but on most occasions one senses in MacLeish a sincere love of...
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