Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1470
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 felicity inasmuch as it is an expression of a certain way of achieving order and harmony in the world. But MacLeish does not seem to have examined this tendency of his mind—to alight upon felicity—critically and thoroughly, as have many of the other modern poets. One thinks certainly of T. S. Eliot, when he uses, so cleverly, so tragically, rhyme, rhythm, and high sentiment. To some modern critical minds MacLeish’s felicity can only seem facile, for he lacks the modern tough-mindedness. He does not seem to have considered with adequate clairvoyance his altogether human, altogether admirable impulse toward what Wallace Stevens calls integrations of instinct. But it is probably more fitting to say that MacLeish attempts a felicity he does not always achieve rather than to say he voices a sublimity he does not really feel.
A cursory glance at MacLeish’s poetry may lead the reader to accuse him of vague thinking. It is not that MacLeish is unaware of the important ideas of his time, but that perhaps he has not examined some of them critically, or has at least not considered with sufficient perspicacity the relationship of these ideas to his own mind.
At times MacLeish seems unaware of the tendency of his mind to reduce experience to formula. He praises in POETRY AND EXPERIENCE Keats’s negative capability, the ability to live without certainty, in mystery and in doubt, and it is indeed unfortunate that MacLeish himself in his poetry was not always able to maintain this precarious and sacred balance.
In some of his long poems, as in “Einstein,” THE POT OF EARTH, and THE HAMLET OF A. MACLEISH, he does examine the relationship of the mind to the world, or more specifically to “nature,” and one senses here that he is no longer the fabricator of the shorter poems where, with an aestheticism that yields only sterility, he plucks an image from the natural world, pastes it upon his thought, and finds that in the process the image has deprived the thought of its complexity, and the thought has deprived the image of its rich substantiality. He uses as the epigraph to THE POT OF EARTH a description, from Sir James G. Frazer’s THE GOLDEN BOUGH, of the ancient ceremonies of Adonis, a god of vegetation, and he attempts in the poem to come to terms with nature in the fruitful and mysterious way of the ancients; yet he knows that this is not quite possible. He quotes, after the passage from Frazer, the lines from HAMLET: “For if the sun breed maggots in a dead dog, being a god-kissing carrion,—Have you a daughter? . . . Let her not walk i’ the sun—” and one feels that MacLeish is suggesting here what might be called the modern “civilized” horror of nature’s fecundity, promiscuity, ruthlessness, and even perhaps of her energy. Like Hamlet, MacLeish, in THE HAMLET OF A. MACLEISH is bookish and introspective, skeptical that one may not find in nature, as one finds in words, a principle of malleable equivalence.
In “Einstein,” MacLeish portrays a mind which can undo the manifestations of nature. Yet even so, nature still resists his attempts at penetration and turns him back to find answers within his own nature. Even though MacLeish in “Einstein” sets himself the difficult task of portraying the relationship of a mind of genius to the world, he does not succeed in doing more than expressing the obvious graciously, although he does create in “Einstein,” as he does not in most of his other poems, an illusion of what might be called the living relationship of consciousness to the world.
One may look in vain in MacLeish’s poetry for a tough and thought-provoking fabric of meanings, but find in its place the elegant compositions of a mind dominated by sensibility. MacLeish’s best achievement is in the genre of lyrical poetry skillfully shaped as an expression of sensibility. It may be said that in some respects he stands to the Modernist movement in poetry as Verlaine stood to the Symbolists. At his best, MacLeish achieves an elegance which is vital and unschematic. There are long descriptive passages in many of his poems, in CONQUISTADOR and THE POT OF EARTH, for example, which seem intent upon proving nothing except that, as Ezra Pound said of the Imagists, “a hawk is a hawk.” These are passages of refined and vigorous sensibility in which the infinite richness of experience is suggested rather than cast into the confinement of form. In like manner, MacLeish sometimes offers brief perceptions of a perfect gratuitousness, sometimes irrelevant to the meaning of the poem, but delightful and veracious in their own right. At his best the poet exhibits the expectation of an aristocratic sensibility: that experience will indeed yield up from its abundance certain felicities.