“The Sunlight on the Garden,” published in the collection Poems, is one of MacNeice’s earlier works and is probably the most anthologized of all his short poems. It is a four stanza poem, each stanza having six lines rhyming abcbba. All the lines are loose three-beat lines except line 5, which has two beats.
The poem begins with an almost commonplace statement about the inability to keep any moment; the habit of time is to run on, taking with it each moment of joy. The sixth line makes the statement that “we cannot beg for pardon.” The logical connection, perhaps, being that time’s passage prevents one from atoning for one’s sins as well as from cherishing one’s happy moments.
The second stanza lists freedom itself as one of those moments and foretells its end, with a pun on the word “lances.” The poet adds to the list of disappearing things, birds, sonnets, and dances. Stanza three brings war to mind. The joy of using the sky for flying will also end. Having defied the church bells’ moral imperative, now there will be sirens to deal with, and the airplanes will come, bringing bombs, fire, and death. The stanza ends with an allusion to the final words of Marc Antony in William Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (pr. c. 1606-1607, pb. 1623), “We are dying, Egypt.” As Antony represented the Roman world, so the poet represents the British empire, which is also dying.
(The entire section is 442 words.)