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The Lighter Side of Death and Despair: The Modern Poetry of Louis MacNeice

Rahul D'Silva '08


Alienation, loss, and despair. A rejection of society. This is the traditional view of Modernism, a movement that seeks to create anew, with new language, new metaphors, and, supposedly, new depths of desolation. But this is not always the case. In contrast to T.E. Hulme's insistence that daily language had become imprecise and shop-worn, as reported in the Princeton Encyclopedia, and his notion that poetry must, in response, be "hard and dry, always burning with a gem-like intensity,"[1] the poems of Louis MacNeice display a simplicity and humorous conversational approach which is seemingly at odds with, or simply disguises, the seriousness of his ideas. His evolving forms of the Modernist ethic portray emotion in ordinary human sentiment, not limitless like the Romantics or stoically unaffected like some classicists. Hence MacNeice does not radically break away from tradition as Modernists are stereotyped as doing, but flows into a new style that places the self in the physical world and addresses its problems and the author's own personal fears, through irony and satire. And in this manner, MacNeice's keen introspection and deliberation over the uncertainty in life is belied by his light but at times rueful tone in "Prognosis" and "The Libertine."


Louis MacNeice's "Prognosis" begins with the lines "Goodbye, Winter,/ The days are getting longer," [Prognosis 1-2] - a dark opening. The speaker begins by addressing Winter with a capital 'W,' making it a personified character that adds a depth of emotion to the plot, and links winter to negative emotion. And the exaggerated dryness of tone and formality in these two lines forces the reader to view this poem, at least so far, as a dreary lament, much like Eliot's "April is the cruelest month, breeding/ Lilacs out of the dead land..." [The WasteLand 1-2]. The long vowel sounds of "cruelest," "breeding" and "lilacs" in Eliot's poem are akin to the long sounds of "days" and "longer"  in "Prognosis," adding a mournful undertone to the words of the speaker. Thus, the poem starts off with heavy despair, a stereotypically Modern beginning.


The third line in this first stanza offers a traditional British cultural symbol: tea. This "tea-leaf in the teacup" [Prognosis 3] that is "herald of a stranger" [4] is not the cheerful 'fix-all solution' that the British cup of tea typically represents. Rather, this "herald of a stranger" introduces an uncertainty to the speaker's tone, which continues in later lines such as ""Will his name be John/ Or will his name be Jonah" [17-18], "Will he come to beg/ Or will he come to bargain" [11-12], and other such imaginations of who the stranger will be or what he will bring, both positive and negative. The word herald suggests a medieval messenger to a noble court; the word itself lends richness to the ears because of the rolling 'r' sound in its pronunciation. However, as fine as the imagery sounds with its medieval pomp and finery, the herald brought both good news and bad and this is where the uncertainty lies for the speaker. Is the impending arrival of the "stranger" good or bad?


This multiplicitous prognosis is the uncertainty set up by MacNeice from the beginning of the poem. But while we might expect these various uncertainties to induce a paralyzing anxiety for the speaker, this is not the case. MacNeice's jocular tone undercuts the seriousness of these possibilities at each step by means of humorous language and irony. For example, MacNeice allows the "tea-leaves in the teacup" [3], usually the wares of old wives attempting fortunetelling, to be a vehicle for actual uncertainty for the speaker. This situation presents clear dramatic irony when the reader realizes the absurdity of someone worrying about the arrival of a stranger and what this might mean for him based on the dregs of a cup of tea. Moreover, the title of this poem, "Prognosis," is supposed to be a prediction of the future, especially of the probable course and outcome of a disease. But as such, the speaker does not offer a definite prediction, only multiple possibilities. Thus, MacNeice not only jabs at the speaker for relying on tea-leaves in order to tell the future, but also jabs at the speaker for being a bad fortune-teller, i.e. being unable to offer anything substantial to the reader.


The repetition of the word will in the first line of every following stanza save the third intensifies this continuous prognosis. Positively toned lines such as "...will he bring me gladness" (6) are contrasted with negative lines such as "Will he come to pester,/ To cringe or to bluster," [13-14]. The result of such vacillation between positive and negative is to not place the speaker in a position of despair or fearful uncertainty, as he might seem in the first stanza. Instead, it creates a sense of musing. The heavily accented words in the lines "Wíll he bríng me búsiness" [5] and "Or wíll he cóme for cúre" [7] possess a sing-song quality that lend lightness to the speaker's tone. Moreover, the AABA rhyme scheme of these lines, with the words business, gladness, cure, and sickness at the end of the four lines of the second stanza respectively, again cause the reader to either associate the first two lines and the fourth, or to see them as opposites. Either way, it adds to the light tone of the speaker. The image given is that of an old Englishman (or old Irishman, given MacNeice's place of birth) drinking tea on his porch, rocking back and forth in his chair while musing about who his impending guest will be. And all this based on the tea-leaves at the bottom of his cup. The effect is hardly heavy and depressing - "April is the cruelest month..."  [The Waste Land 1] it is surely not.


MacNeice's ironic tone in undercutting the seriousness of the speaker's uncertainty continues in the fourth stanza, with the, at least at first glance, threatening image of a gun. But the stranger is not holding the gun, cocked to fire, but has only "A promise in his palm/ Or a gun in his holster?" [Prognosis15-16]. This juxtaposition of the gun's position is what lessens the seemingly belligerent attitude of the stranger in this stanza. The stranger comes not to fight or even to yell in a threatening fashion, but only "To cringe or to bluster" [15]. Bluster here is a particularly appropriate word to convey a sense of empty threat, not an actual danger to the speaker. And by images such as these, MacNeice heavily undercuts the traditional Modernist theme of despair, and pokes fun at the idea of worrying about uncertainties of the future.


MacNeice's choice of language, as shown in previous examples, is also what mocks the fearful uncertainty of the speaker. For example, the non-rhyme of John and Jonah, in the lines "Wíll his náme be Jóhn/ Or wíll his náme be Jónah?" [17-18], by the addition of one letter, a, takes the reader from a writer of the Gospel and one of God's favored men on Earth to a prophet who did not follow God's command and was thereby swallowed by a whale. John is an epic religious figure who speaks of Judgement Day and 'fire and brimstone,' while the image of a man being swallowed by a whale and then emerging chastened by his experience is quite a bit less awe-inspiring. Additionally, the long syllabic pronunciation on the first part of "Jon-ah" gives it an almost mournful tone, as opposed to the stronger definitiveness in pronouncing "John." And the "Island of Iona" [20] stretches out the pronunciation in the same fashion. It is this juxtaposition of strong and weak symbols that continues a sense of musing on the part of the speaker, and not some definite prognosis.


MacNeice continues this theme in almost every stanza, playing off uncertainty against mock threats and jest. In the seventh stanza, the speaker wonders what the stranger's message will be, "War or work or marriage?" [26] with "News as new as dawn/ Or an old adage?" [27-28]. This comparison between adage and marriage, appearing at the end of the fourth and second lines respectively in this AABA stanza, makes marriage into an "old adage," a pithy and familiar statement generally accepted as wise. The comparison makes light of marriage, but at the same time, adage pokes fun at "Wár or wórk or márriage" [26],turning all three messages of the herald into clichéd themes.


Following this, the speaker asks when the uncertainty will end and whether the stranger will give "a champion/ Answer to my question/ Or will his words be dark/ And his ways evasion?" [29-32]. The first line, which ends with the word "champion" suggests the coming of some knight in shining armor, but the second line added on, "champion/ Answer to my question" immediately turns champion into schoolroom slang for 'excellent.' This transforms the first option in the stanza to a childishly naïve statement, while the lines "Or will his words be dark/ And his ways evasion" seem humorously more likely, given the overall theme of uncertainty and MacNeice's tendency to poke fun at the speaker. Moreover, the long "v-a" sound in "evásion" [32] also stretches out the sound, adding to the overall uncertainty. By this point, however, it is hard to take the speaker's dire tone seriously, and one is forced to acquiesce to MacNeice's lighter undertones. For MacNeice, life is about uncertainties and multiplicities, and these are simply to be experienced rather than worried about.


MacNeice then plays his final card in the last stanza, as the speaker wonders "Wíll his náme be Lóve/ And áll his tálk be crázy?/ Or wíll his náme be Déath/ Ánd his méssage éasy?" [33-36]. MacNeice again reverses the traditional attributes of Love as beautiful and simple, and Death as harsh and feared, by calling Love crazy and Death easy. By putting two heavily written about themes, Love and Death, in the final stanza, MacNeice emphasizes the trite nature of any supposed telling of the future. MacNeice's final "Prognosis" is this: nothing is what it is, and what starts off as a dark sojourn into the speaker's thoughts turns into an ironic look at the speaker's unnecessary worrying at life's uncertainties.


MacNeice's "The Libertine" is another poem that uses irony and a light tone, this time to poke fun at the licentious lifestyle of a hedonistic man. It exposes a very real social issue, that of promiscuity in modern society. Unlike "Prognosis," where there is only one speaker, in "The Libertine" both an external narrator and the libertine himself take turns speaking. The result is a poem that romps along with jest, while addressing a topic that is perhaps close to many a male poet's heart, that of being a playboy and the object of many women's affections. The poem's first four words, "In the old days" [The Libertine 1], convey a very grandfatherly tone that would seemingly imply the virtue of the old as opposed to the immorality of the younger generation. This is akin to a parent or grandparent telling a younger person, "In our day we didn't do things like this," a sort of admonition against the looseness of the modern generation. However, the next few words, "with married women's stockings/ Twisted round his bedpost he felt himself a gay/ Dog" [1-3] convey quite a different sense: in the old days, this particular young man, i.e. the libertine, was quite licentious. This sense of immorality is increased by the use of the word "married" in line 1 - not only is he having affairs with many women, but specifically, with other men's wives, thereby rending the social fabric. Moreover, the word "twisted" conveys something tightly wound, perhaps a metaphor for the licentiousness that is so tightly wrapped around his life - it might even be so tightly wound as to be choking the life out of him.


The speaker creates a somewhat colloquial term for the libertine, saying, "he felt himself a gay/ Dog" [2-3]. But the position of "gay" and "Dog" on separate lines lessens the admired image of the libertine to that of a lowly dog; it is a term used to insult someone, as in "a contemptible cur." And now "his liver has begun to groan,/ Now that pick-ups are the order of the day:" [3-4] - this is not just a sign of the strain of his lovemaking, because the choice of liver as opposed to heart points  to something else. The heart would be the natural organ strained by excess physical activity, while the liver, an organ that purifies the blood, would be strained more by harmful substances such as excess amounts of alcohol. In this case, the libertine's liver "has begun to groan" [3] because of excess sexual activity that is harmful to his own sense of morality or wellbeing. And thus, the libertine can only cry, "O leave me easy, leave me alone" [5], a phrase repeated at the end of every stanza; the image of the libertine as a 'skirt-chasing' "gay/Dog" is now reversed by the repetition of this phrase, and ironically, he now seeks to avoid the women who seek him out.


Additionally, the ABCBC form of the poem seems a newer, more Modern version of the traditional ABAB (or BCBC for these purposes) rhyme scheme, with a non-rhyming line at the head of each stanza. This is an example of the Modern craft in MacNeice: he does not seek to radically break from the older tradition, but appropriate its style into his own evolving form of poetry. Rhyme is still a part of the Modern craft but the innovation is the addition of a non-rhyming line at the opening of each stanza. It is MacNeice's Modern stamp upon a traditional style.


MacNeice continues to use wordplay to poke fun at the libertine, describing him as "Voluptuary in his 'teens and cynic in his twenties," [6]. 'Voluptuary?' a reader might ask, and with good reason. Although the word means one who is given over to luxury and sensual pleasures, it is usually applied in the context of "a voluptuous woman." And the rolling sound one's tongue produces when saying the 'l' in voluptuous makes it a very sensual and charming word. Hence, by this word, MacNeice both accentuates the language of the poem and jests at the lifestyle of the libertine. The words "... cynic in his twenties" [6] add to this humor, with the radical irony of the libertine as a cynic who thinks all people to be motivated by selfishness, while he himself is driven by his desire for pleasure.


MacNeice continues to undercut the image of the now decrepit libertine with images of the libertine's youth. MacNeice speaks of the libertine as one who "ran through women like a child through growing hay/ Looking for a lost toy whose capture might atone/ For his own guilt and the cosmic disarray" [7-9]. Likening the libertine to a child looking for his toy both creates a more poignant image of the libertine's immaturity and apparent lack of purpose in life, but also, in a sense, gives depth to the portrait of the libertine. He is a man desperately seeking the one woman who will make sense of his world - thus, these lines add both color and seriousness to the poem.


While the "toy" he seeks is just an object to give him pleasure, the libertine, like the child, is perhaps deluded in thinking that the one woman he finds will fix the "cosmic disarray" [9]. Moreover, the word 'cosmic' creates a universal scope that goes beyond the finite window of the libertine's personal life, and perhaps even hyperbolizes the effect that the libertine feels he can have on the world. Unfortunately, the libertine is unsuccessful at his quest, and the repetition of the line "O leave me easy, leave me alone" at the end of each stanza serves to return the reader to the present state of mind of the libertine. MacNeice does well to balance the humorous language and imagery of the libertine's past with the actual reality of the libertine's current life. This is one sign of the Modern poet: the presentation of the speaker and the subject in the real world, possessing real problems, in language that exposes the sorrows of the subject while bringing light-heartedness to the situation.


One key line that is symbolic of MacNeice's style of mixing humor with rueful introspection appears in the fourth stanza, with the line, "Angels, goddesses, bitches, all have edged away" [19]. It is at once both a god's-eye-view observation, perhaps from the narrator, and a description of women from the libertine - in this case, it is a cry of anguish and a damning epithet against the female sex. But because of the line's juxtaposition of divine figures such as angels and goddesses with the crude and vulgar word "bitches," the line seems too casual to express strong emotion. It appears as part of a rueful monologue, one whose sad irony is that the speaker, i.e. the libertine, is too weary to even say this line forcefully.


Finally, MacNeice offers another adage like "War or work or marriage" [Prognosis 26] in the last stanza. Even if the libertine were to be now offered "Fulfillment in a woman," [The Libertine 24], he would still say "O leave me easy, leave me alone" [25]. The word choice of fulfillment rather than happiness suggests satiation of one's needs rather than true joy. And thus, the libertine's needs are never satisfied because he cannot find "fulfillment in a woman" - perhaps because he sees them as objects, as "Furs in January, cartwheel hats in May" [17]. Thus, after a lifetime of seeking sensual pleasure, the libertine ultimately cannot fulfill himself in a woman. This is the ultimate irony in "The Libertine."  The humor in the poem disguises this circle of licentiousness and the final unhappiness, while the use of irony adds to the portrait of the libertine as pitiable.


Perhaps Allen Tate put it best when he accused the modern mind of solipsism: " it believes that we create the world in the act of perceiving it." [2] Modern poetry as seen in MacNeice neither seeks to be detached from the emotional realm nor seeks to overwhelm the reader with sorrow. MacNeice simply writes of his place in the world, combining his personal introspection with a humor and irony that makes his poetry not stuffy and intellectual but appealing to society as a whole. As MacNeice states in the Preface to Modern Poetry: A Personal Essay, Modern poetry is a "plea for impure poetry, that is, for poetry conditioned by the poet's life and the world around him." [3] Thus MacNeice illuminates the troubles of the society he live in, while offering a look at the lighter side of these sorrows - he usse irony and satire to mock excessive despair while disguising the seriousness of his ideas by this very irony and satire.


MacNeice is a slight bit impersonal at times, but only insofar as he does not explicitly place himself as the speaker by using I. Just as he looks at life's flux in "Variations on Heraclitus," his take on the Greek philosopher Heraclitus' idea that one can never step in the same river twice due to the constant movement of the world around us, he also offers a view on the multiplicities of life in "Prognosis." MacNeice's notion is that one is not to be apprehensive about these uncertainties but simply to take them as they come. Similairly, in "The Libertine," MacNeice takes on the issue of licentiousness and promiscuity and while poking fun at the antics of the libertine, also exposes the lonely and decrepit final condition of the libertine. In this manner, MacNeice points to a moral of restraint regarding sex, while retaining a light-heartedness throughout the poem.


But how personal is this issue to him? As Yeats said, "there is always a phantasmagoria," and we cannot be sure if this dilemma that the libertine felt was one that MacNeice personally underwent. Nevertheless, poets write of what they feel, and even if MacNeice was not personally a libertine, we can be sure that this is an issue he thought about - otherwise, why write about it? And thus MacNeice achieves both an arm's length discussion of a social issue and an ironic look at a playboy who is representative of many a poet. As MacNeice wrote in the conclusion to Modern Poetry: A Personal Essay, the poet "does not give you a full and accurate picture of the world nor a full and accurate picture of himself, but he gives an amalgam which, if successful, represents truthfully his own relation to the world."[4] Thus the Modern poetry of MacNeice does not simply speak of abstract social issues such as sexual licentiousness or of strictly personal issues. His Modern poetry is a blend of personal emotion and social issues, presented not in a heavy-handed tone but with satire and irony. For in the real world, sorrow exists side by side with joy and laughter. So what sense does it make for Modern poetry to only be dark and display alienation and a rejection of modern society?


Therefore, Modern poetry is not just dark statements such as T.S. Eliot's "April is the cruelest month, breeding/ Lilacs out of the dead land..." [The WasteLand 1-2] or Thomas Hardy's "The smile on your mouth was the deadest thing/ Alive enough to have strength to die" [Neutral Tones 9-10]. Modern poetry is also irony and a light-hearted look at despair such as "Now that pick-ups are the order of the day:/ O leave me easy, leave me alone" [The Libertine 4-5]. The Modern poetry of Louis MacNeice seeks to present his perception of the world around him and while MacNeice does not seek to hide its sorrow, he attempts to display this sorrow with a touch of lightheartedness.  As Louis MacNeice illustrates, even death and despair can have a lighter side.


[1] Alex Preminger, Ed., Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1974).

[2] Hugh Holman, William Harmon. A Handbook to Literature (New York: Macmillan, 1986): 308.

[3] Louis MacNeice. Modern Poetry: A Personal Essay (New York: Haskell House Publishers, 1969): Preface.

[4] Louis MacNeice. Modern Poetry: A Personal Essay (New York: Haskell House Publishers, 1969): 197.