The great poems of London, strangely enough, are not written by Londoners. With the exception of William Blake, the rest, from Shakespeare through to Samuel Johnson, William Wordsworth to T.S. Eliot, came in from their various provinces, be they Stratford, Lichfield, the Lake Country or New England—to make names and futures, to be corrupted and to grow up. Johnson’s ‘London’ with its muggers in dark alleys, Wordsworth’s young man in ‘The Prelude’ spellbound by the living freak-show of the city, and the puritan Eliot alchemising fascination and disgust in ‘The Waste Land’:
Mr. Eugenides, the Smyrna merchant
Unshaven, with a pocket full of currants
C.i.f London: documents at sight,
Asked me in demotic French
To luncheon at the Cannon Street Hotel
Followed by a weekend at the Metropole.
Centuries of disillusioned innocence repeat themselves, one way or another, in these great poems. Until lately, for generations of Irish people, London was where lost virginities, physical, spiritual or political, came to terms with themselves, so it is no surprise that Ireland is the province colonising the capital in Louis MacNeice’s ‘Autumn Journal’ of 1938, the latest so far of the great London meditations. Not, it has to be said, the Ireland of the underdog or economic migrant, but of the intellectual in voluntary exile—a Classics don, a divorcee, a left-leaning secular liberal at the end of youth, at the end of the 1930s, the western world and the private self both with their backs to the wall, in this case the wall of a flat on Primrose Hill overlooking London, as Munich and Hitler fill the newsstands, the park is cleared for anti-aircraft emplacements, and Europe teeters on the edge of war.
Hitler yells on the wireless,
The night is damp and still,
And I hear dull blows on wood outside my window:
They are cutting down the trees on Primrose Hill.
If there is a single question dominating the 24 sections of ‘Autumn Journal’ it is ‘How did I, how did the world, arrive at this point?’ Section by section, the self-interrogations address themselves to the poet’s Irish background, to his love-life, his studies in Greek and Latin, and his immersion, like so many thirties poets, in the Spanish Civil War. Though nothing is forced in this journal of a London autumn, all the above themes, once introduced, are re-stated, as in a symphony, before winter comes and the certainty of war. An earlier poem ‘Valediction’ had already said goodbye to the closed, childish society of Ireland, but imminent tragedy in Europe strips any residual sentiment from the backward glance.
There is no immunity in this island either;
A cart that is drawn by someone else’s horse
And carrying goods to someone else’s market.
The bombs in the turnip sack, the sniper from the roof,
Griffith, Connolly, Collins, where have they brought us?
Ourselves alone! Let the round tower stand aloof
In a world of bursting mortar!
The argument against isolationism extends past the Irish Free State to its Nobel laureate Yeats and his pre-modern poetics. ‘I would have a poet able-bodied,’ writes MacNeice in Modern Poetry, ‘fond of talking, a reader of the newspapers, capable of pity and laughter, informed in economics, appreciative of women, involved in personal relationships, susceptible to physical impressions.’ And he adds, in his prospectus to ‘Autumn Journal’: ‘The writing is direct. Anyone could understand it.’ Compare all that with the classical detachment, the impersonality of Yeats’s own treatment of western collapse in his poem ‘The Gyres’:
Irrational streams of blood are staining earth;
Empedocles has thrown all things about;
Hector is dead and there’s a light in Troy;
We that look on but laugh in tragic joy.
Not that the Classics do not play a major part in MacNeice’s own background and formation, and in the very fabric of ‘Autumn Journal’; he had, after all just moved from Birmingham to London University as a lecturer in that subject. But as touchstones of reality, let alone balance, they have a hard time justifying themselves in the age of Gog and Magog, Hitler and Stalin.
And how one can imagine oneself among them
I do not know;
It was all so unimaginably different
And all so long ago.
Neither Ireland nor Greece, country or culture, have much for the lonely individual to fall back upon, in his hour of need. And the modern ideals, embodied in calls to arms with the International Brigade, in the struggle for republican Spain against Franco, are a bog of compromise where the liberal conscience finds no footing either.
We have come to a place in space where shortly
All of us may be forced to camp in time:
The slender searchlights climb,
Our sins will find us out, even our sins of omission.
What survives is less a philosophy than a vision of life as a dance of brilliant particulars on a background of failed ideas. Its most famous embodiment (‘the drunkenness of things being various’) is in his poem of the early thirties ‘Snow’, but it is everywhere in ‘Autumn Journal’, where the life of the senses—the smell of bread on Charlotte Street, the clinging foam in a beer-glass, the rose geranium soap in the steaming bath, the bark of a sea-lion in Regent’s Park zoo—is marshalled, unconsciously, against the large generalities that have everyone marching in lockstep to disaster.
Open the world wide, open the senses,
Let the soul stretch its blind enormous arms,
There is vision in the fingers only needing waking
Ready for light’s alarms.
‘The man who is tired of London,’ as Samuel Johnson wrote, ‘is tired of life.’ Mac Neice, oddly enough, is never less tired of London or life than in the sections of ‘Autumn Journal’ celebrating an unnamed woman (the painter Nancy Coldstream) with whom his relationship falls apart in the months of its composition. Not since Coleridge’s ‘Dejection Ode’ has a poet so closely analysed the collapse of feeling into its absence; and yet gratitude, not just for what has passed between them, but for the city itself, is the dominant note.
Who has left a scent on my life and left my walls
Dancing over and over with her shadow,
Whose hair is twined in all my waterfalls
And all of London littered with remembered kisses.
The hardboiled veteran of emotional wars (‘When we are out of love, how were we ever in it?’) is forever contending with an open-hearted melancholic, never more so than in the section on a Christmas visit to Paris. That city, of course, is the capital of worldly cynicism, as Spain equals political conflict and Ireland an innocence that never grows beyond itself to the wider fate. All these places or states of mind are, however, contained in London itself—the site of final disillusionment, private or public, to be lived through for something new to resume.
By December, as his biographer Jon Stallworthy tells us, much of ‘Autumn Journal’ had been written, and by early the following February the typescript was with his publisher T.S. Eliot. In the meantime, the equivocatings of 1938 had given way to the grim certainties of 1939. Politically, war was now inevitable; and privately, love was a thing of the past.
The lady is gone who stood in the way so long,
The hypnosis is over and no-one
Calls encore to the song.
At this point, the whole poem shifts away from retrospection and self-examination. The ground has been cleared, the battle about to begin for the fate of mankind. Contemplation, now, gives way to action. The master-image, in the great final section, is of millions sleeping, as in Shakespeare’s Henry V, on the eve of something decisive.
To-night we sleep
On the banks of Rubicon the die is cast;
There will be time to audit
The accounts later, there will be sunlight later
And the equation will come out at last.
It is eighty years, or nearly, since the first publication of ‘Autumn Journal’. Did the equation come out at last? Or is something infinitely less liberal and optimistic slouching towards Bethlehem to be born? The war, like the one before it, solved nothing, and subsequent conflicts—the ones on our screens—leave us in the same uneasy peace as 1938, while staking out our greeds and paranoias in farther corners of the earth. Nobody new, in all these years, shows signs of coming through from the provinces with another London meditation. And that, perhaps, is because the one we have in ‘Autumn Journal’ is more than adequate, living as we do on the edge of a rational catastrophe, armed with the Saturday morning liberal optimism MacNeice unmasked, in himself and others, for its hollowness, while still loving the London it and he belonged to. Irish or not, our backs are still to the wall of that Primrose Hill flat, in that faraway autumn.