‘But freedom is not so exciting’: Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal

Louis MacNeice by Howard Coster,
nitrate negative, 1942. NPG x1624.
© National Portrait Gallery, London.
(CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

 
 
Jonathan Hitchens
 

‘Oppression and war’, writes the philosopher Alain Badiou in his essay ‘Poetry and Communism’, ‘are also the revelation of the fact that men must guard the riches of life’. What should we make of this cryptic remark – are these riches material, cultural, interpersonal? And how are they to be guarded? Badiou knows what he thinks: the solution to all loss and suffering is ‘communism itself.’ But for those still unsure of the salvation of ideology, a multitude of questions remain unanswered. Discussions of the point of culture in troubled times have always been fraught with difficulties. To my mind, the bravest, most endearing investigation of this shadowy realm is not a theoretical work but a creative one, written by a man largely unaffected by the Second World War, but who shows what it is to be witness to a rapidly changing reality. In Autumn 1938 England was safe. But it is this principle of ‘guarding’ not just the riches, but the whole of life for posterity that is the backbone of Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal. MacNeice is not just a modern writer, however, but a modern individual too. His treatment of the self is the poetic exception in a tradition reaching from the pathetic protagonists of Aldous Huxley’s early novels to today, with prominent writers like Michel Houellebecq and Ben Lerner continuing the fascination with the duality of an anxious ego and an indifferent world.

 

Autumn Journal begins with an ending. It is, naturally, summer that is ending, in a dust-covered Hampshire idyll ‘of shaven lawn where close-clipped yew/ Insulates the lives of retired generals and admirals’. The poem passes over the land and its inhabitants with a disdainful eye. Though emblems of comfortable nostalgia (crowds on the beach, rose trellises, ‘farmyard noises across the fields’) are present, the reader knows that whatever is being said goodbye to is not home. MacNeice, bound ‘for the dead leaves falling’ in London, is already giving us a taste of what he sees as a broken, disenchanted England; later in the poem the provinces will begin to feel as apocalyptic as the capital. From Section 18:

 

‘Sing us no more idylls, no more pastorals,
        No more epics of the English earth,
The country is a dwindling annexe to the factory,
        Squalid as an after-birth.’

 

But even compared to this, what follows MacNeice’s journey in Section 2 is a shock. We seem to have stepped off the train into, literally, a nightmare, or a night plagued by the fear of one. ‘I am afraid in the web of night…I wonder now whether anything is worth/ The eyelid opening’. MacNeice was troubled by nightmares all his life, but here he is lucid and awake, dragging us down with him. Just a few pages, then, is enough for the reader to tell what a strangely creative maze Autumn Journal is. It is not really a long poem but an ordered series of short poems of all different stripes – elegiac, destructive, flighty, and many more impossible to classify. The thing most often said about Autumn Journal is that it combines private and public universes. This is really an understatement. Peter MacDonald in his book on MacNeice comments, ‘the self…is extended so as essentially to deny any distinction between the two domains’. MacNeice boldly turns himself into a subject scrutinised equally with the world, resulting in an uncomfortable, confrontational perspective and a poem impossible to pack down into measurable dimensions. Reading it, one has the sense that the whole project is about to fall apart somehow, as close to disintegration as apparently everything else is: ‘I must go out tomorrow/ And build the falling castle/ Which has never fallen, thanks…to the human animal’s endless courage.’

 

MacNeice’s London is still recognisable today; at once a ‘falling castle’ and an incredibly solid place, a mass of activity, but also dourness and alienation. It is crucial to note that, even at its most pessimistic, MacNeice’s language is never bleak. The vibrancy running through Autumn Journal is a source of joy on its own. He is an invaluable flaneur: ‘Nelson is stone and Johnnie Walker moves his/ Legs like a cretin over Trafalgar Square… In Tottenham Court Road the tarts and negroes loiter beneath the lights.’ In the same lines, we visit the pub and the ‘bloody frontier’ of war approaching, before a didactic warning that there are no sands left to bury our heads in: ‘nothing remains but rock at this hour, this zero hour’. Yes, rock and no water – this is a decaying urban wasteland of frantic consumption, where Johnnie Walker stands brighter and more alive than Nelson. The ‘easy days’ of the past have all gone under the hill. T.S. Eliot, the poem’s first critical reader, mentioned that he read it through ‘without my interest flagging at any point.’ We can sympathise – it is hard to get bored when the speaker refuses to stand still. MacNeice wrote in the foreword, ‘poetry must be honest before anything else, and I refuse to be objective [to its detriment].’ Indeed, the principal problem with Autumn Journal– and it isn’t much of a problem – is its fullness. The poem is just too packed with every conceivable thought, sight and sound, and what could be more ‘honest’ than this totality? Ireland, Spain, ‘the coming Uebermensch’, lust and lost love, nightmares, drinking: MacNeice’s ambition is enough for half a dozen poets, an ambition that would obviously outgrow his pledge when he writes, ‘goodbye also Plato’s philosophizing;/ I have a better plan/ To hit the target straight without
circumlocution.’

 

That said, his London is a limited city too, populated by workers portrayed more as economic functions than fellow beings – not cruelly, but inevitably. MacNeice bears his status as an educated intellectual with more than a little self-consciousness. His explorations of working-class life are sometimes weirdly anthropological and patronising, especially in the way that he envies their ‘simplicity’: after the working day, the ‘solace of films or football pools…the moments of self-glory or self-indulgence, blinkers on the eyes of doubt’ – unimaginable for a man who seems to spend his waking hours doubting everything in front of him. He turns to irony, still angry at the static lives he perceives around him: ‘we must do as the Romans do, cry out together/ for bread and circuses…[while] the legions wait at the gates.’ His recollections of the queues of unemployed in Birmingham, conversely, are sympathetic and un-cliched, and he claims, ‘not that I would rather be a peasant; the Happy Peasant/ like the Noble Savage is a myth’. Still, MacNeice’s place in the city is an uneasy one – his inability to reach into the lives of others does not particularly heighten his security in himself, as blindness supposedly heightens hearing. The things he notices – windscreen wipers wiping ‘like mad’ in an empty car, neon signs, the ‘insulated, mute’ weather – are evidence of an alienated mind and a body unable to fully integrate into its environment. This may have been a problem of identity: the Irish writer Michael O’Loughlin compares MacNeice to ‘a refugee standing at an immigration desk’, permanently. But it also points to an insecurity of being, a painfully detached sociability that can only be blanketed under that most blanket of terms, ‘modern’. From section 17: ‘Aristotle was right to think of man-in-action/ as the essential and really existent man/ and man means men in action; try to confine your/ self to yourself if you can.’ Does the speaker of a poem of such vibrancy and energy feel less than ‘existent’? This dual struggle with notions of purpose and even masculinity recurs throughout Autumn Journal. The speaker is convinced that they are not quite being who they are supposed to. The opening of section 16 reads:

 

‘Nightmare leaves fatigue:
        We envy men of action
Who sleep and wake, murder and intrigue
        Without being doubtful, without being haunted.
And I envy the intransigence of my own
        Countrymen who shoot to kill and never
See the victim’s face become their own’.

 

It is not a stretch to assume that part of the reason for sentiments like these stems from MacNeice’s embarrassment that his holiday to Spain was, in fact, just a holiday. The country that would soon denote the ‘grief, [and] aspirations’ of a generation of Western intellectuals stands for failure in more than one sense for the poet.

 

It is difficult to square MacNeice’s quasi-detachment with the fact that this poem makes a mission of fusing the life of the mind with the life of ‘out there’. To my mind, however, this paradox places MacNeice far ahead of his time. Many novels published today make use of protagonists practically identical to the author, riddled with doubts and cynicisms, who hardly seem to exist in the spaces they inhabit. Some of these novels are heralded under the banner of ‘autofiction’. (Perhaps it is the old prejudice that worthwhile fiction can never be anything but autobiographical, or maybe it is just the word itself, which feels both like a non-sequitur and a marker of unearned arrogance, but the term reminds me of the evolution of some barmen to the dubious title of ‘mixologist’). While considering Autumn Journal, I wondered if it could be a benchmark for this genre – not a novel, but otherwise a worthy ancestor. MacNeice doesn’t just speak to the age of anxiety, political turbulence and narcissism we inhabit now – he practically speaks from it. An early (and brilliant) example of autofiction is Ben Lerner’s 2011 novel Leaving the Atocha Station, in which a neurotic American (Adam) on a scholarship in Madrid wanders around the city, half-forming human connections and pretending to be more profound, and more of a poet, than he really is. James Wood wrote on Lerner: ‘he is attempting to capture something that most conventional novels, with their cumbersome caravans of plot and scene and ‘conflict,’ fail to do: the drift of thought, the unmomentous passage of undramatic life.’

 

But this is all to change. The author/narrator is present for the 11-M terror attacks, and it looks as though he will finally be shaken out of his total self-preoccupation. But it is not to be. He hovers above the situation and people affected like a spirit, at a blood donation bank considering ‘how blood from my body might have been put into the body of someone injured by History’. Later, using the attacks as an excuse to see his girlfriend (he is extremely jealous), Adam tries ‘to justify my pettiness by meditating on the relation of the personal to the historical but my meditations did not go far’. This great display of inhumanity may well offend us, but one of Lerner’s themes is the distance modernity imposes between reality and the individual. To refute Baudrillard, the Gulf War certainly happened, but for ordinary people, the actuality of disaster feels less and less real each time. Everyone in the West above a certain age is by now as numbed to normal, yet unreal, representations of violence as has ever been possible. Adam’s non-reactions to his environment are a projection (though not very far) of the minds of those who have grown up with videos of ‘precision’ airstrikes, Gaddafi’s corpse in the gutter, and a tragedy every three days on our news feeds. Susan Sontag, writing in 2003, opined that ‘being a spectator of calamities…is a quintessential modern experience’, and that ‘the gruesome invites us to be either spectators or cowards, unable to look.’ Adam, by contrast, walks among bloodied teenagers and replays footage of the bomb blasts seemingly without a twinge of emotion. His spectatorship has no repercussions.

 

I was taken aback by something MacNeice wrote in 1941, after London had been bombed and he had seen the damage: ‘There was a voice inside me which kept saying, as I watched a building burning or demolished: “Let her go up! Write them all off. Stone walls do not a city make. Tear all the blotted old pages out of the book”’. The passage at first seemed to me an extremely inconvenient one in any discussion of MacNeice, the so-called sensitive, ‘superficial’ writer who decried authoritarianism and would seem the last person to slip into Futurist fantasies of destruction. As he knew: ‘strength implies the system; you must lose your soul to be strong.’ MacNeice is not the same as Lerner’s narrator. He is, perhaps, even more modern a spectator, proving his prescience for our perennially confused times. Peter MacDonald’s response is that MacNeice’s artistry had overtaken his politics: nothing ‘can compete in poetic attractiveness with the livid forms of chaos’. After all, this is the man who remembers so distinctly from childhood,

 

‘The fear…that Casement would land at the pier
        With a sword and a horde of rebels;
And how we used to expect, at a later date,
        When the wind blew from the West, the noise of shooting
…
‘The land-owner shot in his bed, the angry voices
        Piercing the broken fanlight in the slum,
The shawled woman weeping at the garish altar.’

 
Returning to Autumn Journal, we can find another outlet of this latent love of oblivion, echoed in the slightly perverse lines, ‘But freedom is not so exciting/ We prefer to be drawn/ In the rush of stars as they cycle.’ Of course, while MacNeice never had to see real unfreedom, the sentiment is familiar. And, even more inconveniently, in the sublime section:
 

‘…Hitler yells on the wireless,
        The night is damp and still
And I hear blows on wood outside my window;
        They are cutting down the trees on Primrose Hill.
The wood is white like the roast flesh of chicken,
        Each tree falling like a closing fan;
No more looking at the view from seats beneath the branches,
        Everything is going to plan;
They want the crest of this hill for anti-aircraft,
        The guns will take the view
And searchlights probe the heavens for bacilli
        With narrow wands of blue.’

 

These lines, by my estimation among the best in all of MacNeice, are too expansive for the little space they occupy. They read as though ventriloquised through MacNeice by a darker conscience, one that almost relishes what it sees. ‘They are cutting down the trees on Primrose Hill’ possesses an incredible gravity, like the words of an Old Testament prophet. I prefer to disregard the punctuation in this section; it seems like an imposition on the feverish, spiralling rhythm, echoing at times the march of boots and at others just a barely controlled panic. Three images of vaguely bourgeois solidity are slung, one after another, towards the reader: the chicken is carved, the fan snaps shut, the pastoral view blacked out. ‘Everything is going to plan’ is MacNeice’s headline, the press release that we know not to trust. Here the alternation of long and short lines finds its vocation. The reader careers into catastrophe, understanding that something large and no longer dormant is creeping over the hill. The image of a park being razed and anti-aircraft guns ‘taking the view’ (taking it also away) is sinister enough. So then why is MacNeice’s classic morose tone so absent? The two lines beginning ‘and searchlights’ are practically a reverie, or as close to reverie as the poet lets himself get. There is no time to think as the soldiers chop and saw – that will come later. What we are given here is a core of feeling, of boyish hysteria, of the alien movement of ‘History’ happening before our eyes. It is dangerous to revel in, but this is indisputably where MacNeice really ‘hits the target’.

 

At the risk of doing a disservice to MacNeice, we may put aside concerns of morality and note that Autumn Journal is full of light as well as darkness. When Auden, in 1 September 1939, sits in that dive on 52nd St. at the close of the same ‘low dishonest decade’, we almost hear the sound of a great wallowing, that guiltily joyful misery perfected by the English. MacNeice’s emotion is of a different character, and so it is throughout the long moment of crisis that is Autumn Journal. At the first sign of wallowing he runs, into the purity of memory or experience – and it is to his credit that those things can take on a ‘purity’ at all, but he makes them. What we see time and again in his poetry is what might be termed eloquent impressionism, the crystallization of sensations that so often escape us. For instance, driving to Oxford becomes fleetingly a descent into Hades:

 

‘And at the curves of the road the telephone wires
        Shine like strands of silk and the hedge solicits
My irresponsible tyres
        To an accident, to a bed in the wet grasses.
And in quiet crooked streets only the village pub
        Spills a golden puddle
Over the pavement and trees bend down and rub
        Unopened dormer windows with their knuckles.’

 

He has a deep love for inevitability and changeability: ‘no river is a river which does not flow’ is the first of a repeated motif. And at last he admits, even if ‘the orchestra is due for the bonfire…while a man has voice/ he may recover music.’ It is in recovery of what has and will be lost that MacNeice places his trust:

 

‘Movement, movement, can we never forget
        The movements of the past which should be dead?
The mind of Socrates still clicks like scissors
        And Christ who should lie quiet in the garden
Flowered in flame instead.’

 

This is the troubled side of MacNeice’s philosophy, reiterated in ‘the grate is full of ash but fire will always burn.’ If the past returns to haunt us, it also returns in other, happier functions. But whatever its pull, what is done is done. ‘Sleep, the past, and wake, the future/ And walk out promptly through the open door.’

 

In our sometimes disastrous, always hyper-connected and hyper-opinionated new century, it has become all too easy to imagine ourselves as living through a sort of constant emergency. This is not to say that we should care less about the world outside our doors, nor that we ought to forget our belief in what is right. But MacNeice reminds us that, for the fortunate minority, life goes on. We do not have to force comparisons nor to scaremonger in order to say that MacNeice is ‘timely’; that is just the way things have turned out. Many can surely empathise with MacNeice’s view of democracy as a choice ‘between enormous evils, either/ Of which depends on somebody else’s voice.’ Just as Autumn Journal may comfort, to read it is also to be educated, in unexpected ways, about resilience, conscience, and many other things besides. MacNeice is not a poet of suffering – from the same years, there are also works like Paul Celan’s Todesfuge, a poem which enacts both a vision and a complete darkness, a poem chilling to even the most innocent. In a world so ‘plural’, as MacNeice famously said, there is no need to choose – both poems are, to be crude, the entire point of literature. He wrote in 1940: ‘we shall not be capable of depth – of tragedy or great poetry – until we have made sense of our world.’ Yes, MacNeice is often trivial. But he proved how profound the triviality of just existing can be.

 

‘And when I should remember the paragons of Hellas
        I think instead
Of the crooks, the adventurers, the opportunists,
        The careless athletes and the fancy boys,
The hair-splitters, the pedants, the hard-boiled sceptics
        And the Agora and the noise
…
‘And lastly
        I think of the slaves
how one can imagine oneself among them
        I do not know;
It was all so unimaginably different
        And all so long ago.’

 

The past is past, but never completely. It is unimportant that we ‘do not know’, these lines appear to say. The imagining has already been done.

 

Jonathan Hitchens

About Jonathan Hitchens

Jonathan Hitchens is a student at King's College London.