25 November, 2005

Autumn Journal

I've quoted from it before, but I feel Louis MacNeice's epic poem 'Autumn Journal' deserves a proper plug.

I'm re-reading it again for the first time since having to study it at university almost ten years ago. While I'm still pretty loathe to return to anything I endured in the name of my degree, 'Autumn Journal' is something I've been itching to go back to for ages. I've only just been able to get hold of a copy, and it's just as ace as I remember thinking it was first time around.

It's essentially one man's account of living in London through the autumn of 1938, told in verse but split into the equivalent of entries in a diary, charting the events - personal, political, social, seasonal - that marked the close of that turbulent year. And it's one of the most beautiful things I've ever read.

The conceit undoubtedly plays a big part; I've kept a diary myself for almost 20 years. But it's the simple, evocative, uncluttered language which MacNeice deploys that really gets me, best summed up by a sentence from the man's own introduction to the work:

"Poetry in my opinion must be honest before anything else, and I refuse to be 'objective' or clear-cut at the cost of honesty."

It's this honesty that makes 'Autumn Journal' so poignant for a time I can never know, nostalgic for a place I will never see, and such a moving testament to a world long long gone. In one section MacNeice declares:

As I go out I see a windscreen-wiper
In an empty car
Wiping away like mad and I feel astounded
That things have gone so far.

Throughout the poem he's alternately baffled and beguiled by the palpable sense - rendered evermore acute by the looming threat of war - of the old order giving way to something new. Preparations for hostilities are potently symbolized by the cutting down of trees on Primrose Hill to make way for anti-aircraft guns:

The night grows wet, the axe keeps falling
The hill grows bald and bleak
No longer one of the sites of London but maybe
We shall have fireworks here by this day week.

And while I've never read a better description of embarking on a trip on the London Underground -

And so to London and down the ever-moving Stairs
Where a warm wind blows the bodies of men together
And blows apart their complexes and cares.

- I've also never come across a more plaintive summary of the dangers of wallowing in the past, of imagining yourself back in a better time only to discover yourself trapped in a reverie of half-truth and illusion:

How one can imagine oneself among them
I do not know
It was all so unimaginably different
And all so long ago.

Like all great poetry 'Autumn Journal' is accessible, inclusive and full of resonances of today. There's precious little online about Louis MacNeice, but this is as fine a place to start as any - other than purchasing a copy of 'Autumn Journal' yourself, of course, and reading it in time with this autumn's steady fade into the dusk of the year.


Anonymous Pearl said...

I studied extracts of Autumn Journal 40 years ago for O level, the old English exam we took aged 16. I still remember parts of it with great pleasure. Something like:
"Tonight 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."
Ironic that I became an auditor!
"Snow" was the first modern poem I encountered when I was 15. And I was converted immediately.

8:31 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I first heard of Louis Macneice when his play "He Had a Date" was produced on the wireless in his memory, shortly after his death in 1963. I was 12 at the time, and started to look for his work.

He was *the* poet of my adolescence, and many of his phrases echo through my life still, presumably because his preoccupations spoke to my own (life/death, time, alienation, honesty). Recently I have - not rediscovered - him, because I never lost his influence; but come back to rereading him and feeling the power of his work afresh.

4:47 pm  

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