Man of Moments: Louis MacNeice

Philip Larkin, in an obituary of Louis MacNeice said “he was… a town observer: his poetry was the poetry of our everyday life, of shop-windows, traffic policemen and ice-cream soda, lawn-mowers, and an uneasy awareness of what the newsboys were shouting. In addition he displayed a sophisticated sentimentality about falling leaves and lipsticked cigarette stubs: he could have written the words of ‘These Foolish Things’. We were grateful to him for having found a place in poetry for these properties, for intruding them in “the drunkenness of things being various”. Larkin’s analysis is neat, sharply observed, and has echoes of MacNeice’s own famous recipe for the modern poet: “I would have the poet able-bodied, fond of talking, a reader of newspapers, capable of pity and laughter…” But it is also slightly faint praise — you could interpret it: “he’d found a place in poetry for these properties, although the true subject of poetry was usually thought to reside elsewhere”. MacNeice was accustomed to faint praise. His friend Dylan Thomas had no praise at all for him after his dearth: “thin and conventionally minded, lacking imagination and not sound in the ear”, was his verdict

Despite the surly verdict on MacNeice at the time of his death, at the age of 56 in 1963, his poems have survived: several — such as ‘Snow’, ‘Meeting Point’, ‘Prayer Before Birth’, some extracts form Autumn Journal — have become anthology favourites. These — and a few others such as ‘Entirely’ and ‘The Slow Starter’ — are the kind of poems ordinary readers like: they are classic poems on the Underground; they get pinned up above desks, they are talismanic. Dylan Thomas, of course, would probably have said that ordinary people like them because they are ordinary poems that flatter the commonplace thoughts of ordinary people. I will be disputing this during this talk. Despite the Dylan Thomases, MacNeice’s reputation, amongst poets and readers, is now much higher than it was during his lifetime. As the great clearout of 20th-century poetry goes on, MacNeice increasingly looks like making the cut.

MacNeice was born in Belfast in 1907, the same year as Auden. His father was a Church of Ireland (Protestant) clergyman, a powerful man, a progressive in his day, who eventually became a bishop. MacNeice describes his early life in Belfast in grim terms. His mother died when he was seven years old and his brother was mentally handicapped. More than most poets, perhaps, he was haunted by his childhood years.

Despite or because of his dour upbringing, the young MacNeice was drawn to the glittering, the ephemeral, the evanescent. He was an extremely nimble-minded hedonist with a relish for the sensual plurality of the world. In his own words, in his youth he had “an excessive preoccupation with things dazzling, high-coloured, quick-moving, hedonistic, up-to-date”. His first poems paraded a Sitwellian rococo.

He was fortunate in that from his early schooldays in England, at Sherborne and Marlborough, he found people and surroundings to match this side of his temperament. His main influence was the precociously aesthetic Anthony Blunt, later to become an art critic, master of the Queen’s pictures, and notorious as a Russian spy. At Marlborough, Blunt was the fount of up-to date wisdom:

Anthony had a flair for bigotry: he despised Tennyson, Shakespeare, the Italian High renaissance and Praxiteles, was all in favour of the primitives, of Uccello, of the Byzantine mosaics, of Breugel and Negro sculpture.

Marlborough was, it seems, so dazzling that MacNeice’s Oxford was an anticlimax, even though Auden and Spender were there as undergraduates at the same time.. MacNeice only really got to know Auden later, in Birmingham, but of the Oxford years he said:

You came away from his presence always encouraged [Auden used to interrogate poets in his darkened room, wearing an eye shade]; here at least was someone to whom ideas were friendly — they came and ate out of his hand — who would always have an interest in the world and always have something to say.

MacNeice read Greats and on leaving Oxford in 1930 became a lecturer in classics at Birmingham. Birmingham was the making of MacNeice as a poet: partly because it was emblematic of the 30s, as an industrial city crippled by the Slump, partly because it was not the metropolis, and MacNeice needed to be out of the glare of the mainline to develop his own vision; and partly because there were sympathetic people and a lively artistic life there. Professor Dodds, who got him the job, became a lifelong friend and his first literary executor; Auden was there for a time, and there were the novelist Walter Allen, and the sculptor Gordon Herrickx. Finally, I think Birmingham suited him because it was a little like home, a little like Belfast — an industrial city. He said of the city:

Living in Birmingham had reconciled me to ordinary people; I found reassurance in silent gardeners, inefficient hospital nurses, in a golfer cupping a match in his hands in the wind, in businessmen talking shop in the train. I found no such reassurance in the intelligentsia. I remembered how under the Roman Empire intellectuals spent their time practising rhetoric although they would never use it for any practical purpose; they swam gracefully around in rhetoric like fish in an aquarium tank. And our intellectuals also seemed to be living in tanks.

MacNeice had married Mary Ezra in his last year at Oxford and part of the Birmingham experience was a young married idyll set against the backdrop of the slump. In the first half of the ’30s the MacNeices lived in a house painted by Mary like a Russian Ballet, had a child, “travelled around Shropshire in a bijou car”, and exhibited their dogs at shows. He said of dog shows:

Hardly anywhere else can you pick up with so little effort such gems of impossible logic or blatant or unconscious egotism…The dog show is a medium for the most arrogant self-expression, the most decadent kind of virtuosity.

This was the personal background to MacNeice’s first real book, Poems (1935). He had come to maturity under the shadow of Eliot and The Waste Land, and an Oxford pastime had been to punt not through the meadows but down by the canal. He said of the gestation of the key poem ‘Eclogue for Christmas’:

During Christmas of 1933 I sat down deliberately and wrote a long poem called ‘Eclogue for Christmas’. I wrote it with a kind of cold-blooded passion and when it was done it surprised me. Was I really as concerned as all that with the Decline of the West? Did I really feel so desperate? Apparently I did. Part of me must have been feeling like that for years.

The poem begins:

I meet you in an evil time.

The evil bells

Put out of our heads, I think, the thought of everything else.

From Poems on, this tougher note contended with his lyricism, and MacNeice’s mature style was forged. Although influences can be spotted, MacNeice’s style seems to spring from his temperament rather than his reading. His knowledge of the classics was undoubtedly important to him, particularly Horace. The metaphysical side of his poetry owed something to Hopkins; He admired Yeats perhaps more than any of his predecessors and wrote a critical book about him. Then there was the influence of Auden, and the new political climate of the 30s.

The ’30s is one of the most famous eras in British poetry — it has the most striking and peculiar flavour, usually denoted by reference to its key figure — the ’30s are Audenesque. MacNeice was both a poet of his time and outside of it. The ’30s have been endlessly summarized, precis-ed, dismissed. Auden called it a “low dishonest decade”, and many of the protagonists came to regard the period with embarrassment. One of the best summations is a poem by the later poet Donald Davie: ‘Remembering the ‘Thirties’:

And curiously, nothing now betrays

Their type to time’s derision like this coy

Insistence on the quizzical, their craze

For showing Hector was a mother’s boy.

Audenesque is a just term because Auden invented the 30s. He invented a music, an amalgam of the material and social novelties of the age — arterial roads, air transport, new alloys, hiking, concrete, ribbon development — and a yen for spy imagery, cadet corps pranks, and do-it-yourself psychology — part Freud, part DH Lawrence, part more obscure figures he met in Berlin. And above all, there was the presentiment of disaster, of the coming European war. Although we now recognise this ’30s music whenever we see it I believe that it was not inevitable, conditioned by the age, but a mark of the force of Auden’s personality, the way he thrust his peculiar compound of obsessions into the public arena.

Auden subsequently repudiated some of his most characteristically 30s poems but they have the undiluted music,. Take ‘A Communist to Others’:

O splendid person, you who stand

In spotless flannels or with hand

Expert on trigger

Whose lovely hair and shapely limb

Year after year are kept in trim

Till buffers envy as you swim

Your Grecian figure.

You’re thinking us a nasty sight;

Yes, we are poisoned, you are right,

Not even clean;

We do not know how to behave

We are not beautiful or brave

You would not pick our sort to save

Your first fifteen.

An influence is still an influence even if the expression is inverted, and Auden’s plaint is really a runt’s eye view of Kipling’s England. We are sick, he is saying, but we are still obsessed with our English public school preoccupations: only the formula doesn’t work any more.

A voice as original as Auden’s is a brilliant unforeseeable creation, but once in existence easy to copy. Soon Cecil Day Lewis was writing:

You who like peace, good sorts, happy in a small way

Watching birds or playing cricket with schoolboys,

Who pay for drinks all round, whom disasters chose not;

Yet passing derelict mills and barns roof rent

Where despair has burnt itself out — hearts at a standstill

Who suffer loss, aware of lowered vitality;

We can tell you a secret, offer a tonic, only

Submit to the visiting angel, the strange new healer.

It’s an insidious music, a mixture of accusation and masochistic self-flagellation, but in retrospect it seems that the poets often weren’t aware of its implications. These writers were all left-wing, some became communists, but as Auden said later of his second book The Orators, the writer, whom he hardly recognized any more, sounded dangerously close to fascism rather than communism, and Day Lewis’ “strange new healer” is surely an emerging fascist leader. The ’30s exhibited a crisis of liberal individualism. The two opposed responses to this, which MacNeice anatomized in his autobiography, The Strings are False, were a desperate descent from the individual tower towards collective sacrifice (communism), and a tendency to devolve responsibility onto a strong man, a leader (fascism). Both involve self-abasement, and it is not surprising that in the early days

the two became confused in the work of the poets.

MacNeice seemed to be largely immune to these extremes. He remained a liberal centre-leftwinger. He partook of the 30s poetic music, ironizing the “crowds undressing on the beach/And the hiking Cockney lovers with thoughts directed/Neither to God nor Nation but each to each”. But he remained aloof from the collective hysteria and scouting/spying cult. He regarded Auden as a “rich if random prophet” but was sceptical of both the collective masochism of the upper middle classes and the dangerous personality cult that some such as Day Lewis erected around Auden: ‘Wystan, lone flyer, birdman, my bully boy!’

Temperamentally, he differed from the ’30s stereotype in being “incorrigibly heterosexual” (Anthony Blunt’s phrase) and retaining a healthy grain of commonsense. Privately, he believed in what he called ‘the surrenders’, not making choices but exercising negative capability:

What I feel makes life worth living is not the clever scores but the surrenders — it may be to the life-quickening urge of an air raid, to nonsense talked by one’s friends, to a girl on the top of the Empire State Building, to the silence of a ruined Byzantine church, to woods, or weirs, or to heat dancing on a gravelled path….

This was MacNeice’s form of self-abasement — a metaphysical surrender rather than a political one. Surrendering is to some extent is what all poets do, but no poet of any century has been better than MacNeice at capturing moments of grace. That is what people love about ‘Snow’ — the sudden close-up of a life made more vivid:

The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was

Spawning snow and pink roses against it

Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:

World is suddener than we fancy it.

********

When I first read MacNeice I knew nothing of his reputation or lack of it. I hadn’t studied English literature and came to poetry late, at the age of 23. I discovered MacNeice early in this process, by chance, after reading Eliot, Larkin and Betjeman (but not Auden whom I came to the wrong way round, so to speak — after MacNeice). At the time, the choice was dictated entirely by the limited stock of poetry at Golders Green Library, for which I am truly grateful. They had the Collected Poems. I knew nothing about him; but leafing though I quickly got the impression of nutritious fare. The poems are dense with imagery, but completely lucid, they are shapely, formal but with no trace of poeticisms. So the book passed the first taste and was taken home.

I was instantly hooked. I’d read so little 20th-century poetry, I had no idea if he was typical or unusual. For all I knew, there might have been dozens of poets who did this sort of thing better than he did, but he’d do to be going on with. Now, of course, having read pretty well everything, I know that there is no one better, although he has had many pale imitators. MacNeice is the man. What was it that entranced me then and still does?

MacNeice is firstly for me the poet who articulates what I feel everytime I step out of the door into the city, or walk on the Downs or by the sea, or settle down to the office routine or go to the National Gallery. This is close to the Larkin version of course. But what is odd is that MacNeice should have this field almost to himself. Doesn’t everybody feel like this:

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.

Or:

These days are misty, insulated, mute

Like a faded tapestry and the soft pedal

Is down …

Or:

And on the bare and high

Places of England, the Wiltshire Downs and the Long Mynd

Let the balls of my feet bounce on the turf, my face burn in the wind

My eyelashes stinging in the wind, and the sheep like grey stones

Humble my human pretensions

Or:

So one day skulks indoors, a troglodyte

In a firelit cave equipped with drinks and books,

And one day catches mackerel, a thousand white

Excitements flapping on a thousand hooks.

Or:

And love hung still as crystal over the bed

And filled the corners of the enormous room;

The book of dawn that left her sleeping, showing

The flowers mirrored in the mahogany table.

I cheated with the last one — it isn’t about everyday reality, it’s a love poem. MacNeice displays much more than Larkin’s “sophisticated sentimentality about falling leaves and lip-sticked cigarette stubs” — he is a great love poet. Michael Longley says so and so do I. MacNeice knew that a love poet has to practice a kind of fetishism, implicating unlikely objects in the love scenario. Stanza four of his most famous love poem, ‘Meeting Point’, begins:

The camels crossed the miles of sand…

Camels!? What are they doing here? They’re there to create what Gaston Bachelard called “intimate immensity” — an endless landscape to match the suspension of time. It goes on:

The camels crossed the miles of sand

That stretched around the cups and plates;

The desert was their own, they planned

To portion out the stars and dates.

It is a wonderful moment of reverie.

What I most liked in MacNeice when I first read him was precisely this philosophy of the enchanted, islanded moment that blossoms into another dimension. I liked it so much that I erected a kind of personal mythology around it. What I thought was his philosophy became mine. I have to admit, thirty years later, that it didn’t work for me, but I have no intention of blaming MacNeice for this.

But the epiphanies of his poetry remain, to be used as he said — in ‘Off the Peg’ — tunes can be used:

…. we reach for

For one of those wellworn tunes; be it purgatory or hell

Or paradise even, circumstances allow

This chain of simple notes the power of speech,

Each tune, each cloak, if matched to weather and mood, wears well

And off the peg means made to measure now.

Here are some of those moments:

While the lawn mower sings moving up and down

Spirting its little fountain of vivid green

(‘August’)

Or:

…The dragonfly

Rises without takeoff, horizontal,

Underlining itself in a sliver of peacock light.

(‘The Cyclist’)

(which is, of course, a Martian conceit avant la lettre)

Or:

Down the road someone is practising scales,

The notes like little fishes vanish with a wink of tails

(‘Sunday Morning’)

Or

I peel and portion

a tangerine and spit the pips and feel

The drunkenness of things being various.

(‘Snow’)

The philosophy of the moment in MacNeice goes something like this. Great swathes of life are dominated by mind-numbing repetition, the tyranny of chores, automatic responses, corruption, a loss of living vitality. MacNeice attacks these deadening forces constantly throughout his work:

And the trains’ rhythm becomes the ad nauseam repetition

Of every tired aubade and maudlin madrigal

The faded airs of sexual attraction

Wander like dead leaves along a warehouse wall

(Autumn Journal)

Or:

The jaded calendar revolves,

Its nuts need oil, carbon chokes the valves.

The excess sugar of a diabetic culture

Rotting the nerve of life and literature.

(‘Eclogue for Christmas’)

Against these deadening forces MacNeice sets images of moments when the senses are fully alert, the primal glory of creation blazes, and life has meaning. These states can’t last, but they must be celebrated and kept in view otherwise the dead forces will win. Sometimes his celebrations are pure, as in the love poems or ‘Snow’ but often the epiphany is starkly counterpointed. ‘Morning Sun’ begins in the territory Larkin identified, celebrating the dazzle of street life:

Shuttles of trains going north, going south, drawing threads of blue,

The shining of the lines of trams like swords,

Thousands of posters asserting a monopoly of the good, the beautiful, the true…

The description then rises to a bright fantasia of colour and movement:

And the street fountain blown across the square

Rainbow-trellises the air and sunlight blazons

The red butcher’s and scrolls of fish on marble slabs,

Whistled bars of music crossing silver sprays

And horns of cars, touché, touché, rapier’s retort, a moving cage,

A turning page of shine and sound, the day’s maze.

But then the gleam goes out of it:

But when the sun goes out, the streets go cold, the hanging meat

And tiers of fish are colourless and merely dead,

And the hoots of cars neurotically repeat and the tiptoed feet

Of women hurry and falter whose faces are dead;

And I see in the air but not belonging there

The blown grey powder of the fountain grey as ash

That forming on a cigarette covers the red.

Is the animation or the stasis the truth? Obviously both are.

At other times he ironizes our need to find bright life-enhancing images:

Let the xylophones and the saxophones

And the cult of technical excellence, the miles of canvas

In the galleries

And the canvas of the rich man’s yacht snapping and tacking

On the seas

And the perfection of a grilled steak -

Let all these so ephemeral things

Be somehow permanent like a swallow’s tangent wings.

(‘Eclogue for Christmas’)

MacNeice is playing a double game. He wants to have his cake and eat it; he insists we’re all going down the pan, but he also insists on celebration: “….blinkers on the eyes of doubt,/The blue smoke rising and the brown lace sinking/In the empty glass of stout”. He exhibits what he called “the split-vision of the juggler” and I feel that is an immensely valuable notion. In the modern world to adhere too slavishly to one position or another leads to absurdity; you have to keep nimbly tacking before the wind: are you pro or anti the great abstractions: science, business, globalization, poetry even? These dichotomies are sterile; you can only take only so much of anything before it tips into absurdity. As someone should tell Geoffrey Hill.

Dylan Thomas was quite wrong. There is nothing conventional about MacNeice: he had a mind or extraordinary agility, never settling for stock solutions. The juggling trick is most on display in Autumn Journal, in which he constantly sets up a premise and then recognises that its antithesis has force too:

In the days that were early the music came easy

On cradle and coffin, the corn in the barn

Songs for the reaping and spinning and only the shepherd

Then as now was silent beside the tarn

But a few lines later, we have:

Sing us no more idylls, no more pastorals,

No more epics of the English earth

Or:

And it really was very attractive to be able to talk about tables

And to ask if the table is,

And to draw the cork out of an old conundrum

And watch the paradoxes fizz

But this canto concludes:

Goodbye now, Plato and Hegel,

The shop is closing down;

They don’t want any philosopher kings in England,

There ain’t no universals in this man’s town.

The special appeal of Autumn Journal is its constant interplay of inner life and external reality. This is what life feels like; there is something going on that demands our attention but we, like the figures in Auden’s poem ‘Musee des Beaux Arts’, have things to be getting on with too. In Autumn Journal MacNeice is the best pulse taker in the business:

I light my first cigarette, grow giddy and blink,

Glad of this titillation, this innuendo,

This make-believe of standing on the brink

Or:

The cylinders are racing in the presses,

The mines are laid,

The ribbon plums the fallen fathoms of Wall Street,

And you and I are afraid.

MacNeice was not just a poet. He wrote many prose books and a good deal of journalism and the radio plays. Much of this has been collected between hard covers, published rather unfortunately in academic editions by Oxford’s Clarendon Press. Some of this can be seen as hackwork but anyone who loves MacNeice’s poetry is also likely to enjoy his prose. It has been relatively little commented on. Stephen Spender was superficially perceptive but ungenerous and ultimately beside the point (the equivalent in prose of Thomas on the poetry) when he said of MacNeice’s autobiography, The Strings are False, that it consisted of: “flower beds planted from bright, gay, intelligent seeds out of labelled packets”. The Strings are False is, in fact, the perfect complement to the poems.

MacNeice’s prose is full of wonderful bravura passages that make explicit his aesthetic and moral vision. He came of a generation who, if they went to Oxford, were required to be either aesthetes or hearties and his genius was to go straight down the middle of this divide. Deeply aesthetic but often finding his best epiphanies in the hearties’ sport or everyday things. He wrote: “I am all against the rarefying effects of good taste…I don’t agree that the style is the man. I always feel a vulgar curiosity to know what a man is talking about”. MacNeice’s attitude to what he calls Hollywood vulgarity is one of the touchstones of his art. In his prose he often makes lists of favourite things. He has great gusto and a coat-trailing bravura when he talks about how we respond to things such as:

…new potatoes in April speckled with chopped parsley or to the lights at night on the Thames of Battersea power house, or to cars sweeping their shadows from lamppost to lamppost down Haverstock Hill or to brewer’s drays or to lighthouses and searchlights or to a newly cut lawn or to a hot towel or to Moran’s two classic tries at Twickenham in 1937..”and so on.

This kind of dandyish vulgarity really is having your cake and eating it. I’ve know of no one else who has taken up this aesthetic position and to me it is wonderfully refreshing.

In his prose, MacNeice seems to flit through everything, by turns an amused and sorrowing observer. He notices everything, is alert to every irony. Nature, character sketches, political commentary, sport, public spectacle, are all deftly despatched. The character sketches in The Strings are False have a cartoonist’s economy. This is a

portrait of John Betjeman:

John Betjeman at that time looked like a will-o-the-wisp with Latin blood in it. His face was the colour of pea soup and his eyes were soupy too and his mouth was always twisting sideways in a mocking smile and he had a slight twist in his speech which added a tang to his mimicries, syncopating the original just as a rippling sheet of water jazzes the things reflected in it.

MacNeice didn’t wallow in Wildean velvet excess — he was the dandy on the train, at the Hippodrome or the Zoo. He rejoiced in:

The pleasure of dappled things, the beauty of adaptation to purpose, the glory of extravagance, classic elegance or Romantic nonsense and grotesquerie — all these we get from the Zoo.

The nimble movement of MacNeice’s prose is propelled by idiosyncratic syntax. He makes much use of elision, beginning sentences with relative pronouns, for example –

The boat is suddenly swarming with seamen and Canadian airmen, queuing up for beers, laughing, the airmen terribly young. [full stop] Who have come on board from nowhere for, as time has no more tenses, so places have no longer names.

- or omitting the conjunction before linked sentences:

As I left the patio, an old woman had crept away by herself, was holding her bread in both her hands, gnawing it, completely absorbed.

Sometimes to evoke the drunkenness of things being various he piles up a long sentence and lets it unravel helter-skelter without punctuation:

The girls in their white aprons each with her own little monotony, flicking a pink bauble accurately onto a bonbon, for ever and ever and ever — a million baubles on a million bonbons, and another girl puts them in a million frilly paper cradles and then they are marshalled in boxes with perpetual June on the cover and are shot around the world to people’s best girls and mothers and the frilly paper is trampled underfoot in cinemas and railway trains and stadiums and every day is somebody’s birthday.

*****

To return to the poetry. MacNeice’s 30s work stands — for its poignant counterpointing of timeless lyricism and the portents of disaster. His second great phase was the last eight years or so of his life. His middle period — “This middle stretch is bad for poets”, he said — had tended to be verbose, piling up attempts which just missed the target, but in his last two books — Solstices (1961) and The Burning Perch (1963) –a new sparer style emerged. This was his parable style, in which ominous narratives are played out in taut rhythms, using strategically placed line endings to kick the rhythm on.

Soap Suds

This brand of soap has the same smell as once in the big

House he visited when he was eight: the walls of the bathroom open

To reveal a lawn where a great yellow ball rolls back through a hoop

To rest at the head of a mallet held in the hands of a child.

And these were the joys of that house: a tower with a telescope;

Two great faded globes one of the earth, one of the stars;

A stuffed black dog in the hall; a walled garden with bees;

A rabbit warren; a rockery; a vine under glass; the sea.

To which he has now returned. The day of course is fine

And a grown-up voice cries Play! The mallet slowly swings,

Then crack, a great gong booms from the dog-dark hall and the ball

Skims forward through the hoop and then through the next and then

Through hoops where no hoops were and each dissolves in turn

And the grass has grown head-high and an angry voice cries Play!

But the ball is lost and the mallet slipped long since from the hands

Under the running tap that are not the hands of a child.

The reanimation of cliché is one of MacNeice’s favourite devices and he brings it to perfection in these poems. He was always fond of clichés, even in their unregenerate form, and wrote a poem called ‘Homage to Clichés’. He loved them because they represented community, they were a bonding gesture, an assurance of human continuity and goodwill, a bastion against malign forces:

Somewhere behind us stands a man, a counter

A timekeeper with a watch and a pistol

Ready to shoot and with his shot destroy

This whole delightful world of cliché and refrain

What will you have my dear? The same again?

But it is the way he revived cliché and the commonplace that is most interesting. And this is where Dylan Thomas is best refuted. Take a late poem like ‘Star Gazer’. Many poets have been intrigued by the notion that the light from distant stars takes years to reach us. It is perhaps one of those subjects that are intrinsically “poetic”, meaning that they are wonder-creating whether or not they are cast into the formal lines of poetry. But how do you turn the intrinsically poetic into poetry? Certainly not by bald statement — it then becomes banal and the poetry is killed. How do you evoke a fresh wonder and terror? This is always poetry’s central question.

In this case, MacNeice does it by ironizing statistics, since it is a statistic we are dealing with. The poem begins: “Forty two years ago (to me if to no one else the number is of some interest)”. So from the beginning there is a whiff of the feeling: what’s this Hecuba to me or anyone, because apart from wonder we also feel the meaningless of the vastness of the universe: on one level, he’s saying that it is no more meaningful than the accidents of his life are to anyone else. In a similar technique, he flattens the conventional poetry of the stars, the conventional treatment being a deadening cliché: he calls them: ‘those intolerably bright/ holes punched in the sky’, an unforgettable phrase, because it has a childlike sense of naming for the first time. The occasion MacNeice is remembering occurred when he was 14, riding an empty train westward on a starry night. He yokes the vastness of space to this vivid particular occasion, describing how he ran from side to side in the corridorless train to get a different angle on the constellations.

As in many of MacNeice’s later poems, the poetic technique mimics the subject, so his line breaks create excitement and tension by mimicking the lurch from one side of the train to the other. The vertigo induced by contemplating the vast distance is created by the lurch of the train, using the known to evoke the unknown. And the impossibility of grasping large numbers is miraculously overcome by the phrase ‘adding noughts in vain’. Again the dénouement uses the devices of poetry organically to make a point. The light from 42 years back may never arrive before his death, but the final rhyme will. The poem gains further poignancy when we know that it was one of his last poems, written months before his death:

And this remembering now I mark that what

Light was leaving some of them at least then,

Forty-two years ago, will never arrive

In time for me to catch it, which light. when

It does get here may find that there is not

Anyone left alive

To run from side to side in a late night train

Admiring it and adding noughts in vain.

A talk given at Somerset House on 11 April 2002 for The Poetry School, in association with The Poetry Society.

I write about biomimicry and nanoscience in books and review science books for the Guardian and Independent. Teach Narrative Non-fiction at City University.