These lines from MacNeice’s poem written in 1938 sadly seem apposite today. The lines refer to the bombing of Barcelona when fascists killed some 1300 people. They also refer to his response which is to seek solace in sleep. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bombing_of_Barcelona
Now, of course the Spanish Civil War was a totally different situation from the current situation from the Russian invasion of Ukraine. However, the melancholy tone of Autumn Journal resonates with my personal feelings about current events. Firstly, weapons have become vastly more destructive and in a few days the casualties and destruction have become enormous and sadly mch more about to be revealed. In both conflicts, ethnic and religous belief would appear to be active. Although mercenaries and International Brigades are involved the ideological factors such as a belief in Marxism are radically different in form.
The cock which crowed in respect to Barcelona is an Easter image relating to betrayal. Just as with Covid the current response by politicians to the current crisis is totally underwhelming and indicates too how domestic and isolationist narratives have obscured a wider view as to how to resolve or even contain this conflict.
So this melancholia pervades from 80 or more years ago-
In reading about museums I discovered that Derrida had written about archives. He develops a post modern approach to how the perspectives on the past are subject to change. Witness the recent debates about racism and colonialism in relation to this.
There are two moving poems by Louis MacNeice that moved me when I read them this morning. The first was an early poem called just “Museums” with a pronounced rhyme scheme. The second is more interesting and called “In the Reading Room at the British Museum”. The final line is perhaps more poignant than ever.
Museums by MacNeice
Museums offer us, running from among the buses, A centrally heated refuge, parquet floors and sarcophaguses, Into whose tall fake porches we hurry without a sound Like a beetle under a brick that lies, useless, on the ground. Warmed and cajoled by the silence the cowed cypher revives, Mirrors himself in the cases of pots, paces himself by marble lives, Makes believe it was he that was the glory that was Rome, Soft on his cheek the nimbus of other people’s martyrdom, And then returns to the street, his mind an arena where sprawls Any number of consumptive Keatses and dying Gauls.
It is always a pleasure to discover a new poet as I did when I came across the following book locally, which I strongly recommend for its style and elegance ;-
The spirits have dispersed, the woods
faded to grey from midnight blue
leaving a powdery residue,
night music fainter, frivolous gods
withdrawing, cries of yin and yang,
discords of the bionic young;
cobweb and insects, hares and deer,
wild strawberries and eglantine,
dawn silence of the biosphere,
amid the branches a torn wing
— what is this enchanted place?
With prune-dark eyes, thick lips, jostling each other
These, disinterred from Europe, throng the deck
To watch their hope heave up in steel and concrete
Powerful but delicate as a swan’s neck,
Thinking, each of them, the worst is over
And we do not want any more to be prominent or rich,
Only to be ourselves, to be unmolested
And make ends meet–an ideal surely which
Here if anywhere is feasible. Their glances
Like wavering antennae feel
Around the sliding limber towers of Wall Street
And count the numbered docks and gingerly steal
Into the hinterland of their own future
Behind this excessive annunciation of towers,
Tracking their future selves through a continent of strangeness.
The liner moves to the magnet; the quay flowers
With faces of people’s friends. But these are mostly
Friendless and all they look to meet
Is a secretary who holds his levée among ledgers,
Tells them to take a chair and wait…
And meanwhile the city will go on, regardless
Of any new arrival, trains like prayers
Radiating from stations haughty as cathedrals,
Tableaux of spring in milliners’ windows, great affairs
Being endorsed on a vulcanite table, lines of washing
Feebly garish among grimy brick and dour
Iron fire-escapes; barrows of cement are rumbling
Up airy planks; a florist adds a flower
To a bouquet that is bound for somebody’s beloved
Or for someone ill; in a sombre board-room great
Problems wait to be solved or shelved. The city
Goes on but you, you will probably find, must wait
Till something or other turns up. Something-or-Other
Becomes an unexpected angel from the sky;
But do not trust the sky, that blue that looks so candid
Is non-committal, frigid as a harlot’s eye.
Gangways – the handclasp of the land. The resurrected,
The brisk or resigned Lazaruses, who want
Another chance, go trooping ashore. But chances
Are dubious. Fate is stingy, recalcitrant.
And officialdom greets them blankly as they fumble
Their foreign-looking baggage; they still feel
The movement of the ship while through their imagination
The known and the unheard-of constellations wheel.
This poem appeared just about a year after MacNeice visited America where he met Auden and Isherwood amongst other prominent figures during a short lecture tour. It appeared at a time of extreme danger for Britain:- Dunkirk was a recent event and The Blitz too was starting. I am of the opinion that Auden and Isherwood need little justification for having left the country. They had worked bravely on “Journey to War” in Manchuria and Isherwood’s novels gave a clear insight into the rise of the Nazis and the persecution of leftists, Jewish people and so on. That is by the way, since although this poem could be considered in some ways slight, it has interesting parallels with the comparable plight of refugees today. Given Trump, entering America has become extremely difficult in the past year. In addition, it gives an insight into the New York seascape and skyline which I seem to remember has been written about movingly by two Jewish exiles, Rose Ausländer (Januar in New York) and I think, Mischa Kalako.
The poem itself is obviously of it’s time and the first line is rather brutal on facial characteristics. There are some interesting words like ‘milliner’ and ‘vulcanite’ that have dropped out of common parlance rather. I particularly like-‘Into the hinterland of their own future’ which suggests the confusion of trying to find in a new environment some reference to the land left behind. It also contains, I think, perhaps unconsciously, reference to MacNeice’s hinterland as an Irish born poet as well as much effective and ambivalent use of religious imagery. His father became a bishop of the Anglican Church of Ireland.
A happy vicar I might have been
Two hundred years ago
To preach upon eternal doom
And watch my walnuts grow;
But born, alas, in an evil time,
I missed that pleasant haven,
For the hair has grown on my upper lip
And the clergy are all clean-shaven.
And later still the times were good,
We were so easy to please,
We rocked our troubled thoughts to sleep
On the bosoms of the trees.
All ignorant we dared to own
The joys we now dissemble;
The greenfinch on the apple bough
Could make my enemies tremble.
But girl’s bellies and apricots,
Roach in a shaded stream,
Horses, ducks in flight at dawn,
All these are a dream.
It is forbidden to dream again;
We maim our joys or hide them:
Horses are made of chromium steel
And little fat men shall ride them.
I am the worm who never turned,
The eunuch without a harem;
Between the priest and the commissar
I walk like Eugene Aram;
And the commissar is telling my fortune
While the radio plays,
But the priest has promised an Austin Seven,
For Duggie always pays.
I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls,
And woke to find it true;
I wasn’t born for an age like this;
Was Smith? Was Jones? Were you?
This appears in a new collection and their is a witty comment at https://www.theguardian.com/books/shortcuts/2015/nov/04/love-george-orwell-never-read-poems-poetry
It somehow reminds me of a favourite poem by Louis Mac Neice in its energetic and upbeat tempo- Bagpipe Music. Perhaps it is not surprising that Mac Neice sounds so much like Auden-but it certainly surprised me!
Reading Edith Hall’s book on the Ancient Greeks, develops a deep respect for the power of poetry. No poet was more effective in this regard than Homer recounting the sea adventures contained in the ‘’The Odyssey’’. It shaped the self-definition of a nation and engendered self-confidence. The mariners set out in their beautiful ships across the Aegean and established colonies to the West, in the Mediterranean as far as the Pillars of Hercules, to the East as far as the Levant and built trading cities in natural harbours along the fertile edges of the Black Sea. They were, as Plato wrote in the Phaedo, “around the sea, like frogs and ants around a pond.” They were encouraged by Delphic oracles and inspired by the company of diving dolphins.
The structure of Hall’s account is clearly set down at the start with a useful chronology from the Myceneans in 1500 B.C. to the close of the Delphic oracle in 395 A.D. providing a clear context for the following text. It also gives a framework that neatly conveys the interaction between individuals, resources, military conflicts, the arts, sports, social upheavals and importantly the contributions of recent research. Anyone reading this book will discover how much our understanding of the Greeks has developed currently from new excavations, discoveries and recent scientific techniques. The first four strongly interconnected qualities that Hall ascribes to the Greeks are that they were seagoing, suspicious of authority, individualistic and inquiring. Further, they were open to new ideas, witty, competitive, admired excellence in people of talent, were exceptionally articulate and were also addicted to pleasure.
This is, perhaps, an ideal book to take upon a Mediterranean cruise. Reading it is arguably a cheaper but comfortable substitute and it will certainly improve your geographical understanding. Some of the ancient names may well be unfamiliar to us today. Most will have heard of Knossos on Crete where back in the early Mycenean period the cattle were called by ironic names like Swift and Talkative or ‘’Oinops’’ which means wine-dark, just as Homer describes the sea. Then there is Massalia where the Greeks imported the vine and thus founded the French wine industry. Sicily, however, provided the setting for particularly notorious tyrants. Olbia, on the Black Sea, which is situated in Ukraine today, was difficult to colonise but eventually provided a sanctuary area for the worship of ‘’Apollo Delphinios’’, a sea-god of music, healing and prophecy.
In an interesting chapter on the Spartans, Edith Hall writes of the famous battle at Thermopylae where the courage of 300 sacrificed warriors, led by King Leonidas, created the conditions whereby Greece was saved from the influx of marauding Persians. The excellence of these Spartans consisted in their stern self-discipline and their blunt and pithy sense of humour which is therefore referred to as laconic. In a similar manner, the admiration of the Spartans is called Lacophilia after the area of Laconia which these Dorian Greeks subdued in the eighth century B.C. Spartan women appeared to have attained a degree of independence from their men folk and cultivated the worship of Artemis and festivals involving hyacinths. However, when you read of the treatment meted out to the wretched helots (slaves), recorded by Plutarch and also from Xenophon and Herodotus of the vicious clash of the armoured scrum that constituted hoplite battles, the reader begins to understand why the Spartans are summed up by the author in one adjective-inscrutable.
The adventurous Greek mind appears to have exerted its strength when the kingdom of Macedonia fell to Roman power after AD168. But as Horace wrote, ‘’Graecia captum ferum victorem cepit’’ –captive Greece took her fierce conqueror captive. It was the fluency of the Greek which made it not only the language of business but dominated both rhetoric and prose. Hegemony is after all a Greek word. Recounting these later times the account becomes even more vivid. The writings of the self-assured physician Galen were influenced the development of medicine for many centuries to come. The touching story of rhetorical superstar, as Hall terms Aristides, the inventor of the personal memoir but also a hypochondriac, has a contemporary appeal. It is nice to know that his faith in the benevolent healing deity, Asclepius, quieted his inner turmoil.
Reading Edith Hall on the Ancients is a stirring adventure; a contemporary correspondence to what Keats must have felt when he opened Chapman’s translation of Homer. The experience is reminiscent too of a poem from the classicist Louis MacNeice who in his poem about the maritime mercenary Greek cry ‘’Thalassa, Thalassa’’ penned the following:-