I’m afraid that today’s post is going to be cut short before I manage to complete it. That might be no bad thing, as it would have been the second post in a row about poetry. I’ll be back to fiction next time and I don’t intend to write any more about poetry before October at the earliest. Indeed, I’m thinking about not writing about poets and their work in Talk about books in future, but confining myself to fiction and the odd piece of drama. The poetry posts usually take noticeably longer than I planned and rarely seem to me as satisfactory as I had hoped.

A week ago, I posted on my personal site a defence of or apology for my limited appreciation of poetry. I’m not recommending that you read that — I wrote it more to get my own thoughts straight than to try to persuade anyone else — but it’s there if you’re interested.

The lines by Louis MacNeice that are (as far as I can tell) best known and most often quoted come from a poem titled “Snow”:

World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.

Less often quoted, the third (final) stanza tells us something else about what “world” is. It’s “more spiteful and gay than one supposes”. In this poem, the one thing that “world” is consistently is misleading: it doesn’t conform to our expectations. It’s always more something than we fancy it, than we think, than one supposes. Why is the poet telling us this is a poem titled “Snow”? To answer that, we’ll need to understand that “snow” has a particular — though probably not constant — significance in some of MacNeice’s poetry.

In this poem it seems to appear suddenly, the “great bay-window … Spawning” it:

The room was suddenly rich annd the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.

This is undoubtedly vivid, but without being clear as to what has happened. Are the roses and the snow on the same side — the outside — of the window with, perhaps, a sudden snowfall pushing the flowers up against the glass? What, in any case, does it mean for the window to spawn snow, and does “Spawning” apply to the roses as well as the snow, or only to the latter?

The poem’s final line at least resolves one of these questions: “There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.” So the snow is outside and the roses are in. Obvious as that might seem, it couldn’t necessarily have been taken for granted. In a poem dated two years later, “The Brandy Glass”, we find indoor snow:

Only let it form within his hands once more —
The moment cradled like a brandy glass.
Sitting alone in the empty dining hall …
From the chandeliers the snow begins to fall
Piling around carafes and table legs
And chokes the passage of the revolving door.
The last diner, like a ventriloquist’s doll
Left by his master, gazes before him, begs:
“Only let it form within my hands once more.”

That’s the entire poem. There may well be a literal brandy glass, or several of them, on the table, but this is not the poem’s subject. The last diner, a lifeless figure like an abandoned prop, deprived of the ventriloquist’s animation, longs to be able to hold in his hands, “cradled like a brandy glass”, a moment which has irrecoverably passed, which can never come again. What is the snow doing, falling from the chandeliers, and “Piling around carafes and table legs”? Perhaps turning the empty dining hall into a desolate, frozen landscape. Perhaps making a belated, futile attempt to freeze the departed “moment” for the diner’s sake?

In an earlier poem, “To a Communist” from 1933, the significance of snow is clearer:

Your thoughts make shape like snow: in one night only
The gawky earth grows breasts,
Snow’s unity engrosses
Particular pettiness of stones and grasses
But before you proclaim the millennium, my dear
Consult the barometer —
This poise is perfect but maintained
For one day only.

Here the snow represents the “unity” that “engrosses | Particular pettiness of stones and grasses”. It’s imagined as creating an unbroken wholeness from the disparate details of stones and grasses. This is taken to be the communist’s aim: to make a oneness out of the multifariousness of existence. That, the communist presumably believes, is what a perfect socialist society would be. MacNeice’s objection is distinguishable from that of E O Wilson, who is reported to have said of communism “Great idea, wrong species”: the problem isn’t simply that “human nature” — our individualism, our instinct to favour those who share our genes, in preference to, and at the expense of, fellow members of our social group, class or species — it’s in the nature of reality itself, which isn’t capable of remaining unchanged, even once perfection had been attained (supposing that to be possible).

MacNeice’s scepticism about communism is not a matter of psychology or social science; instead, it’s philosophical, or even metaphysical. Like Heraclitus, he was convinced that the world is always in flux, never the same from one moment to another. A socialist society would immediately transform itself into something else, simply because that’s the way things are. Snow inevitably melts.

Other poems where snow performs a similar function include “The Casualty”, in which MacNeice commemorates his friend Graham Shepard who was lost in the North Atlantic when his corvette was attacked in 1942. As MacNeice sees it, Shepard left only “inklings” of what he might have accomplished if he had lived to a normal life expectancy:

So what you gave were inklings: trivial signs
Of some momentous truth, a footprint here and there
In melting snow …

Edna Longley finds a reference to snow too in “Plurality”, a longish poem (80 lines of hexameter couplets) where, according to Peter McDonald

a jingling verse form was employed to accommodate abstruse metaphysics (or rather repudiations of metaphysics). The poem, one of MacNeice’s most elaborate attempts to come to terms with the idea “That only change prevails”, tries to salvage value in a philosophical system where flux is paramount and a static universal impossible. (McDonald, p. 111).

In the passage from the poem quoted by Longley, the “modern monist” (a descendant of Parmenides), out of a “terror of confusion freezes the flowing stream | Into mere illusion, his craving for supreme Completeness” leading him to evoke “a dead ideal of white | All white Universal” (Longley, p. 146).

She says that the poem is “itself only partially saved from ‘abstraction’ by the swing of its hexameter couplets.

The last reference to snow that I want to mention is in Autumn Journal XXIV in which, as Longley puts it

an allusion to “Snow” suggests transition to a new creative season for the poet himself:
Sleep, my past and all my sins,
   In distant snow or dried roses …

(Longley, p. 75)

All these references to snow are in poems that date from relatively early in MacNeice’s career. The earliest, “To a Communist”, is dated 1933; the last, “The Casualty”, about ten years later. It might be foolish to expect a poetic image to maintain a stable significance across ten years in the work of an avowedly Heraclitean poet, but it would be fair to say that in general snow stands for an ideal perfection, universality or wholeness that never lasts, that is not to be maintained for long.

If MacNeice was a poet who was convinced that nature is a Heraclitean flux, we should not be surprised to find that time — its inexorable passing, its unstoppability — is an important theme in his work.

In an early poem, “August”, the speaker complains that “The shutter of time darkening ceaselessly” has caused “the gay months” to elude him as they do every year:

For the mind, by nature stagey, welds its frame
Tomb-like around each little world of a day;
We jump from picture to picture and cannot follow
The living curve that is breathlessly the same.

Our minds, our perceptions, are not equipped to “follow | The living curve” of time, but instead see it as a series of snapshots of separate moments. The statement that the living curve “is breathlessly the same” might appear to imply a contradiction. The less paradoxical reading might be that each moment on the curve is the same as one of the static pictures that the individual perceives, but “breathlessly” so because these moments run together without gaps; without, so to speak, pauses for breath.

The more paradoxical reading may — oddly enough — be more satisfactory: the living curve is the same as it always has been, even though it’s always changing, because Time itself must be “outside” time, and therefore cannot be subject to its own “rules”.

The speaker and the person he is addressing are in a garden where Time “is shown with a stone face”: perhaps a sundial or a clock of some kind:

But all this is a dilettante’s lie,
Time’s face is not stone not still his wings;
Our mind, being dead, wishes to have time die
For we, being ghosts, cannot catch hold of things.

Our understanding of time is, of necessity, misleading, deceptive.

And that’s all I’ve got for now, I’m afraid. I intend to come back to revise and finish this post, but probably not for a few months at least. My apologies.

Works referred to

Louis MacNeice, Selected Poems, edited and introduced by Michael Longley, Faber 1988;

Enda Longley, Louis MacNeice: A Study, Faber, 1988;

Peter McDonald, Louis MacNeice: The Poet in his Contexts, Clarendon Press, 1991.