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Memory and Starlight in Late Macneice

Abstract and Keywords

In his poem ‘Star Gazer’, part of his final, posthumously published volume, The Burning Perch (1963), Louis MacNeice mentions that he had read ‘in the textbooks’ how vast the distance was between the earth and the stars. He had described the poems of The Burning Perch to Allen Tate as ‘all thumbnail nightmares’, and critics such as John Press and Peter McDonald have discussed the nightmare imagery and logic deployed in the late poems. MacNeice's poems about time depend primarily on the representation of memory in order to achieve their effects, conveying the sense of accelerated time as like a train, or fast-flowing water, or even a horse that no one can control and from which one cannot dismount. He is interested in expanding the definition of parable in various directions. In The Burning Perch, MacNeice was aiming for the narrative simplicity, compression, and intensity of parable based on his definition.

Keywords: Louis MacNeice, memory, stars, Burning Perch, Star Gazer, nightmares, poems, parable

IN January 1920, Louis MacNeice wrote to his stepmother in Carrickfergus that he had had the unusual experience, while travelling to school at Sherborne, of sitting alone in the dark in a third-class carriage. His train from Fleetwood to Euston had been delayed, which meant that he had missed his train from Waterloo to Sherborne and had had to take a later train at 5 p.m. which ‘stopped at nearly every station’.1 Consequently, the journey (which today takes over two hours to complete) was conducted in the growing darkness of the January evening. Due to his isolation in the darkened carriage, the stars appeared very vivid in the cloudless sky, which he could see clearly through the window. This was casually mentioned at the time (‘At Fleetwood discovered that McCammonds were in 1st class carriage so had to go in 3rd class one by myself. Saw stars from train to Sherborne’), but as he later recalled the incident (or an incident very similar to this) in The Strings Are False, it came to have a deeper significance than is acknowledged in the letter home: ‘In January 1921 I found myself wonderfully alone in an empty carriage in a rocking train in the night between Waterloo and Sherborne. Stars on each side of me; I ran from side to side of the carriage checking the constellations.’2 In writing his unfinished autobiography, MacNeice has presumably misremembered the year of the incident, but he seems to be clearly referring to the moment of unwonted isolation in the train as described in the letter of 21 January 1920. In letters written in the ensuing days after this journey, he mentions that the boys at school have recently seen ‘Pegasus and Andromeda’ from the dormitory window, and that they are reading about astronomy.3 One or two books were circulating, including Sir Robert Ball's Star-Land: Being Talks (p. 241) with Young People about the Wonders of the Heavens (1889), which MacNeice read with some interest at the time.4 Ball was a popular lecturer and his book was written in a very accessible style, designed for an educated, juvenile audience. Having just recently made the journey from Carrickfergus, and usually alert to things Hibernian, as his schoolboy letters attest, it would not have escaped MacNeice's attention that the author held the title ‘Royal Astronomer of Ireland’, clearly printed below his name on the title page. In his poem ‘Star Gazer’, from his final, posthumously published volume, The Burning Perch (1963), MacNeice returns to this memory as described in The Strings Are False, and he mentions that he had read ‘in the textbooks’ how vast the distance was between earth and the stars, a distance so great that the furthest astral light was very old indeed, and probably originated at a date prior to his own birth, if not indeed much earlier: ‘I had read in the textbooks/How very far off they were, it seemed their light/Had left them (some at least) long years before I was.’5 In his chapter on the stars, in a sub-section called ‘The Distance of the Stars’, Ball discusses this particular point in some detail, in a manner that bears a striking resemblance to MacNeice's observation:

Among the stars which we can see in our telescopes, we feel confident there must be many from which the light has taken hundreds of years, or even thousands of years, to arrive here. When, therefore, we look at such objects, we see them, not as they are now, but as they were ages ago; in fact, a star might have ceased to exist for thousands of years, and still be seen by us every night as a twinkling point in our great telescopes.

Remembering these facts, you will, I think, look at the heavens with a new interest. There is a bright star, Vega or Alpha Lyrae, a beautiful gem, but so far off that the light from it which we now see started before many of my audience were born.6

The general point was presumably well-known by junior astronomers, although it seems likely that Ball's articulation of the idea had become part of the poet's mental furniture at about this time, when reading Star-Land, following swiftly upon this unusual experience on the train. Striving to convey to his young readers the vastness of astronomical distances, Ball reaches for the image of an immensely long railway line stretching from London to Alpha Centauri: ‘The length of the railway, of course, we have already stated: it is twenty billions of miles. So I am now going to ask your attention [sic] to the simple question as to the fare which it would be reasonable to charge for the journey.’7 There is perhaps a particular interest here for the twelve-year-old MacNeice, so recently arrived from the train to Sherborne, in which the unusual coincidence of rail travel and stargazing became so deeply impressed that it was recalled with considerable enthusiasm not only when writing his memoirs in 1940, but again when writing a lyric poem in 1963. Although the speaker is very far from being ‘breathless’, ‘Star-gazer’ is constructed as (p. 242) two complete sentences, with a perfect coincidence of syntax and stanza worthy of the later Yeats, and the alternating longer and shorter lines capture the fluency and immediacy of the speaker's voice. Beginning with the notably precise figure of ‘forty-two years’ (which I have suggested may not be wholly accurate), the voice interrupts itself with an apparently careless but actually carefully placed parenthetic aside, capturing the spontaneity of the poet's thoughts, and self-deprecatingly halting the flow of the utterance, while challenging the monumental formality which may be implied by a phrase like ‘Forty-two years ago’. Some of the speaker's emotion is conveyed through the occurrence of rather emphatic verbs—‘darting’, ‘catch’, ‘punched’, and ‘excited’—while his heightened feeling is further suggested by the phrase ‘intolerably bright’, as though the experience is almost unendurably pleasurable and nearly impossible to assimilate: in that sense, it's a moment in which the visible, like some terrible beauty, appears both radiant and objectionable:

  • Forty-two years ago (to me if to no one else
  • The number is of some interest) it was a brilliant starry night
  • And the westward train was empty and had no corridors
  • So darting from side to side I could catch the unwonted sight
  • Of those almost intolerably bright
  • Holes, punched in the sky, which excited me partly because
  • Of their Latin names …8

In the second stanza, the speaker registers distance from the boy's youthful exuberance, as conveyed by the word ‘remembering’, emphasizing his role as the narrator who proposes to draw from this memory some larger point. The parenthetic qualifying phrase ‘(some at least)’ in the ninth line of the first stanza, like the phrase ‘some of them at least’ in the eleventh, suggests the making of distinctions, trying to avoid rapture, and asserting a reasonable tone. The more regular, modulated pentameter lines also contribute to the effect of control which he affects with ‘I mark’ in stanza two, as he tries to assert some kind of conclusion. Taking the point made by Ball and other astronomers about the age of astral light, the speaker imagines a future in which humans have become extinct. The space following the half-line ‘Anyone left alive’ offers a momentary silence in response to that surprising phrase, and the concluding lines return somewhat indulgently but nonetheless poignantly to the memory of the boy on the train, whose ‘admiration’ is made to seem the more valuable, almost redemptive, in contrast with that apocalyptic thought.

MacNeice had described the poems of The Burning Perch to Allen Tate as ‘all thumbnail nightmares’, and various critics have discussed the nightmare imagery and logic deployed in the late poems.9 John Press speaks of ‘bad dreams, nightmarish journeys and scenes where everything is in flux’ as typical of the late MacNeice, and Peter McDonald writes: ‘On the whole, it is darkness rather than light which is pervasive in MacNeice's late poetry, and nightmare rather than dream which is its dominant (p. 243) element.’10 The nightmare element in ‘Star-gazer’ surfaces most strongly with the thought of human extinction that emerges in response to the notion of astronomical distance and time, which has the effect of making human life seem almost insignificant; but the theme of dreams and nightmare (or, as Press points out, sinister or incoherent encounters, with the illogical structure of dream) recurs in poems not only in The Burning Perch but in Visitations. Of the figure in ‘The Burnt Bridge’, for instance, we are told ‘the more he dreamt [he] was the more alone’ and in ‘House on a Cliff’ the central figure ‘talks at cross/Purposes, to himself, in a broken sleep’. In ‘Dreams in Middle Age’ MacNeice writes ‘Sooner let nightmares whinny’.11 And the word ‘nightmare’ is explicitly introduced again in the dedicatory poem of The Burning Perch: ‘To Mary’.

MacNeice had left his wife Hedli Anderson in 1961, and in late 1962 he moved into a house on Stocks Road, Aldbury, with his lover, the actress Mary Wimbush, who worked for the BBC. He had previously dedicated several volumes ‘To Hedli’ (Springboard, 1944, Collected Poems 1925–1948, 1949, and Visitations, 1957)12 but the dedication in The Burning Perch was addressed to Wimbush, in which he begins his pledge to her by begging her forgiveness for the nightmare vision he presents to her, a vision which, it is implied, has suffused his imagination:

  •        To Mary
  • Forgive what I give you. Though nightmare and cinders,
  • The one can be trodden, the other ridden,
  • We must use what transport we can. Both crunching
  • Path and bucking dream can take me
  • Where I shall leave the path and dismount
  • From the mad-eyed beast and keep my appointment
  • In green improbable fields with you.13

The poem opens with the word ‘Forgive’, almost a confession of guilt and of personal limitation. All he can give is ‘nightmare and cinders’ although they are not insuperable obstacles: one can be ridden (nightmares), the other trodden upon. If ‘cinders’ might suggest the faded or extinguished embers of a fiery passion (or moment of creativity) now dormant, or if treading on them might suggest a pilgrimage or some kind of penitential journey, we might recall that taking walks on the cinder path with his governess near the Rectory were among the poet's earliest memories (‘We called it the Cinder Path because it was made of cinders, it put your teeth on edge to walk on it’),14 so perhaps it is not surprising that so many childhood memories emerge in this volume; nor is it surprising that ‘nightmare’ is often associated here with childhood memory and experience. ‘We must use what transport we can,’ he claims (whether cinder path or nightmare ride), and there is perhaps the hope they may be transported together within or through (p. 244) the poems. His promise to dismount from the horse of imagination or of bad dream implies his desire to control it and to avoid becoming absorbed by it. Getting off the path or off his ride signals a certain determination to assert his will over the circumstances in which they are embroiled, and sounds all the more assertive for the contrast with those poems in the late verse in which he seems to be on a train ride he can neither control nor terminate. The green fields seem ‘improbable’ because he realizes the elusiveness if not impossibility of the idyllic; because the self is qualified by memory, and his dreams are tinged by nightmare. The green fields in fact seem to echo the evocation in ‘The Introduction’ of a lovers’ ‘grave glade’, changing by the end of the poem to a ‘green grave’, which again suggests the close proximity between life and death, or between dream and nightmare, within the poet's imagination.15

A poem like ‘After the Crash’ takes the nightmare theme in a slightly different direction, in which the protagonist is neither in a dream nor having one, but is unable to remember the events surrounding a fatal accident in which he was involved. He understands that time has passed only by observing the hemlock that has grown all over the asphalt around him, and by seeing or imagining the damage done to his crash helmet and his hand, implying the multiple injuries he himself has sustained. MacNeice himself was involved with Mary Wimbush in a car crash in 1961, but the poem is cast in the third person, and the protagonist's perceptions are presented with a surreal, hallucinatory quality. There are references to signals bouncing back from the moon, to the hens, and the small, blind cats, and of course the hemlock overgrowing the asphalt, suggesting that a very long time indeed has passed.

We are told that ‘life seemed still going on’ and are told that ‘he came to’, but in what sense he awoke (‘came to’) is not clear, since suddenly he has a vision of the scales in the sky as fatally balanced, and he has clearly missed his chance to experience the process of death, being dead, though nightmarishly aware of that fact: ‘And knew in the dead, dead calm/It was too late to die.’16 The figure as it were wakes up to the knowledge that it is too late to die. To return to the image from ‘To Mary’ of dismounting his ride, in order to join his beloved, there are numerous poems, including ‘After the Crash’, in which dismounting is not an option, in which stopping the death-bound train is impossible.

Like ‘Star-gazer’, the poem ‘Soap Suds’, which immediately follows the dedicatory poem, focuses on the relationship between past and present, and on the contrast between moments in childhood (vividly recalled), and an adulthood which affords the ambivalent pleasures of long recall and the grief of knowing what has been lost. The poem's faintly comical, bubbly title almost sounds like a phrase from a period commercial advertisement, but there is a fruitful contrast between the title and the meditation on memory, origins, and home which the poem offers. It begins with a Proustian recollection of a childhood memory triggered by the smell of a bar of soap: as Jon Stallworthy notes, ‘In a Proustian day-dream, “Soap Suds” take the place of madeleine’.17 The opening (p. 245) phrase ‘This brand of soap’ conveys the impression that the speaker is pointing to an object which the reader too can observe, suggesting a sense of dramatic immediacy and intimacy.18 At the same time, the hand holding the soap is also the hand holding the pen with which he is writing the poem, hence both soap and pen are agents for conveying the memory and for setting the scene. As the speaker recalls the big house he visited when he was eight, he has a vision through the bathroom walls of a croquet lawn on which he tapped a ball through croquet hoops—an imaginative way of following the speaker's trail back to childhood, represented by the reverse movement of the ball going back through the hoops, ‘To rest at the head of a mallet held in the hands of a child.’ Long, flowing lines allow the casual speaking voice to tell his story unhindered and follow its every fantastic, extraordinary twist and turn as the ball ‘skims forward’:

  • 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.19

As D. B. Moore writes, ‘there is a sense of failure, an almost hysterical effect of time telescoping’ through the croquet hoops.20 The telescoping of time, the measuring of the distance from the past to the present is suggested by the image of ‘tower with a telescope’ (also an image of surveillance and power); in the second stanza, the ‘faded globes’ suggest the relics of the ages, while conveying also the notion of faded maps of territories over which the owners no longer assert control:

  • 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.

The stuffed dog is a nightmarishly mummified remnant of a beloved family pet, a museum specimen, the black dog of death. It is a pathetic image of what Dan Davin calls ‘nature morte’: ‘For Louis there was always something sinister about libraries and museums: however the scholar in him might value them, in his poetry they tend to symbolize nature morte, life dead and so susceptible of control, the immortal shrivelled to the immortelle.’21 And ‘the vine under glass’, while doubtless of interest to a child, is something vital and alive which has been controlled and made into an object of the scientific gaze. By contrast, the last in the series of ‘joys’ is the untamed and protean sea, ‘To which he has now returned’—a redemptive moment in an otherwise funereal and deadening scene. As a voice cries out, the ball is tapped. In its acoustic variety and richness (‘crack, a great gong booms’) and its use of hyphenated phrasing (‘dog-dark’), the line is reminiscent of Dylan Thomas—as also in the awareness of time passing and of the inevitability (p. 246) of death. The gong, as ever in MacNeice, suggests both the objective passing of time and the speaker's feelings of apprehension at that fact. By contrast to the sound of a moment in time being marked by a gong, the following long line—‘Skims forward through the hoop and then through the next and then …’—suggests (or enacts) the movement of the ball over the lawn and through time. The use of repeated conjunctions (‘and’) suggests movement and flow, as the line's fluency imitates the ball's smooth movement over the grass. Indeed, the dynamism of the line contrasts strikingly with the rather static, poised list of objects (the catalogued ‘joys’ of the house) a few lines earlier. The poem moves full circle on itself, and as Stallworthy remarked: ‘Again there is sunlight on the garden and, as the train wheels had revolved once at the perimeter of the Rectory garden, the ball revolves—it and the globes and the gong (all linked by their common adjective great) reinforcing the circular movement of the poem.’22

‘Soap Suds’ is set in the home—Seapark, near Carrickfergus—of MacNeice's step-uncle, Thomas MacGregor Greer, a well-known leading Unionist figure in the area, with close ties to the Larne gunrunning of 1914 and to local recruitment for the UVF and for the 36th (Ulster) Division which fought at the Somme. Indeed, his success in the latter venture earned him plaudits from Edward Carson, as conveyed in a letter of 12 July 1916.23 (The poet recalls visiting Seapark when he was eight, after September 1915, when Thomas Greer's influence on Unionist politics, particularly the movement to resist Home Rule, was at its height.) MacNeice was of course a visitor, not a resident of this house, and nor was he a member of the class which is traditionally associated with such houses. His father's second marriage was to Beatrice Greer, and the Greer family was a prominent linen family, members of an Ulster Protestant ascendancy, with properties in Tullylagan (County Tyrone) as well as in Regent's Park and Hampshire. The opening lines of MacNeice's greatest poem, Autumn Journal, are in fact set in another house owned by a branch of the Greers, in Hampshire: ‘Close and slow, summer is ending in Hampshire,/Ebbing away down ramps of shaven lawn where close-clipped yew/Insulates the lives of retired generals and admirals’.24 There is perhaps a relished irony for the poet in setting himself in such locations, and one of MacNeice's touchstones was the poetry of Yeats, whose idealized, elegiac representation of the big houses of the Anglo-Irish were integral to his poetics. The self-elegiac fantasy of ‘Soap Suds’ is linked to an elegiac presentation of the house itself, with its faded globes and relics, although it is not clear what redemptive values he finds there, if any. The poem closes shockingly, with the acceleration of time and the transformation of the child's hands to those of the adult speaker, who is washing his wrinkled hands under the running tap. The running water, not unlike the moving ball in the poem, signifies the unstoppable force of time pressing forward to certain death. The grass, now grown ‘head-high’, echoes the overgrown hemlock in ‘After the Crash’, and everything, as in that poem, has turned to nightmare. MacNeice's poems about time depend crucially upon the representation of memory in order to achieve (p. 247) their effects, whereby he conveys the sense of accelerated time as like a train, or fast-flowing water, or indeed a horse over which one can have no control and from which he cannot dismount.

I began by considering MacNeice's journey by boat and train from Ireland to England and thence to Euston, Waterloo, and Sherborne, a journey he made regularly during his period of attendance at Sherborne preparatory school. When he attended Marlborough College and later Oxford, similar kinds of trajectory had to be negotiated at the beginning and end of each term, and it is hardly surprising, perhaps, that sea and train travel became important tropes in his work for the rest of his life. As several critics have pointed out, and as several of his poems imply, the movement of train or bus in his writing becomes a metaphor for the passage of time, as does the movement of the croquet ball through hoops in ‘Soap Suds’. In ‘Star-gazer’, the journey from Waterloo to Sherborne coincides with an extraordinarily vivid sighting of stars, which in turn leads the speaker to think about the voyage of astral light over vast stretches and billions of miles of space and time. The fact that Robert Ball would use train travel as an apparently far-fetched illustration for space travel suggests the centrality of train travel in British culture at that time, while also affording MacNeice an unusual opportunity to meld together the experiences of watching the skies and travelling by railway in this powerfully speculative lyric poem of the early 1960s. He was interested at various stages of his life in quest poems, Celtic immram and the Norse saga, although few of his later poems, while occasionally using travel as a poetic trope, betray great interest in those forms. Having said that, we see in the later lyrics a tendency to view memory itself as a kind of journey imagined in spatial terms, like the croquet ball passing through hoops, and to view intimacy as a sort of journey, whether as nightmare or as treading the cinder path—both of which are images that have origins in earliest childhood.

In the Clark Lectures given in the last year of his life, and published as Varieties of Parable, MacNeice begins by exploring the definition of ‘parable’ as given by the Oxford English Dictionary. It can mean ‘any saying or narration in which something is expressed in terms of something else’. Also, it adds, ‘any kind of enigmatical or dark saying’. He continues:

This should certainly cover the whole range of my specimens from the Faerie Queene, which Spenser himself described as a ‘dark conceit’, to The Ancient Mariner, Waiting for Godot, Pincher Martin or the poems of Edwin Muir …. But to counter the ‘dark saying’ of the dictionary, I should like to anticipate some of my later remarks and state baldly here that one very valuable kind of parable, and particularly so today, is the kind which on the surface may not look like a parable at all. This is a kind of double-level writing, or, if you prefer it, sleight-of-hand. It has been much used by poets and one could make out a case that all worthwhile poetry involves something of the sort.25

(p. 248) MacNeice's fascination with parable at this time is suggestive for a reading of the later work. He is interested in expanding the definition of the genre in various directions, and he expressed distaste for narrow definitions of the term, such as restricting it to the parables of the New Testament, for instance. In poems such as the ones we have considered above, there is clearly an interest in ‘double-level writing’ and ‘sleight-of-hand’, which MacNeice wishes to attribute to parable, and it is quite likely that in The Burning Perch the poet was aiming for the narrative simplicity, compression, and intensity of parable, as he defines the term.


(1) FLM (Frederick Louis MacNeice) to GBM (Georgina Beatrice MacNeice), 21 January 1920, Letters of Louis MacNeice, ed. Jonathan Allison (London: Faber, 2010), 39.

(2) Louis MacNeice, The Strings Are False: An Unfinished Autobiography, ed. E. R. Dodds (London: Faber, 1965), 78.

(3) FLM to GBM, 25 January 1920, Letters, 39.

(4) FLM to GBM, 1 February 1920, Letters, 41.

(5) Louis MacNeice, Collected Poems, ed. Peter McDonald (London: Faber, 2007), 607.

(6) Robert Ball, Star-Land: Being Talks with Young People about the Wonders of the Heavens (London: Cassell and Company, 1889), 315.

(7) Ibid., 316.

(8) MacNeice, Collected Poems, 607.

(9) FLM to AT, 2 August 1963, Letters, 701.

(10) John Press, Louis MacNeice (London: British Council and Longmans, Green & Co., 1965), 40; Peter McDonald, Louis MacNeice: The Poet in his Contexts (Oxford: Clarendon, 1991), 187.

(11) MacNeice, Collected Poems, 514, 516, 496.

(12) See MacNeice, Collected Poems, 212, 301, 494.

(13) Ibid., 576.

(14) MacNeice, Strings Are False, 49.

(15) MacNeice, Collected Poems, 593.

(16) Ibid., 585–6.

(17) Jon Stallworthy, Louis MacNeice (London: Faber, 1995), 453.

(18) MacNeice, Collected Poems, 577.

(20) D. B. Moore, The Poetry of Louis MacNeice (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1972), 197.

(21) Dan Davin, Closing Times (London: Oxford University Press, 1975), 57.

(22) Stallworthy, Louis MacNeice, 453.

(23) MacNeice, Letters, 58, n.5.

(24) MacNeice, Collected Poems, 101.

(25) Louis MacNeice, Varieties of Parable (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963), 2–3.