Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
The Irish poet Louis MacNeice (1907-63) is often associated with the Thirties Poets, along with W. H. Auden and Stephen Spender. Yet unlike Auden, who left us ‘Stop All the Clocks’, MacNeice can be more difficult to pin down to one or two ‘best poems’ or ‘best-known poems’. ‘Prayer Before Birth’? Perhaps.
Indeed, the reputations of the Thirties Poets, and how individual reputations have changed over time, are curious: Auden has remained popular and (thanks partly to Four Weddings and a Funeral) continues to enjoy a very healthy readership; Stephen Spender is now little-read except for a few anthology favourites; and Louis MacNeice, in many ways a more Romantic poet than either of his fellow Thirties Poets, has become more and more acclaimed as time has gone on.
Although, like Auden, he wrote long poems as well as short, and his Autumn Journal is a masterpiece, MacNeice is generally at his best in his short lyric poems. Here is our pick of Louis MacNeice’s finest poems.
1. ‘Meeting Point’.
Although it’s been criticised as an unsuccessful poem, ‘Meeting Point’ is an ambitious and, to our mind, very interesting attempt to capture the experience of being with somebody you love and feeling yourselves to be outside of space and time. The poem itself is almost like a cyclical dance, with each stanza ending where it began, like a variation on the villanelle form.
Oddly enough, the poem was first printed by W. B. Yeats’s sisters at the Cuala Press in 1940.
One of Louis MacNeice’s most popular and best-known poems, ‘Snow’ is a description of the snow falling outside the window. But the poem is not concerned merely with the visual, but with a range of other senses, including taste.
The poem is worth reading for the astonishing language-use in the fourth line alone: ‘World is suddener than we fancy it.’
3. ‘London Rain’.
This masterly MacNeice poem, written against the backdrop of impending war (shortly before the outbreak of WWII in 1939), might be considered that conflict’s response to Edward Thomas’s ‘Rain’, written during the First World War. Like Thomas, MacNeice uses the rain pouring down outside as a springboard for meditations about life, death, war, and the numinous and religious.
Indeed, given the poem was written just before the Second World War cast a long shadow over Europe, this poem might also be regarded as MacNeice’s equivalent to the W. H. Auden poem, ‘September 1, 1939’.
4. ‘Prayer Before Birth’.
Another poem written during the Second World War, ‘Prayer Before Birth’ muses about the kind of world that an as-yet-unborn child will be brought into. And what will that child grow up to be, given the horrors and atrocities being witnessed every day? One of MacNeice’s most frequently anthologised poems.
5. ‘I Am That I Am’.
This poem centres on a serious of tautologies: ‘man is man’, world is world, tree is tree. Yet these things have the potential to become ‘other than themselves’, an idea expressed through metaphor (a tree becomes a ‘talking tower’, for instance).
Its chilling closing line, ‘I am I although the dead are dead’, is particularly haunting given the poem’s publication date in 1940 – this is another poem that seems to respond to the horror going on in Europe.
6. ‘The Brandy Glass’.
The circular nature of this poem – the closing line being the same as the opening line, with the one subtle shift that the closing line appears in quotation marks, and ‘his’ has changed to ‘my’ – suggests the bulbous circularity of the brandy glass.
Like ‘Meeting Point’, this poem uses physical imagery to suggest a moment in time, a ‘moment cradled like a brandy glass’.
But MacNeice’s poem is more critical of the contrast between the cloistered scholars and readers within the Museum’s Reading Room and the world outside of the building, a world of pigeons and refugees which seems to be ignored by those seated comfortably within the Museum’s walls.
8. ‘Sunday Morning’.
The form of this poem, describing a Sunday morning with its church bells, a man tinkering with his car, and someone practising scales on a piano, is curious: it’s written in rhyming couplets but has fourteen lines, suggesting the sonnet form – and, indeed, MacNeice even describes Sunday morning as being ‘a sonnet self-encased in rhyme’.
This is another poem focusing on a moment, described as ‘this Now’.
Yet another poem homing in on a moment in time, and an attempt to ‘cage the minute’ when the sunlight falls on the garden.
This poem demonstrates once again MacNeice’s skilful use of form, with the rhyme on the first and third lines of each stanza providing the sounds for the beginnings of the second and fourth lines.
10. ‘Apple Blossom’.
Drawing on the common association between apples and the Garden of Eden – apples often being named as the forbidden fruit eaten by Adam and Eve – ‘Apple Blossom’ is about losing, and trying to regain, one’s innocence.
T. S. Eliot once wrote, ‘In my end is my beginning.’ MacNeice’s poetry often explores the relationship between beginnings and endings. Here: ‘The morning after was the first day.’ And end, too, is a beginning.
And with that, if you’d like to begin exploring the rest of Louis MacNeice’s great poetry, we recommend his Collected Poems. For more twentieth-century poetry, see our pick of the best fruit poems, our piece about Brexit and T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, our thoughts on H. D.’s WWII poem Trilogy, and our discussion of William Empson’s challenging poetry.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.