The American poet-librarian, Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982), was a modernist whose work does strange and invigorating things with language. But unlike his fellow American modernists William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, and e. e. cummings, MacLeish remains less well-known to the general reader: many people know Williams’s red wheelbarrow and Wallace Stevens’s blackbird, but the work of Archibald MacLeish remains harder to summarise in a poem or image.
Below, we select and introduce eleven of MacLeish’s best poems and bang the drum for his work – and why every poetry fan should read him. Although MacLeish wrote some longer poems – such as his epic poem Conquistador – we have concentrated on his shorter works in this post, designed to act as an introduction to his wonderful work.
1. ‘You, Andrew Marvell’.
This 1930 poem alludes to, and was partly inspired by, the poem ‘To His Coy Mistress’ by the metaphysical English poet Andrew Marvell (1621-78). Taking the tetrameter rhythms of Marvell’s poem but swapping its couplets for alternately rhymed quatrains, MacLeish’s poem presents a vision of the vast ‘empires’ from Marvell’s poem melting and passing away with time.
The poem is a meditation on the fall of civilisations, condensed into a single night. MacLeish begins his poem with his face down, looking away from the sun and down at the earth beneath him. The poem also begins in medias res with the word ‘And’, with the anaphora of ‘And here’ beginning the first two lines of the poem.
Even at noon, with the sun directly above, one can feel the ‘always coming on’ of the night. This is a variation, if you will, of the old line ‘in the midst of life we are in death’: in the heyday of a great civilisation we are nevertheless reminded that it will one day crumble to nothing.
We have analysed this poem in more detail here.
This 1952 poem is another widely anthologised poem by MacLeish, and one of the shortest on this list, running to just a dozen lines. Yet again, we can see MacLeish’s modernist allegiances, this time not just in his allusion to a seventeenth-century poet (Milton this time, whose ‘they also serve who only stand and wait’ is twisted in the closing lines) but his clever and poised use of free verse.
Indeed, there’s a great deal packed into this poem’s twelve lines: anxiety over whether a piece of poetry will last, as well as an acknowledgment of the fact that living creatures who pass by unnoticed (such as a salmon in a river) still live a full and purposeful life. As the title of the poem suggests, something that is beautiful but short-lived is still beautiful and, in a sense, immortal.
Like many modernists, MacLeish experimented with a variety of verse forms, including the prose poem. The longer prose lines here enable him to take in the wide expanse of the frontier, while also trying to limit or pin down (‘Definition’) the nature of frontier America. This is a landscape that allows for ‘distortion of images’, a kind of looking-glass world of dream.
MacLeish’s poetry can often be tender and even romantic (as well as Romantic), and this poem, about a childhood memory when his mother soothed him as he slept, is one of his tenderest of all. Night, darkness, and the world of dream are beautifully evoked, as is the caring watchfulness of his mother who keeps him safe as he sleeps.
Its title an allusion to the famous Botticelli painting The Birth of Venus, this short lyric fuses myth with evolutionary biology as MacLeish describes the ‘animalcula’ or microscopic life-form that will eventually emerge from the sea and become, millions of years later, the beautiful goddess of love.
6. ‘Immortal Autumn’.
Its title almost an oxymoron – of all the seasons, autumn is perhaps the one, with its falling leaves, which most reminds us of mortality and the brevity of all life – this poem praises autumn or ‘fall’ as ‘the human season’. In another oxymoron, there is ‘more room to live’ in autumn. The envelope rhyme of the quatrains (abba) suggests the cyclical nature of time and the return of the seasons.
A brief poem comprising just two quatrains of alternate rhyme, ‘Liberty’ has the force of an epigram, and shows how well MacLeish could write in more established forms. The nature of liberty shifts depending on how secure it is: when it needs to be reasserted and fought for, it can carry a blazing torch, but when things are comfortable, people grow complacent and start taking their hard-won liberty for granted. However, MacLeish’s torch-and-water imagery is far more poetic than our bald paraphrase.
As with ‘Ars Poetica’ below, this is an example of MacLeish’s fusion of free verse with the heroic couplet, where (to borrow from T. S. Eliot) every line is either withdrawing from a simple form (the iambic line) or working towards it. The poem is brief, calm, subdued even, and hauntingly evocative.
9. ‘Hypocrite Auteur’.
Its title drawn from Baudelaire’s famous address to the reader, ‘hypocrite lecteur!’, this 1952 poem, written in loose heroic couplets, is about the search for meaning (and metaphor) in a modern age devoid of belief in the deeper transcendent and religious truths which gave classical myths their force and meaning in previous centuries. ‘The metaphor still struggles in the stone’ is one of those gnomic lines which are destined to remain with you.
10. ‘The End of the World’.
This sonnet, one of MacLeish’s best-known and best-loved poems, begins with a description of a circus act, complete with acrobat and performing lion. But then, just when we reach the volta or ‘turn’ of the sonnet, ‘the top blew off’, unexpectedly, giving way to blackness and ‘nothing, nothing, nothing at all’. The poem can be interpreted as a metaphor for life, which is a ‘circus’ to distract us from the nothingness that lies just beyond.
11. ‘Ars Poetica’.
What better place to conclude this introduction to some of Archibald MacLeish’s greatest poems than with this lyric, containing his famous statement that ‘a poem should not mean but be’? A poem should enact what it wants to say, rather than merely talking about it. This obviously ties in with what MacLeish says about a poem being mute, dumb, silent, and even ‘wordless’. Trust the poem, trust the words on the page: forget about needing anything else.
A self-referential reflection on the nature of poetry, ‘Ars Poetica’ (1926) is provocative, suggestive, and – as is often the case with twentieth-century modernist poems – a piece of writing which raises as many questions as it settles.