Week 161: Louis MacNeice, by Geoffrey Grigson

I think this is a fine elegy for a poet I much admire; the only problem I have with it is that I cannot figure out the significance of the word ‘sorrel’ in the second line. I looked up both sorrel and the quite different plant wood-sorrel in Grigson’s magisterial ‘Englishman’s Flora’, hoping for a clue, but that didn’t help; I knew sorrel can also mean a reddish-brown hue or a horse of that colour, but that doesn’t seem to fit either, and looking up the word in the Oxford English Dictionary added a now obsolete meaning ‘a buck in its third year’, which also got me no further. It really nags at me when I don’t understand something in a poem that I otherwise find perfectly lucid, a bit like having a last unfinished clue in a crossword, so any explanation will be most gratefully received!

Louis MacNeice
(September 2, 1963)

I turned on the transistor
By luck, for your sorrel,
Your Vol de Nuit,
It was Haydn.

Black and diffident man
Of the bog and stoa
Whose rush of love
Was rejected,

Whose wolfhound
Bent round my table,
Who are no longer around
In your Chinese

Garden of poems.
Where one is of water,
On which tea-yellow
Leaves of another

Are falling, always
Are falling, this one
Is a stone by itself,
On which you inscribe

With invisible legible letters
That unrest of the soul
Which you found
So wryly appalling.

You have gone: will
No longer arrange
In sunlight with wit
Your aloneness.

But, classical quizzical
One, whose scent is
Sharp in the centre,
Your garden is open.

Geoffrey Grigson


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