Week 497: Autobiography, by Louis MacNeice

This week’s poem by the Irish poet Louis MacNeice (1907-1963) is a kind of balancing act, self-revealing yet reticent, the trauma it turns on evident yet not explicit, controlled and distanced by the ballad form, so that without knowledge of the context the reader is like someone looking over the edge of a boat at a nameless shadow moving in the depths below. Awareness of the poet’s childhood circumstances provides most of the answer: his mother died when Louis was seven, having spent her last year in a Dublin nursing home, and Louis obscurely blamed himself for her death, his birth having been a difficult one. But the import of the refrain remains a little elusive. ‘Come back early or never come’ – is Louis talking to himself? To his mother’s shade? Whatever the case, it seems to me, as so often with MacNeice, a poem at once skilful and disturbing.

Note: ‘wore his collar the wrong way round’ – MacNeice’s father was a Protestant minister.

Autobiography

In my childhood trees were green
And there was plenty to be seen.

Come back early or never come.

My father made the walls resound,
He wore his collar the wrong way round.

Come back early or never come.

My mother wore a yellow dress;
Gently, gently, gentleness.

Come back early or never come.

When I was five the black dreams came
Nothing after was quite the same.

Come back early or never come.

The dark was talking to the dead;
The lamp was dark beside my bed.

Come back early or never come.

When I woke they did not care;
Nobody, nobody was there.

Come back early or never come.

When my silent terror cried,
Nobody, nobody replied.

Come back early or never come.

I got up; the chilly sun
Saw me walk away alone.

Come back early or never come.

Louis MacNeice

2 thoughts on “Week 497: Autobiography, by Louis MacNeice

  1. Morning David

    A haunting poem. Is there a typo in the penultimate refrain?

    *Come back early or ever come.*

    Regards Mike

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