Week 247: Thalassa, by Louis MacNeice

This may seem an unusually upbeat poem for MacNeice – at times you feel all it needs is a mention of the happy isles and the great Achilles to segue into Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’ – but of course there is a good deal of tension here between the apparent negativity of the remembered past and the positivity of aspiration for the future. Did MacNeice see himself as one of Auden’s ‘ruined boys’, forced to seek redemption? But I am drawn to its valiant spirit, even if that spirit is undercut by a slight desperation.

Thalassa

Run out the boat, my broken comrades;
Let the old seaweed crack, the surge
Burgeon oblivious of the last
Embarkation of feckless men,
Let every adverse force converge –
Here we must needs embark again.

Run up the sail, my heartsick comrades;
Let each horizon tilt and lurch –
You know the worst: your wills are fickle,
Your values blurred, your hearts impure
And your past life a ruined church –
But let your poison be your cure.

Put out to sea, ignoble comrades,
Whose records shall be noble yet;
Butting through scarps of moving marble
The narwhal dares us to be free;
By a high star our course is set,
Our end is Life. Put out to sea.

Louis MacNeice

Week 178: The Streets of Laredo, by Louis MacNeice

Louis MacNeice was in London during the Blitz and this poem captures the spirit of that time in masterly fashion as it shifts between the real and the semi-mythic, the defiant and the despairing, its cast of characters moving to the ballad tune in a brilliantly choreographed danse macabre.

Agag was a bibilical king referred in the book of Samuel as coming ‘delicately’ to his execution.

The Streets of Laredo

O early one morning I walked out like Agag,
Early one morning to walk through the fire
Dodging the pythons that leaked on the pavements
With tinkle of glasses and tangle of wire;

When grimed to the eyebrows I met an old fireman
Who looked at me wryly and thus did he say:
‘The streets of Laredo are closed to all traffic,
We won’t never master this joker to-day.

‘O hold the branch tightly and wield the axe brightly,
The bank is in powder, the banker’s in hell,
But loot is still free on the streets of Laredo
And when we drive home we drive home on the bell.’

Then out from a doorway there sidled a cockney,
A rocking-chair rocking on top of his head:
‘O fifty-five years I been feathering my love-nest
And look at it now —
why, you’d sooner be dead.’

At which there arose from a wound in the asphalt,
His big wig a-smoulder, Sir Christopher Wren
Saying: ‘Let them make hay of the streets of Laredo;
When your ground-rents expire I will build them again.’

Then twangling their bibles with wrath in their nostrils
From Bunhill Fields came Bunyan and Blake:
‘Laredo the golden is fallen, is fallen;
Your flame shall not quench nor your thirst shall not slake.’

‘I come to Laredo to find me asylum’,
Says Tom Dick and Harry the Wandering Jew;
‘They tell me report at the first police station
But the station is pancaked —
so what can I do?’

Thus eavesdropping sadly I strolled through Laredo
Perplexed by the dicta misfortunes inspire
Till one low last whisper inveigled my earhole —
The voice of the Angel, the voice of the fire:

O late, very late, have I come to Laredo
A whimsical bride in my new scarlet dress
But at last I took pity on those who were waiting
To see my regalia and feel my caress.  

Now ring the bells gaily and play the hose daily,
Put splints on your legs, put a gag on your breath;
O you streets of Laredo, you streets of Laredo,
Lay down the red carpet —
My dowry is death.

Louis MacNeice

Week 125: Elegy for Minor Poets, by Louis MacNeice

It is probably not a good idea for poets to worry much about whether their poems are major or minor: far better to concentrate on just getting the damn things right and let posterity do the worrying. But I do like this rueful elegy by Louis MacNeice, which covers so many of the ways that things can go wrong for the many that are called as compared with the few that are chosen.

Elegy for Minor Poets

Who often found their way to pleasant meadows
Or maybe once to a peak, who saw the Promised Land,
Who took the correct three strides but tripped their hurdles,
Who had some prompter they barely could understand,
Who were too happy or sad, too soon or late,
I would praise these in company with the Great;

For if not in the same way, they fingered the same language
According to their lights. For them as for us
Chance was a coryphaeus who could be either
An angel or an ignis fatuus.
Let us keep our mind open, our fingers crossed;
Some who go dancing through dark bogs are lost.

Who were lost in many ways, through comfort, lack of knowledge,
Or between women’s breasts, who thought too little, too much,
Who were the world’s best talkers, in tone and rhythm
Superb, yet as writers lacked a sense of touch,
So either gave up or just went on and on–
Let us salute them now their chance is gone;

And give the benefit of the doubtful summer
To those who worshipped the sky but stayed indoors
Bound to a desk by conscience or by the spirit’s
Hayfever. From those office and study floors
Let the sun clamber on to the notebook, shine,
And fill in what they groped for between each line.

Who were too carefree or careful, who were too many
Though always few and alone, who went the pace
But ran in circles, who were lamed by fashion,
Who lived in the wrong time or the wrong place,
Who might have caught fire had only a spark occurred,
Who knew all the words but failed to achieve the Word–

Their ghosts are gagged, their books are library flotsam,
Some of their names–not all–we learnt in school
But, life being short, we rarely read their poems,
Mere source-books now to point or except a rule,
While those opinions which rank them high are based
On a wish to be different or on lack of taste.

In spite of and because of which, we later
Suitors to their mistress (who, unlike them, stays young)
Do right to hang on the grave of each a trophy
Such as, if solvent, he would himself have hung
Above himself; these debtors preclude our scorn–
Did we not underwrite them when we were born?

Louis MacNeice