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.


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

Week 402: Prayer Before Birth, by Louis MacNeice

This poem was written in 1944, towards the end of World War II, and has the fearful and claustrophobic quality of those times, yet it may seem just as relevant today, when we have new perils and new tyrannies of thought to contend with, and when those of us who feel we have, as it turned out, been lucky enough in our time of birth to have lived through the late afternoon of a still decent country may be just as apprehensive now as MacNeice was then about the kind of world that we are leaving our grandchildren and their children to grow up in.

Prayer Before Birth

I am not yet born; O hear me.
Let not the bloodsucking bat or the rat or the stoat or the
club-footed ghoul come near me.

I am not yet born, console me.
I fear that the human race may with tall walls wall me,
with strong drugs dope me, with wise lies lure me,
on black racks rack me, in blood-baths roll me.

I am not yet born; provide me
With water to dandle me, grass to grow for me, trees to talk
to me, sky to sing to me, birds and a white light
in the back of my mind to guide me.

I am not yet born; forgive me
For the sins that in me the world shall commit, my words
when they speak me, my thoughts when they think me,
my treason engendered by traitors beyond me,
my life when they murder by means of my
hands, my death when they live me.

I am not yet born; rehearse me
In the parts I must play and the cues I must take when
old men lecture me, bureaucrats hector me, mountains
frown at me, lovers laugh at me, the white
waves call me to folly and the desert calls
me to doom and the beggar refuses
my gift and my children curse me.

I am not yet born; O hear me,
Let not the man who is beast or who thinks he is God come near me.

I am not yet born; O fill me
With strength against those who would freeze my
humanity, would dragoon me into a lethal automaton,
would make me a cog in a machine, a thing with
one face, a thing, and against all those
who would dissipate my entirety, would
blow me like thistledown hither and
thither or hither and thither
like water held in the
hands would spill me.

Let them not make me a stone and let them not spill me.
Otherwise kill me.

Louis MacNeice

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.


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