This poem actually forms part of a collection published in 1941, but for me it evokes, in the way that MacNeice does better than anyone, even Auden, the claustrophobic, angst-laden feel of the nineteen-thirties, that uneasy sense of impending doom, like a shadow waiting at the end of the corridor. Which does not stop it also being a beautiful love lyric.
Cradle Song for Eleanor
Sleep, my darling, sleep;
The pity of it all
Is all we compass if
We watch disaster fall.
Put off your twenty-odd
Encumbered years and creep
Into the only heaven
The robbers’ cave of sleep.
The wild grass will whisper,
Lights of passing cars
Will streak across your dreams
And fumble at the stars;
Life will tap on the window
Only too soon again,
Life will have her answer –
Do not ask her when.
When the winsome bubble
Shivers, when the bough
Breaks, will be the moment
But not here or now.
Sleep and, asleep, forget
The watchers on the wall
Awake all night who know
The pity of it all.
Poetry and politics do not always mix well, but one has to admire poets who are not afraid to engage with the big issues of their day, and they don’t come much bigger than the one addressed by Louis MacNeice in this poem, written after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
From ‘Notes for a Biography’
‘Now follow our pointer; look, here is Japan
Where man must now make what he chooses of man,
And these towns are selected to pay for their crime –
A milestone in history, a gravestone in time.
When I first heard the news, to my shame I was glad;
When I next read the news I thought man had gone mad,
And every day since the more news that I read
I too would plead guilty – but where can I plead?
For no one will listen, however I rage;
I am not of their temper and not of this age.
Outnumbered, outmoded, I only can pray
Commonsense, if not love, will still carry the day.
The glamour of the end attic, the smell
Of old leather trunks – Perdita, where have you been
Hiding all these years? Somewhere or other a green
Flag is waving under an iron vault
And a brass bell is the herald of green country
And the wind is in the wires and the broom is gold.
Perdita, what became of all the things
We said that we should do? The cobwebs cover
The labels of Tyrol. The time is over-
Due and in some metropolitan station
Among the clank of cans and the roistering files
Of steam the caterpillars wait for wings.
For me, MacNeice in many ways wears the best of the thirties poets, being closest to the common human experience. If a primary purpose of poetry is to answer the question ‘What was it like to be alive?’ his long poem ‘Autumn Journal’ does a good job for those times. But he was also, as shown here, a master of the idiosyncratic shorter lyric.