How have I missed Louis MacNeice on minor poets until now?
Thank you Michael Longley for including his ‘Elegy for Minor Poets’ in your Selected. There’s a lot to be said for selections, especially where a poet has been so prolific you can’t see the woods for the poems.
Also I relate – many of us do – to the idea of the Minor poet. It seems to me to be a worthy ambition to aspire to be a good Minor poet. (Not a bad Minor poet, please. Not a totally Forgotten poet, please.)
Hardly anybody gets to be Major. Still fewer get to be Great. Louis MacNeice is nearly always disadvantageously compared with W H Auden, who was Major. MacNeice was also a friend of Dylan Thomas who was once Minor but has now been moved up to Major.
Minor or not, there are poems by MacNeice that have wormed their way into the hearts of many of my contemporaries. ‘The Sunlight on the Garden’. ‘Snow’. ‘Bagpipe Music’. ‘House on a Cliff’. I have spent years thinking about ‘Snow’, and when it snows, I can’t not think about it. MacNeice isn’t all that Minor to me.
Here are the first two stanzas of his ‘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.
How beautifully he takes us into the world of the poem. The easy clichés of the pleasant meadows, the peak, the ‘Promised Land’. We know just where we are, we poets. We have seen that land. Then the three strides and the hurdle – back to school – remember missing that hurdle? Or failing in the long jump? And the prompter (in a play, maybe). And then the tripping change of rhythm in ‘too happy or sad, too soon, or late’ – so very simple. And the last line neatly echoing Kipling’s ‘Let us now praise famous men’.
With an elegant little skip, the second stanza is different. Its first sentence runs nimbly over the end of the line into that lovely phrase ‘According to their lights’. No stock imagery here. Fingering language is a complex image. You can pursue it in several directions, just as you can ‘the lights’. And now he’s got me thinking about that phrase ‘according to their lights’, which is what good poems do. I won’t be able to say that again ever, without remembering MacNeice, that good Minor poet. I had to look up ‘coryphaeus’ – it’s the leader of the chorus. MacNeice was a classicist. This stuff came easily to him. But the last two lines are a mantra for poets: ‘Let us keep our mind open, our fingers crossed; / Some who go dancing through dark bogs are lost.’
Then he expands on the ways of getting 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.
Isn’t ‘the benefit of the doubtful summer’ wonderful? And the ‘spirit’s hayfever’? But his point is clear. It makes no difference: poets can get lost from working too little or too much. Such a terrific and generous couplet: ‘Let the sun clamber on to the notebook, shine, / And fill in what they groped for between each line.’ And yet I don’t think he’s being patronising. He’s in there with the gang. His ‘salute’ is born of true respect. Playfulness, too, but not satire.
You have to admire his clinching couplets, don’t you? Here’s the next stanza:
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 –
And with what irony, that couplet is turned against MacNeice by John Fuller, in Poetry London, in 1951, who (reviewing his Faber collection, Solstices) thought “so few of his poems achieve real poetic inevitability that one is almost tempted to label him from his own ‘Elegy for Minor Poets’ as one who ‘knew all the words but failed to achieve the Word’.”
Still, it seems to me this poem has caught fire. It has certainly caught my attention. So much so that I’m sharing the next stanza too:
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.
Isn’t it all still true? The Minor names. We may know them – Richard Church, Edmund Blunden, Alice Meynell, John Drinkwater, Fredegond Shove, William Soutar, Violet Jacob – but, life being short, we rarely read their poems.
And the final lines of ‘Elegy to Minor Poets’ (you have had the whole poem now):
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?
More difficult, but interesting. The Muse is the mistress and the poets are the living suitors. The tone and imagery reminds me of another Minor (?) poet, Robert Graves. I like the idea of hanging a trophy on the grave. It neatly reverses Keats’ idea of the poet’s soul as a trophy on Melancholy’s shrine. Besides, it’s what I’m doing now, in effect, by paying respect to a true poet who may be Minor but is Major to me. I like ‘if solvent’: I wonder if it’s a nod to Dylan Thomas, who never was (solvent), and for whose family MacNeice helped to raise money after his death.
The last metaphor lingers. We are the underwriters of the dead minor poets. We are their security, their future, their insurance. We are also writing under them, they are up there, their poems somewhere in the ether. We inherit the chance to keep them remembered by being born into the art, the making of poems, and the reading of poems, and the writing about poems....
So having split up 'Elegy to Minor Poets' mercilessly between my paragraphs, here’s a poem entire, from Holes in the Sky, a collection published in the late 1940s. He could do the little gob-smacking lyric too. What a poet!
What is truth? says Pilate,
Waits for no answer;
Double your stakes, says the clock
To the ageing dancer;
Double the guard, says Authority,
Treble the bars;
Holes in the sky, says the child
Scanning the stars.