Autumn Journal on Autumn Journal: 1
- By Michael Thurston
(Photo: first edition book cover, Faber and Faber, 1939)
“Close and slow, summer is ending in Hampshire.”
So begins Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal (1939), a poem that recounts the poet’s experience—physical, emotional, intellectual, memorial, associational—during one consequential fall. Between the poem’s opening in August and its conclusion at the turn of the year, Britain concluded the Munich Agreement with Germany, Czechoslovakia fell as a consequence, a Parliamentary bye-election seemed to endorse appeasement, and Barcelona was encircled and embattled by the Nationalists under Franco. During those months, MacNeice taught his usual classics courses at London’s Bedford College (a school for young women), endured the breakup of a romantic affair, worried about invasion, volunteered for a candidate in the Oxford bye-election, and remembered: his student days, his Irish upbringing, his early career in Birmingham, his travels in Spain before the Civil War. All of this finds its way into the poem.
In the introductory “Note” to the volume, MacNeice writes: “I was writing what I have called a Journal. In a journal . . . a man writes what he feels at the moment; to attempt scientific truthfulness would be—paradoxically—dishonest. The truth of a lyric is different from the truths of science and this poem is something half-way between the lyric and the didactic poem.” To me this suggests a possible mode for literary criticism as well as poetry: a reader might—rather than combining close reading and contextual research in order to pin down the “truth” of a poem—record their reactions “at the moment” and seek, in that way, to land somewhere between a lyrical and a didactic critical response. If MacNeice’s approach to his experience of a historically crucial autumn earns the name “Journal,” then maybe this mode of reading might, too.
I first read Autumn Journal in 1999, shortly after Faber rereleased a paperback edition, and I have reread it every autumn since. This autumn, 2020, our own historically crucial (in the root sense of at a crossing) and consequential (regardless of how the elections go) fall seems as good a season as any for undertaking a journalistic engagement with MacNeice’s poem. Over the next twenty-odd weeks, I will post to the MR blog a reading of one of Autumn Journal’s 24 numbered sections. In these journal entries, I will discuss aspects of MacNeice’s poetics and the poem’s formal brilliance, elements of its themes and their significance in context, as well as the connections I see, feel, intuit, between its moment in 1938 and ours in 2020. I hope what’s coming after this fall for us is better than what followed that fall for MacNeice, for Britain and Europe, for democracy, for the world.
“Close and slow, summer is ending in Hampshire.”
Louis MacNeice, thirty-two years old, a graduate of Merton College, Oxford, and a young classics instructor, is heading from summer vacation in the south of England back home to London, to the preparation of his courses for the new term, and to the reality broadcast in news reports. Any of us who have ever loaded up the car or boarded a plane to return home from a summer holiday might sympathize as MacNeice wavers between accepting the end of vacation, the return to work, and elevating his grim feelings to mythic proportions. On the one hand, MacNeice is well-read in philosophy, so he can bring something like Stoic wisdom to bear on his plight: “we cannot make a corner in life or in life’s beauty, / . . . no river is a river which does not flow.” And this is true not only for him: summer is ending and everyone else is heading back home too: “the rebels and the young / Have taken the train to town or the two-seater / Unravelling rails or road, / Losing the thread deliberately behind them -- / Autumnal palinode.” The unfamiliar term there—palinode—is a song of retraction and undoing, an unsaying of what has been said. MacNeice is merely joining his fellow travelers in the seasonal song that unsings the summer, returning like a yoyo to the truth from which he has briefly escaped. Later, he likens his song and “the train’s ad nauseam repetition” to other genres he characterizes as exhausted: “every tired aubade and maudlin madrigal.” There’s something deft here that’s worth attending to. Having defined “Journal” as he understands it in the “Note,” MacNeice here names some other perhaps competing genres that his poem implicitly supersedes. It is as if he’s saying that the time of the classical palinode, of the Provençal lovers’ song complaining of morning’s arrival, of the early modern polyphonic expression of emotion has passed like “the faded airs of sexual attraction.” In their place, this new type of poem, sitting uncomfortably at the intersection of Lyric Lane and Didactic Drive.
On the other hand, even in the gestures that are supposed to betoken acceptance, the end of MacNeice’s vacation is sometimes made out to be hellish:
And I am in the train too now and summer is going
South as I go north
Bound for the dead leaves falling, the burning bonfire,
The dying that brings forth
The harder life, revealing trees’ girders,
The frost that kills the germs of laissez-faire.
“Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” this ain’t. The return to London is a fall into winter with its seasonal death of the natural world, skipping right by the harvest and the glorious abundance Keats praises. The dead leaves and trees reduced to bare branches stand starkly opposed to earlier imagery of the lush lawns and well-tended gardens the train passes. More than this, though, they demarcate the border between the land of the living and something very like the mythic Underworld. MacNeice suggests this first with an echo of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, replacing that poem’s catalogue of unreal cities (“Jerusalem Athens Alexandria / Vienna”) with suburban railway stops—“West Meon, Tisted, Farnham, Woking, Weybridge”—before descending, like Eliot, into “London’s stale and packed and pregnant air.” He cinches the allusion, and brings Dante directly in for good measure, at the end of the section:
And so to London and down the ever-moving Stairs
Where a warm wind blows the bodies of men together
And blows apart their complexes and cares.
We get here echoes both of Eliot’s mythological and infernal “Unreal” London and of Dante’s Inferno, with the whirling of lovers Paolo and Francesca in the wind-whipped circle of the lustful.
Going back to work after summer break is hard.
What makes that return particularly hard for MacNeice in the fall of 1938 makes it resonate perfectly as summer ends in the U.S. in 2020. As he praises Hampshire, where he has been vacationing, MacNeice weaves in oblique references to what’s really on his mind: impending war. A yew hedge “Insulates the lives of retired generals and admirals.” He notices planes passing overhead. He imagines wealthy estate owners grumbling about “hiking cockney lovers with thoughts directed / Neither to God nor Nation but each to each” (by the way, there’s another Eliotic echo there: Prufrock thinking that mermaids will not sing to him at the end of his “Love Song”). By the time these bits of martial diction lead up to an allusion to Erich Maria Remarque (“All quiet on the Family Front”), even the idea of the home as a “sanctum under the pelmets” takes on a warlike tone (a pelmet, if you, like I, did not know this, is an item of home decoration, a window treatment, not part of a trench or something).
This seeing in everything a sign of threat darkens the return to London and renders it a descent into the Underworld. And it reminds me of the feeling of loading up the car and heading, via the Mass Pike, back to Northampton from the beach. Vacations are—for those who can take them, for those privileged enough to feel that they can get away—escapes not only from work but also from working through the daily trauma of the news. As Thoreau writes at the end of his Cape Cod, to stand out there on the beach, one can feel all America behind one. But to turn from the beach is to turn to a renewed confrontation with America, and to drive from the beach inland is to drive back to all that is hellish in American history and culture, much of it present in our current circumstances. Where, for MacNeice, the threat was German forces amassed on the Czech border and the noise of possible invasion, for us it is a president trying to undermine an election he is set to lose and calling into question its legitimacy before the fact, a president criminalizing peaceful dissent and promulgating racism, a president declaring war on his own country’s citizens, striding through Lafayette Park and clutching a Bible while the flash-bangs and tear gas clear the square. Summer is ending and we’re heading for a fall.
MacNeice is not far wrong to think of that in terms of Hell.
Michael Thurston is the Provost and Dean of the Faculty, and Helen Means Professor of English Language and Literature at Smith College.