Autumn Journal on Autumn Journal: 2
- By Michael Thurston
Photo by Chen-Pan Liao (CC BY-SA 3.0)
“Spider, spider, twisting tight . . .
. . . in the web of night”
Back home in London, Louis MacNeice has trouble sleeping. Section II of Autumn Journal is a nocturnal meditation, a dark night of the soul. Worrying over Being and Becoming, stasis and change, the way day leads on to yet another day, night to just another night, MacNeice suffers both in and from separation, isolation.
Rereading this section while the coronavirus pandemic keeps most of us home most of the time, while most of my interactions with others are mediated by a screen, and while much that I had taken for granted just six months ago seems impossible now, yet much that I hate about my current life seems all too permanent, I find MacNeice’s worries resonant. Confronting, for hours a day, faces enclosed in rectangles, all checkerboarded in the larger rectangle of my monitor, I wonder whether we ever feel quite so alone as when interacting in this limited and mediated way.
MacNeice builds this section of Autumn Journal on a refrain; three times, he repeats the opening half-line, punctuating his sleepless night with “Spider, spider.” The night is a web in which the poet feels caught, but it also provokes him to spin webs of his own, each instance of that repeated phrase the start of a new one. In the first and longest web, MacNeice weaves strands of real-life detail (he hears “the lions roar beneath the hill,” referring to the big cats in the London Zoo, not far from his flat on Primrose Hill, just across the street from Regent’s Park), erudite quotation (“Noli me tangere”), and allusions to myth (Persephone) and philosophy (Plato, Nirvana). The sticky center of this web is a dark question and the darkness prevents guidance toward an answer:
And I think of Persephone gone down to dark
No more a virgin, gone the garish meadow,
But why must she come back, why must the snowdrop mark
That life goes on forever?
There are nights when I am lonely and long for love
But to-night is quintessential dark forbidding
Anyone beside or below me; only above
Pile high the tumulus, good-bye to starlight.
The myth of Persephone typically offers consolation; in the face of death (the seasonal death MacNeice contemplates in section I, but also individual death), there is the promise of rejuvenation. Here, though, the spring’s return seems merely to extend the meaninglessness of the dark night. There is a deft duplicity in that reference to no one beside or below him. On the one hand, it’s a winking admission that by “love” he means “sex.” On the other hand, though, it picks up (interweaves with?) “Noli me tangere, my soul is forfeit” a few lines earlier; no one is beneath him because he is “at the nadir.” More than that, as the “tumulus” and the farewell to starlight suggest, he is speaking as if from the grave, already dead and buried. Given all of that, MacNeice thinks he might like to “disappear—the scent grows warm / For pure Not-Being, Nirvana.” If you’re buried, after all, the least you should get in return is relief from the anxieties of the night. But MacNeice is reminded by the spider’s spinning that “to-morrow will outweigh / To-night, / That Becoming is a match for Being.”
If that sounds a little familiar (a voice speaking from its buried place, mixing memory and desire, finding cruelty in the spring’s promise of resurrection and return), you are right to hear echoes of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. I mentioned Eliot in the first installment of this series, one of the sources to which MacNeice alludes as he descends into London as if into the Underworld; as we’ll see, one of the continuous threads through Autumn Journal is a dialogue MacNeice conducts with Eliot. This should come as no surprise; born in 1907, MacNeice is part of the generation of British poets for whom Eliot was a looming presence—so taken-for-granted as an influence that W.H. Auden (MacNeice’s friend and contemporary both at Oxford and after) writes in his introduction to the 1927 anthology of Oxford student poets (in which MacNeice also appears) that if young poets are to have one window open onto “faeryland,” they ought, at least, to have another open onto the waste land.
For MacNeice, though, Eliot is more than an influential forebear; he is also the poet’s editor. From the 1930s until his retirement in the 1960s, Eliot was the chief arbiter and editor for poetry at Faber and Faber, London’s most authoritative literary publisher. By the time he was writing Autumn Journal, MacNeice had published a handful of books with Faber (including poetry collections, literary criticism, and literary nonfiction). I’ll have more to say later about the two poets’ correspondence about Autumn Journal itself, but for now it is important to see that MacNeice declares a kind of independence from Eliot’s vision even as the two continue to work closely. For example, Eliot’s undead speakers find consolation in philosophies of the East (Hinduism, Buddhism); MacNeice, too, is tempted toward Nirvana’s blessed non-being. The younger poet, though, does so only to pivot immediately and reject it, resolving instead to get up in the morning and get back to life.
We might think of the structure of the section as sonnet-like, a longer part (like the Petrarchan octave) setting out the problem, with a shorter part (the sestet) bringing about some resolution. Here, as often in Petrarchan sestets, MacNeice divides the resolution into two steps (we can even construe them as a set of four pairs of lines followed by a set of two), hinged with the second appearance of that Blakean “Spider, spider.” Here, as in Songs of Experience, a nighttime predator provokes questions about the nature of meaning and being. In the first segment of this “sestet,” he reads the spider’s incessant nighttime spinning as a rebuke: “Who am I—or I—to demand oblivion?” MacNeice resolves to get over himself and to get up: “I must go out to-morrow as the others do.” Not for him the peace beyond understanding whispered in Eliot’s closing “Shantih.” That peace, for Eliot, is what we must seek because our towers have been destroyed, the cities for which they stand rendered “Unreal.” MacNeice takes aim at Eliot’s resolution, writing not only that he has to “go out” like others, but also that he has to do so in order “to build the falling castle.” In the “couplet” that closes out this section, he makes peace with the spider: “Spider, spider, spin / Your register and let me sleep.” The sleep he calls for now, though, is not the eternal rest he courted earlier. Instead, he hopes to sleep “Not now in order to end but to begin.”
I know what gets me down in the present moment, what sometimes, when I can’t sleep, has me in a grim place: these days of endless Zoom, of locked-in loneliness, and of a paralyzing impotence in the face of viruses both literal (Covid) and figurative (American racism), each day seeming to repeat much of the one before, none seeming to lead even a step closer to health. What is it, though, that’s got MacNeice down in August, 1938? We’ll get into that in the next section, but we get a sense of it here in the way he connects “quintessential darkness” with his solitude. The return to a bustling city seems to emphasize for MacNeice just how alone he is (a fact perhaps escapable while on vacation in the south of England). But we also get a glimpse here of how that solitude might be, at least in part, self-selected. MacNeice sets himself apart from, even in opposition to, “others,” those who “are happy in the hive of home,” those who “with a grin / Shake off sleep like a dog and hurry to desk or engine.” As we’ll soon see, this poet has himself to get over because it is the sense of himself as distinct, utterly different, from others that is a big part of his problem.
Read Part 3 here.
Michael Thurston is the Provost and Dean of the Faculty, and Helen Means Professor of English Language and Literature at Smith College.