Autumn Journal on Autumn Journal: 3
- By Michael Thurston
(Photo from vinepair.com)
“August is nearly over.”
I forget, from year to year, how Autumn Journal begins with an insistence upon endings. Summer is ending in section I, August is ending in section III, and, in the section that falls between those, MacNeice contemplates the ultimate ending. Such emphasis is consonant with the poetic mainstream where autumn is concerned. Even as the season offers the abundance of the harvest, as James Thomson sets his rural clowns to pleasant work beside their fair Lavinia, the autumn hunts and feasts are just particolored hedges against winter’s arrival. It is this progression that Keats famously tries to stop with the languor of his lines.
So we might see MacNeice simply joining in the long pastoral tradition of seeing endings in this particular turn of season. In addition, for teachers (as MacNeice was), the coming of autumn is the end of leisure, of one’s control over one’s own time. Just yesterday, I was talking with a colleague who said that corn made her ambivalent. On the one hand, she loves the stuff and looks forward to the late-summer moment when it peaks, but on the other hand she knows that the height of those stalks measures the inexorable progress toward the start of the semester and the onslaught that won’t let up until the Christmas break. Settling in to work on his syllabi (I’m assuming this because it’s what we all do in late August, but I have to admit that MacNeice doesn’t actually say this is the work he’s going back to), MacNeice seems to feel that sense of an ending too. But something else is going on as well.
That the end of August is the end of leisure is clear in the opening passage of this section. Vacation has simply been “the annual spree” for which all working Londoners have had to endure “the annual / Wait.” Back home and back in harness, “the till and the typewriter call the fingers,” and only at the end of the eight-hour day can workers find “the solace / Of films or football pools,” indulgence in “The blue smoke rising and the brown lace sinking / In the empty glass of stout.” It’s noteworthy that most of these consolations are communal, and that MacNeice might, with his fellow citizens and fellow workers, find in collective leisure some restorative pleasure (as he often did in real life, hanging out in pubs with friends and attending rugby matches—he was a big fan). Here, though, we get at the other, deeper, difficulty the poet is trying to work his way through. “Most,” he writes, “are accepters.” These folks “take things as they come.” Opposed to these, he acknowledges, “some refusing harness . . . Would pray that another and a better Kingdom come.” MacNeice finds that he can’t count himself among the first group and can’t bring himself to join the second either.
He is not unsympathetic to that idea of a “better Kingdom.” MacNeice characterizes as “utterly lost and daft” a socio-economic system “that gives a few at fancy prices / Their fancy lives / While ninety-nine in the hundred who never attend the banquet / Must wash the grease of ages off the knives.” Perhaps he’s skeptical about radical change because he is a full-fledged member of the cultural elite. Born to a priest in the Protestant Church of Ireland, educated at Marlborough (a fashionable English public school) and Merton College, Oxford, a first-class graduate with a degree in Classics and a teacher of classical languages and literatures at a posh London girls’ school, a frequent publisher with Faber and Faber, MacNeice is bred to the difficulty of imagining “A world where the many would have their chance without / A fall in the standard of intellectual living / And nothing left that the highbrow cared about.” But it is not, ultimately, this worry that hangs him up. A restless and careful thinker, MacNeice is self-critical enough to dismiss that elitist suspicion (“There is no reason for thinking / That, if you give a chance to people to think or live, / The arts of thought or life will suffer and become rougher”). His problem, instead, is precisely that he is a restless and careful thinker.
In this regard, MacNeice stands out even among a group of pretty restless intellects. By an accident of literary history, MacNeice was part of what has come to be known as the Auden Generation (the title of Samuel Hynes’s influential book on the central British poets of the Thirties). At the time, this group (whose other key members included W.H. Auden, C. Day Lewis, and Stephen Spender) was dismissively characterized by the right-wing writer, Roy Campbell, as “the pantomime horse MacSpAunDay.” These poets dominated both the Faber list and the pages of the literary magazines and anthologies, and they were known not only for the modernist orientation of their work but also (gallingly, for Campbell) for their generally lefty political orientation. In 1930s Britain, “generally lefty” might easily mean “Communist,” though for all of these poets aside from Spender (who also later recanted), the party’s line was too hard to toe. MacNeice was perhaps the most skeptical of radical political movements, not because he did not share their aims and values but because his own reading of history did not suggest much likelihood of success. More than this, MacNeice found himself constitutionally incapable of settling with any resolution to a philosophical problem (and all political problems were, he thought, ultimately philosophical).
This, I think, is why the poem keeps beginning with endings. Every time MacNeice wraps up an argument in one section, he has to go back and reopen it in the next. He resolves in the second section to get up and go out with all the others (from whom he has separated himself), only to start the third section separating himself from others and having once again to get himself to a point where he resolves (again) to “walk with the others.” In this case, that resolution requires MacNeice intentionally to set aside not only his elitism but also his restless skepticism and to opt instead for a commitment to action, to “risk a movement without being sure / If movement would be better or worse.” He resolves, this time, to “cure that habit” of continual analysis. Importantly, he frames this new commitment in physical terms: he’ll risk stumbling to “walk with the others,” and he hopes, eventually, to beyond walking and begin “with time and luck—to dance.”
Dance is a specific and important kind of movement on which to end this section. (By happy coincidence, I have just read a great essay on dance by the critic, Clair Wills, whose work I’ve long admired and who gave a smart talk on MacNeice at a conference celebrating his centenary in Belfast. Reading Wills as I’m rereading Autumn Journal reminds me of the poem’s community of readers, one gathered at that conference in 2007 and included, along with Wills, the likes of Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon, Michael and Edna Longley, Jon Stallworthy, Richard Brown, and Peter Golphin, great dance partners.) True choreography requires greater coordination—both individually and with others—than the mere walking that MacNeice names as his first step. In this regard, dance nicely figures the coordinated movement of politics, of marches and protests, of campaigns and get-out-the-vote campaigns. Resolving to dance (eventually), MacNeice resolves not only to move but also to be part of a movement. At the same time, dance (as opposed to work) is associated with pleasure. It is the movement of the body for purposes not of productivity but, instead, of erotic or aesthetic (or maybe even athletic) pleasure. Embracing movement, MacNeice imagines an ending (in this poem beginning with endings) not in the drudgery of movement but in the beauty and meaning achievable in and through it. At the end of a summer characterized at once by miserable stasis (days alone in front of screens, locked in and locked down for the foreseeable future) and motivating mutability (marches and demonstrations, the coordinated movement of Movements, the choreography of conventions), we can do far worse than resolve, like MacNeice, to walk together—and, “with time and luck,” to join together and dance.
Michael Thurston is the Provost and Dean of the Faculty, and Helen Means Professor of English Language and Literature at Smith College.