Autumn Journal on Autumn Journal: 4
- By Michael Thurston
(Man Ray, Observatory Time: The Lovers , detail)
“September has come and I wake.”
The calendar turns, and the new month is like a new day. After three beginnings in endings, Louis MacNeice offers a beginning at the beginning. Awakening from the dark night that has hung over the second and third sections of the poem, MacNeice experiences, for the first time in Autumn Journal, as he thinks of the continuity of human being, “joy”: “there will always be people.” Emerging from darkness into the peculiar light of autumn, MacNeice seems at the same time to emerge from solitude into company, not only the abstract “people” but also the specificity of an individual companion. “September has come, it is hers / Whose vitality leaps in the autumn” (MacNeice’s italics).
MacNeice had met the painter, Nancy Coldstream, earlier in the 1930s, when he was living with his first wife, Mary, in Birmingham. After his marriage ended late in 1936, MacNeice began an affair with Nancy. She traveled with him to the Hebrides in 1937, on the trip that led to his odd travel book, I Crossed the Minch (Nancy provided illustrations). The relationship, and Nancy’s association with the fall, seems to revise MacNeice’s own feelings about the season. In section I the season’s leafless trees and bonfires were chilling and associated with death; now they are sources of pleasure. The walls of MacNeice’s apartment were the territory of the nighttime spider and the screen on which MacNeice projected thoughts of death; in light of his love, they are “Dancing over and over with her shadow.” London in that section was a kind of Underworld, its air “packed and stale and pregnant”; through association with his beloved, the city is now “littered with remembered kisses.” And the constant change, the “Becoming” that refuses to calm into mere “Being,” is now celebrated, beauty encompassing “moments / More shifting and more transient.”
All of this makes for a surprise when, a third of the way through this section, we stumble on “So that if now alone / I must pursue this life.” We realize that MacNeice is, yet again, beginning in an ending. During the autumn of 1938, his affair with Nancy Coldstream was in fact breaking up, the painter having fallen in love with Michael Spender – brother of the poet (who was also MacNeice’s Oxford classmate), Stephen. Rather than the joy of commitment to a lover or a relationship, then, it is the joy of commitment to a memory that MacNeice expresses and explores in this section of the poem. Indeed, “remember” recurs throughout the remainder of the section: “I always shall remember,” “You whom I remember,” “I shall remember,” “And I shall remember.” And these memories progress into ever greater specificity, intricacy, and intimacy as MacNeice dwells first on Coldstream’s abstract qualities (incorruptible, frivolous, forgetful) and then on her emotional qualities (“Smiling in drink or scintillating anger,” “readily responsive,” excitable), and on her physical presence (“in bed with bright / Eyes or in a café stirring coffee / Abstractedly and on your plate the white / Smoking stub your lips had touched with crimson”). The final “I shall remember” draws these together: MacNeice synthesizes abstract and concrete, intellectual and emotional, in recalling his lover’s words, which “could hurt / Because they were so honest.”
Rereading these passages now, I, too, am prompted to remember, but also to notice anew a deft but philosophically crucial move that MacNeice makes with regard to the idea of truth. Memory first: some years ago, I sent lines from this section of Autumn Journal, along with a long extract from a letter MacNeice wrote to Coldstream, as something of a billet-doux. That long-distance relationship involved a lot of intimacy recollected in tranquility, meditated upon and synthesized with my sense of my beloved’s abstract qualities, and MacNeice’s kiss-littered London seemed to rhyme with my experience of New York. Sometime later, amid another year’s rereading of the poem and the breakup of that relationship, I was provoked by MacNeice’s wistful and generous retrospect (“And it is on the strength of knowing you / I reckon generous feeling more important”) to overcome anger and bitterness, to rescue from the wreckage some reminders of that intimacy and all that it had meant. MacNeice beautifully balances acknowledgment of Coldstream’s less attractive characteristics with celebration of all that is appealing about her – and with the recognition of his own shortcomings, of the way his time with her made him better. One of those improvements, he writes, consequent on Coldstream’s honesty, is a new ability to see things as they are.
As he expresses gratitude for this new vision, MacNeice effects a shift in how the poem itself works. [Bear with me; this is going to get a little technical (but only briefly).] Expressing gratitude that the world continues to contain Coldstream, “with her moods and moments,” MacNeice veers mid-sentence from a heavily metaphorical register to the metonymical mode that dominates the rest of the section. I need to quote a few lines to illustrate:
Whose mind is like the wind on a sea of wheat,
Whose eyes are candour,
And assurance in her feet
Like a homing pigeon never by doubt diverted.
To whom I send my thanks
That the air has become shot silk, the streets are music,
And that the ranks
Of men are ranks of men, no more of cyphers.
Mind as wind on wheat, eyes as candor, feet like pigeons, air imaged in silk and streets in music: that’s all metaphorical, the conception of one thing in terms of another. And metaphor is a kind of “cipher,” an encoding of something in the swerve of figurative language. But to see ranks of men as ranks of men, especially to do so as opposed to seeing them as “cyphers” (mysteries or coded secrets) is to pivot pretty forcefully from metaphor. Earlier in the sentence, A = B; now A = A. And for the rest of the section, MacNeice illustrates his memories not with metaphors but, instead, with metonyms (details that, by their connection with broader wholes, give a powerful sense of those wholes). The abandonment of metaphor is not permanent. MacNeice will get back to such figurative thinking in subsequent sections. But he forges here a relationship between the concretization of the abstract, the metonymic as opposed to the metaphoric, and the ideas of truth and honesty, of words that can hurt in their “integrity of purpose,” that both suits the form of a poetic “journal” and establishes a key theme to which he will return.
The American poet, Theodore Roethke, famously wrote that “In a dark time, the eye begins to see.” Immersed in a time of some personal darkness, MacNeice commits here to a newly clear-eyed vision. As we’ll see in section V, that new way of seeing will come in handy as the darkness opens out from the personal challenge of a dying relationship to the public events that darken the autumnal horizon in September, 1938.
Michael Thurston is the Provost and Dean of the Faculty, and Helen Means Professor of English Language and Literature at Smith College.