Autumn Journal on Autumn Journal: 12-13
- By Michael Thurston
(Photo: Michelangelo's David, posterior view. Uffizi Gallery, Florence.)
“These days are misty, insulated, mute”
We are at the midpoint of autumn and the midpoint of the poem, far enough into both to realize that the incessant endings signaled by earlier sunsets, falling leaves, the endings of days/seasons/years/relationships, and the poet’s own dithering, are themselves only the prelude and necessary condition for new beginnings. Autumn brings cycles to MacNeice’s mind, and as we saw at the end of section XI, “No one can stop the cycle.” Nevertheless, the two mid-most sections of Autumn Journal form a moment of more emphatic rejection than we find elsewhere in the poem. Unable fully to let go of his lost love, MacNeice seems more than ready to say goodbye to the business of education. I want to suggest that what looks like vocational crisis is more importantly another twist in the poet’s continuous argument with himself—about mind vs. body, thinking vs. acting, skepticism vs. commitment, nostalgia vs. engagement, tradition and his individual talent.
Section XII tries to find a course between mindless barbarism and barren intellect. MacNeice first returns to the worry he expressed just before the Munich Agreement was announced, that we “must, in order to beat / The enemy, model ourselves upon the enemy.” The anxiety here takes the form not of Nazis, though, but of Romans. If, he writes, the present is a moment for action (as he has more than once resolved for himself that it is), then “criticism, a virtue previously, / Now can only weaken / And . . . when we go to Rome / We must do as Romans do.” He dreads the coarsening of thought, the deadening of response in a Roman round of bread and circuses. Sitting by the fire as the fall’s chilly mist exacerbates his loneliness, MacNeice hears echoes of Rome’s gladiators in his own youthful bayonet practice: “To kill a dummy you must act a dummy.” At the same time, though, he finds no pleasure or promise in that philosophical (and civilizational) antithesis to Roman brawn, “Plato talking about his Forms.” Plato’s relentless abstraction is “too bleak” because it renders any particular simply an instance of the ideal Form of that particular’s class of thing.
Here, true to his selected journal genre, days serve as MacNeice’s example:
. . . no one Tuesday is another and you destroy it
If you merely subtract the difference and relate
It merely to the Form of Tuesday.
Writing on a specific Tuesday (October 25, 1938), MacNeice opts for Aristotle as a foundation and guide because, “Stressing the function, scrapping the Form in Itself,” Aristotle offers a middle way toward the resolution MacNeice has sought since his first plans for the poem.
Remember, he describes Autumn Journal as “half-way between the lyric and didactic poem,” and we have often seen him set two poles against each other only to choose a way between them. (There is a whole essay to be written on MacNeice as a poet of betweenness; one need only read his most famous poem, “Snow,” which juxtaposes wintry weather and blooming roses and revels in “the drunkenness of things being various,” to find a fitting thesis for much of his work.) At this midpoint of his journal, MacNeice focuses his quest not on the ambitions of the poem itself but on his own desires:
All that I would like to be is human, having a share
In a civilised, articulate and well-adjusted
Community where the mind is given its due
But the body is not distrusted.
As I write shortly after the U.S. presidential election has been called for Joe Biden, that desire seems slightly less fantastic, slightly more realistic, than it did a week ago.
But as we have also seen, MacNeice does not let any resolution rest too long before he dissolves it. Here, that dynamic crosses the border between sections as XIII begins with a sentence fragment continuing, and revising, the closing thought of XII: “Which things being so, . . . I ought to be glad.” Grateful as he is to his classical education for the way it has rescued him from manual labor and provided him with a cushy job, MacNeice can’t resist the posture of critique that very education has prepared and provoked him to take. Not only has training in classics equipped him with “a toy-box of hall-marked marmoreal phrases,” it has also habituated him to a martial and elitist disposition:
We marched, counter-marched to the field-marshal’s blue-pencil baton,
We dressed by the right and we wrote out the sentence again.
We learned that a gentleman never misplaces his accents . . . .
The student of classics, MacNeice writes, “is bred to the purple,” and the student’s “training in syntax / Is also a training in thought.” The problem is that this training in thought, this absorption into the traditions of great philosophers and their great interpreters (“Scaliger, Heinsius, Dindorf, Bentley, and Wilamowitz”), ultimately initiates one into a cult of the counterintuitive:
And it made one confident to think that nothing
Really was what it seemed under the sun,
That the actual was not real and the real was not with us
And all that mattered was the One.
Allusions to Corinthians (“where two or three / Persons of intelligence and culture / Are gathered together in talk”) at once underscore and undermine the sacramental character of clubby classicism. It can feel like salvation to fall into the familiar phrases of faux-philosophical cant.
Repeating and reinforcing the pattern that has emerged over the course of the poem, MacNeice springs from this moment of self-criticism and/as institutional criticism to a resolution in favor of the bodily, the specific, the living, and the present. He does so in a way that pushes to the foreground an aspect of the poem that I fear I have left unaddressed. It is easy to get caught up in the tug of ideas or the big historical anxieties in Autumn Journal and, as a consequence, easy to miss or forget that MacNeice can be witty as well. Part of what makes him bearable company as he is moaning over Nancy’s departure, worrying about impending war and his own ethical obligations, or picking apart the perils and pleasures of his education is this wit. A few lines here will illustrate the point:
I must be content to remain in the world of pure Appearance
And sit on the mere appearance of a behind.
But in case you should think my education wasted
I hasten to explain
That having once been to the University of Oxford
You can never really again
Believe anything that anyone says and that of course is an asset
In a world like ours.
The world of appearances, for Plato, is the world fallen from and inferior to the realm of pure form, but it is, as MacNeice recognizes, the world to which we have access, and the apparent behind is indeed the only one on which we can sit. And MacNeice’s Oxford education has enabled him, as these two sections have insisted, to sit on his behind rather than take up manual labor. In this regard (among others), the habits of thought he has developed are assets. If we allow “behind” and “asset” to play in the ear and in the mind as we read here, we can also hear MacNeice’s ironic gratitude, perhaps, for the “arse-sit” his education has provided him, along with his apparent inability to stop his restlessly critical mind.
Michael Thurston is the Provost and Dean of the Faculty, and Helen Means Professor of English Language and Literature at Smith College.