Autumn Journal on Autumn Journal: 23-24
- By Michael Thurston
(Photo: “Rooster,” TBWA Advertising, Paris, 2007. Creative Director, Erik Vervrogen)
“Now I must make amends.”
It is often said (when people are talking of the “Auden group,” those poets who came to prominence with Auden in the Thirties) that MacNeice was the collective’s resident skeptic. Others, you will hear—from Samuel Hynes in his book, The Auden Generation, from Edna Longley in her study of MacNeice, from Robyn Marsack and Beret Strong and Peter MacDonald in chapters on MacNeice, even from Seamus Perry and Mark Ford in their recent London Review of Books podcast episode on MacNeice—flirted with political commitment (Stephen Spender is usually singled out as the most gung-ho enthusiast for movements, but Auden and C. Day Lewis also get credit, or blame, for at least provisionally throwing their weight behind some cause), but MacNeice stayed scrupulously on the sidelines. One way to read the whole of Autumn Journal, though, is as MacNeice’s struggle with this skeptical posture, his spiraling doubt about the value of such withholding and his ever more insistent forays into “movement,” which, as the poem’s subtle system of connections shows, are forays into movements as well.
1938 is dying. In its final days, MacNeice leaves a lot behind: London and his Primrose Hill apartment, Nancy and the end of their affair, the classics classroom and Plato’s philosophy, nightmares and dark nights of the soul, his poses as the hard-boiled cynic, sensualist, and skeptic. It has taken Munich and his complex reaction to it, Oxford’s bye-election, memories of Spain on the brink of civil war, and several failed attempts to analyze his way to isolated inactivity, but he has, by the poem’s closing sections, come to some resolutions that are final, if for no other reason than that both the autumn and the poem are concluding. He will leave the sidelines (he already has, as his participation in political action has grown, from the ironic Oxford day trip to joining marches and protests).
1938 is dying, and has been dying since the opening section of the poem. Recall that MacNeice figures his return to London from vacation as an Underworld descent and figures the coming fall as the dying of leaves and laissez-faire, his return to work as a death that joins the broader dying of the world. Ritually, MacNeice has prepared over the course of the fall (and over the course of the poem) as the protagonists of Underworld descents do, have done since Gilgamesh went after Enkiddu. The trappings of the world and worldly must be shed, the dark endured, the eyes adjusted so they can take in the prophetic insight to be won or wrought: here is the truth, here is the way home, here is the history you will inaugurate, here is the nature of divine justice, here is the locus of revolution.
I mentioned early on that MacNeice conducts an occasional dialogue with his editor, Eliot, in Autumn Journal. That dialogue is also structural and overarching. In The Waste Land, London’s “Unreal city” is an Underworld caught in living death. The prophetic truth at its heart, revealed by the blind seer Tiresias in “The Fire Sermon,” is a loveless seduction, desire playing out its tawdry string until all we are left with is “nothing” rhymed with “nothing.” At the poem’s end, there is only confusion, madness, violence, and incomprehensibility. For MacNeice, there might be much about contemporary life in London that is hellish. He might be surrounded by dead souls (the “dunderheads and smarties” celebrating after Oxford), and love might amount to little more than memories of a lipsticked cigarette stub on a plate, but against the stasis such insights might argue for there is the irritant of movement, toward which MacNeice finds himself inexorably drawn. By December, he had allowed himself to be elected to the Association of Writers for Intellectual Liberty. With the prominent biologist and activist, J.B.S. Haldane, he had carried a banner in a march supporting the Spanish Republic. Now, in Spain and in the poem’s closing sections, he at last wins a new prophetic insight that links movement, with its inevitable losses, with meaning—and with life itself.
If MacNeice’s ritual preparation has required the serial relinquishing of material comforts, memories, illusions, and relationships, he sees his experience magnified in the empty and destroyed streets of Barcelona. Here, the people “have no eggs, no milk, no fish, no fruit, no tobacco, no butter.” They “live upon lentils and sleep in the Metro.” Their existence is purgatorial, but it has heightened the salience of “human values.” In Barcelona, “the soul has found its voice / Though not indeed by choice; / The cost was heavy.” The ritual preparation by purgation complete and the dark night concluded, the morning dawns with new vision:
And in the pauses of destruction
The cocks in the centre of the town crow.
The cocks crow in Barcelona
Where clocks are few to strike the hour;
Is it the heart’s reveille or the sour
Reproach of Simon Peter?
The year has come to an end,
Time for resolutions and stock-taking.
In the crowing of the cock, MacNeice hears the Gospels’ “reproach” of Peter for his three denials of the condemned Christ (and maybe hears in that a reproach for his own repeated denial of calls to action?), but also the military’s morning call to awaken and to arm. Moreover, in “reveille,” we can’t help but hear (especially in a moment like this) the latent idea of revelation.
Lest we think the poem’s references to bombs are second-hand, it is worth nothing that MacNeice experienced bombardment directly twice during this trip: Barcelona endured an air raid on New Year’s Eve and a week later, the day before he was due to leave, MacNeice was part of a relief convoy to Tarragona that was bombed as it returned to Barcelona. He writes of the latter experience in his autobiography, The Strings are False:
We lay down in the stony ditch and before our eyes a chain of bombs, six or eight, fell parallel with the road, so rapidly that I had no time to be frightened, merely thought what a wonderful show. First a big red flower and then another; then where the flowers had been, a powdery blue effulgence spreading upwards and outwards with scalloped edges, joining up with the next.
In the poem, he merely notes a sky “pregnant with ill will” and “pretty as a Guy Fawkes show.” The floral imagery from the prose account, though, calls to mind the “huge roses” of “Snow” and the “enormous” flowers of his midwinter apartment, those figures for the world’s incorrigible variety. The momentary, the moving, the emergent real provoke the crucial recognition that “never to begin / Anything new because we know there is nothing / New, is an academic sophistry -- / The original sin.” It is for this sin, one he has repeated and by which he will continue to be tempted, that he resolves, at the turn of the year, he “must make amends”:
I have loved defeat and sloth,
The tawdry halo of the idle martyr;
I have thrown away the roots of will and conscience,
Now I must look for both,
Not any longer act among the cushions
The Dying Gaul.
Amid and inspired by “these people” who, starving, bombed, deprived, nevertheless (or consequently) “contain truth,” he acknowledges “the cock crowing in Barcelona” and its revelation. He commits to commitment.
Only having done so can MacNeice, who has been tormented by nightmares since the second section’s long dark night, achieve for himself and wish for others, in an anaphorically lyrical conclusion, sleep. “Sleep” is the whispered “Shantih” for MacNeice’s revisionist Waste Land. It is the benediction he wishes for his loved ones, his intellectual influences, his favorite celebrities, his fellow humanists and atheists, his fellows in commitment (“may your zeal persist”), and his “various and conflicting / Selves.” It is his version of the snow that falls, at the end of Joyce’s “The Dead,” sent now as a prayer of peace to his “fathers, in [their] graves / On upland bogland under heather.” And, speaking of snow and things being various, it is what he calls upon to cover his “past and all [his] sins / In distant snow or dried roses.” Sleep pulls together all the strands of this long poem, and it reaches beyond them to encompass his career to date, his life up to this point, and his understanding of his whole society and its precarious state at the end of a consequential year.
We might hope for restful and sustaining sleep at the end of our own year. My newspaper this morning reports that the United States is suffering a September 11 every day as more than 3000 of our fellow citizens and fellow human beings succumb to the coronavirus (or, perhaps, to the federal government’s criminal mismanagement of the pandemic). Having barely beaten back the bestial cries for more fascism, the repeated lies regarding voter fraud, the endless lawsuits and bullying, and the petulant loser’s refusal to sign a relief bill, we are sick and tired, exhausted and depleted. “Sleep, my body, sleep, my ghost.” A long and restful slumber sounds good right now. But as the year turns and a new president is inaugurated and a vaccine begins to be deployed, all the challenges—of inequality engineered by neoliberal orthodoxy, of despair and rage among the wretched, of our divisive politics and our broken governmental machinery—are still there to be faced. After a quick nap or a short night, we’ll need to wake up and get back to the barricades.
Having arrived at his hard-won realization, MacNeice understands this. The new year of 1939 was going to bring much worse than the year just ended, and though he cannot know this, it does seem that MacNeice has troubling premonitions:
To-night we sleep
On the banks of the Rubicon – the die is cast;
There will be time to audit
The accounts later, there will be sunlight later
And the equation will come out at last.
One of the benefits of rereading MacNeice’s poem, though it might take four months, twenty posts, eighty-odd pages or twenty-three thousand words to do so, is this reminder that, though we need to sleep as the year ends, the new year will begin—a time for resolution and stock-taking, a time to wake and join in movement, a time to get to work.
Michael Thurston is the Provost and Dean of the Faculty, and Helen Means Professor of English Language and Literature at Smith College.