Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Louis MacNeice--"The British Museum Reading Room" (1939)

The reader has had a stroke of luck today. I was going to put up more of my old vacation pictures here in commemoration of my recent item about Shelley, but my wife seems to have appropriated the scanner for her work.

Louis MacNeice was right in the thick of that generation of elite educated English writers born between about 1903 and 1907 that I frequently extol here, which puts him right in my wheelhouse, not of what I understand, of course, but of what I like. Do I like them too much? No, I don't think so. Do I envy their lives, their attitudes? Certain aspects of the life of the era appeal to me when I contrast it with my own, but on the whole, not really . If I do envy them anything it is their easy and elegant mastery of the language. This group is more comfortable, more precise, sparer and simpler, and wields a lighter touch, almost in the manner of the more exquisite French authors, than any other set of modern writers in English, in my opinion. Indeed, I liked what I read of MacNeice in the Norton Anthology so much that I went out and picked up an old copy of his early collected poems (which volume itself presents an arresting front in the socialist-realist style of the time). That is not to say that these are for the most part great poems, but I will say that they are the kind of thing along the lines of which, in tone, in style, in subject matter, in their frequent slightness and unaffected conversational air, I would like to do if I were to ever try my hand at writing poems, or even do more of in short stories. These poems tend to form themselves about fleeting moments or thoughts, and often feel like fragments of larger poems that are either inccessible or lost. Some sample titles: "Poussin"; "A Classical Education"; "Birmingham"; "Museums"; "To a Communist"; "The Brandy Glass"; "Chess"; even "Evening in Connecticut" ("Life on a china cup", the poet says of this). The best of them are not so much impressionistic as small and fine slices of thought. They have a freedom and air of freshness about them--this is wherein their charm resides--that something straining to be an all-encompassing expression of the author's soul or the nature of existence itself would probably be lacking.

This is the old original reading room, of course, before the British library was moved to its new, modern quarters ten or so years ago. The poem is very short so I am going to write it out, and comment on the things I like about it. I will attempt to avoid any callow analysis, since interpretation I would offer would be fairly obvious to any ordinarily intelligent and decently read person.

Under the hive-like dome the stooping haunted readers
Go up and down the alleys, tap the cells of knowledge--

I should note that this poem is very precisely dated as July, 1939, which circumstance I think must inform any reading of it pretty blatantly. While the hive imagery is not an original conceit, I still like it here.

Honey and wax, the accumulation of years--

This line is good, it carries the metaphor a little further, which was needed, and suggests both the earnestness and energy applied to building up civilization (both British and European/Western) over the course of centuries, and the very possible imminent demonstration of the futility of all that effort.

Some on commission, some for the love of learning,
Some because they have nothing better to do
Or because they hope these walls of books will deaden
The drumming of the demon in their ears.

This poem has a classic three stanza construction--I'm just starting to notice these patterns, sorry--in which the first introduces the subject or theme, the second lays bare that which urgently needs to be revealed about the subject, and the third either lays bare the unfortunate or inevitable resolution to this revelation, or, as in this instance, contrasts it with some scene distinctly opposed to it in vitality, or understanding, often with a strong ironic sense. The last two lines of this first stanza I think have a lot to be said for them. They can be extrapolated to mean more than just what the immediate situation implies. The image of the hope of the walls of books 'deadening' difficult distractions and thoughts one would prefer not to have to cope with was very effective for me in its natural seeming straightforwardness. They also have a nice alliteration.

Pretty good-looking guy. He seems to have been the serial marriage/affair type where women were concerned right up until the end of his life. Doubtless a lot of one night stand type business too, a successful, suave upper class British poet of the 40s and 50s, that's what those guys could do, and did do. He drank heavily, late in his life to the point where he barely bothered to eat, which indicates to me that he was quite serious, and not one of these dilettante alcoholics like you get nowadays. He was just short of 56 years old when he died. Nothing in the poems about keeping tabs on his 403b plan or eating health food or anything like that. Just as I prefer it.

Cranks, hacks, poverty-stricken scholars,
In pince-nez, period hats or romantic beards
And cherishing their hobby or their doom
Some are too much alive and some are asleep
Hanging like bats in a world of inverted values,
Folded up in themselves in a world which is safe and silent:
I don't have anything to add to this, except to note that I think 'cherishing' is at first a surprising word to use here, but then he nicely illuminates what he means by it in the next line, and that the bat imagery is also a good choice, because most people I think think of bats as more than ordinarily despicable and insignificant creatures, although I am not sure why this is so--perhaps because they operate at obscure hours and in obscure ways.

This is the British Museum Reading Room.

Hey, this re-statement of the poem's title in emphasis to close the second stanza is just like in "Sailing to Byzantium". I'm sure it is a common device, almost unreflexively so, in hundreds of other poems too. It is part of that universal grammar of poetic construction I suppose that I have not up to this point really been able to tap into a strong sense of so as to bring with me into all of my readings.

Out on the steps in the sun the pigeons are courting,
Puffing their ruffs and sweeping their tails or taking
A sun-bath at their ease
And under the totem poles--the ancient terror--

Now anyone who saw this or had it pointed out to him under similar circumstances very likely would be inclined to note the contrast and ponder the meaning that I believe is intended here, so what is special about the particular arrangement of the words here? I think the images and actions presented do a very vivid job of making, and suggesting, a picture of a freedom and vitality that will strike even the fairly dull reader. The sun is referred to twice, and the sensation is of emerging from the dimness of the museum into the world of action again out on the steps, which is usually a short-lived jolt of vigor, but nonetheless an impressionable one. (When I came out of the British Museum on my one visit there--I saw the Elgin Marbles, which took a couple of hours, and figured I would be back another time for the Egyptian collection, etc--I went across to the no doubt tourist-oriented and inauthentic pub right across the street from the museum, though it wasn't actually crowded and the beer and the fish fry were quite good. There had apparently been a tavern of some kind in that location for a long time, for the establishment advertised that Karl Marx used to frequent it after one of his long sessions of work in the museum.)

Between the enormous fluted Ionic columns
There seeps like heavily jowled or hawk-like foreign faces
The guttural sorrow of the refugees.

It's well done. It gives you a context, a civilized one, in the 1st and 3rd verses a very calm one, in which to consider what it wants you to consider. This is the sort of thing I find appealing, and which is more common in continental European than in English and certainly American poetry. I remember George Seferis's poems and writings as having a similar effect, local culture and tradition, and relation to the land dating back the whole of the extent of cultural memory hover over and dictate the form and meaning of every poem, however topical to contemporary times.

No comments: