I discovered a new poet a couple weeks back. Or, as with vehicles, I ought to say “new to me;” had I been a bit keener back in Lyric Poetry class, I’d have taken note of Louis Macneice before now. As it is, I read a story using his poem “To Mary” as an epigraph:
Forgive what I give you. Though nightmare and cinders,
The one can be trodden, the other ridden,
We must use what transport we can. Both crunching
Path and bucking dream can take me
Where I shall leave the path and dismount
From the mad-eyed beast and keep my appointment
In green improbable fields with you.
This dedication of The Burning Perch to his last beloved, Mary Wimbush, is a sort of apology – according to Jonathan Allison, an apology for dedicating to her a book of poems borne of his nightmares.
Whatever he may be apologizing for, whatever their green improbable fields be, I enjoy this lyrical promise: the hope that he will indeed dismount from nightmares, perhaps gaining some new strength from having endured them, and in some wise meet with happier times.
Macneice’s voice is distinct, but certain elements of his work reminded me of the poetry of CS Lewis. “To Mary” ends on a much more active and optimistic note, but like Lewis’s “Infatuation,” starts a tad suddenly, employs enjambment throughout, uses the same images of night-mares (riding and ridden) and cinders. “The Sunlight on the Garden” twists with internal rhyme, quietly ruminating like Jack’s “On Being Human.” Then there’s “I am that I am,” with its touch of melancholy, its thoughtful and academic treatment without getting too obscure or eschewing rhyme: qualities to be found in a number of poets, to be sure, but Lewis is, as ever, lingering at the surface of my mind.
My curiosity piqued, I looked up Macneice himself. Like Lewis, he was born in Belfast (9 years later); he too lost his mother at a young age, went to boarding school, was educated in the classics, grew to love Norse mythology, had a group of literary friends who discussed their work, gave lectures, worked with the BBC on radio broadcasts, and wrote a number of books before dying in autumn of 1963.
Of course, that list makes them seem more similar than was in fact the case; some bias or other must account for it. The fact that both were thoroughly grounded in Greek and Latin, and perhaps their having lived at roughly the same time, can in all likelihood account for similarities of subject and tone. That air of melancholy they sometimes share was drawn, I imagine, from their reading of Nordic sagas and Irish mythology.
On the other hand, Macneice, unlike Lewis, abandoned his childhood faith and never returned to it. This sets him on a different trajectory, spiritually speaking, such that he kept company with different authors, focused more of his attention on Ireland and the shadow of war, and spent more time carrying on romantic relationships. His later work tends more toward the cynical and ironic, expressing the futility of modern life. So for all their commonalities, and for all the beauty and complexity of Macneice’s work, I figure that Lewis is the one whose work will stick with me.