Louis MacNeice wrote this “journal”—a poem split into 24 parts—from August 1938 to the beginning of 1939. It was a time of uncertainty, with the Second World War looming. This is a poem of endings: the ending of a love affair, of summer, of the year, of the comforts and joys of peacetime, and of childhood and its dreams as they turn into a grey of conformity. Although it was written over 90 years—almost a century—ago, in a sense it feels incredibly contemporary.
The poem is a snapshot of what life was like in Britain during the last months of 1938. There is the threat of change—and it is a threat, because things are not going to get better—and business-as-usual has become an escape from reality. In September, the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain met with Adolf Hitler to negotiate an end to his expansionist plans. We all know how that ended, but some at the time believed it would keep Britain out of the war. MacNeice is fairly scathing about this attitude: “And we feel negotiation is not vain — / Save my skin and damn my conscience.”
September 1938 was also the end of his love affair with an unnamed woman. He writes beautifully of the way that you are carried away by a passion for another person that can just as quickly fade away, leaving only memories. This was once the woman
“Who has left a scent on my life and left my walls
Dancing over and over with her shadow,
Whose hair is twined in all my waterfalls
And all of London littered with remembered kisses.”
But now, he can see her “come/Around the corner without the pulse responding”.
MacNiece also mourns the end of childhood, about how the curiosity and creative anarchy of children is whittled away.
“And we had our little tiptoe minds, alert
To jump for facts and fancies and statistics…
The trees were full of owls, the sweets were sweet
And life an expanding ladder. …
Taking it for granted that things would still
Get better and bigger and better and bigger and better”
But, as they grow older, the world only narrows, with no space for individuality or questioning.
“Number Two must mimic Number One
In bearing, swearing, attitude and accent.
And so we jettisoned all
Our childish fantasies and anarchism; …
The order of the day is complete conformity and
An automatic complacence.”
The desire to conform means a surrender of control, and power ends up in the hands of a few.
The sense of uncertainty, of not knowing what will happen next, feels very real in today’s world. As does the feeling that we are responsible for the events that are impacting our lives.
“And at this hour of the day it is no good saying
‘Take away this cup’;
Having helped to fill it ourselves it is only logic
That now we should drink it up.
Nor can we hide our heads in the sands, the sands have
Nothing remains but rock at this hour, this zero
Hour of the day.”
The most haunting section is Section XV, which starts off with a kind of desperate merry-making, more of an attempt to escape than to celebrate. Then a group of hooded figures appear, with the ends of ropes around their necks: “Walking in file, slowly in file; / They have no shoes on their feet, the knobs of their ankles / Catch the moonlight as they pass the stile.” Who are they and why do they look familiar? Their presence casts an accusatory shadow on the festivities, these ghosts who have returned to remind people of the shadows surrounding them.
But it is not all doom and gloom. There is hope for a better world, if we choose to make it so. A world “Not of sleep-walkers, not of angry puppets, / But where both heart and brain can understand / The movements of our fellows; … Where nobody sees the use / Of buying money and blood at the cost of blood and money”.
I know I have used more quotes than I usually do, but there is so much in this slender volume, that I couldn’t resist it. He writes about darkness and loss but with a light touch. This is a book that you can dip into and find something that will resonate. Some of the attitudes are outdated, but he was writing almost a century ago.
He ends on a note of hope. We may be flawed but the very fact that we exist is a miracle.
“None of our hearts are pure, we always have mixed motives,
Are self-deceivers, but the worst of all
Deceits is to murmur ‘Lord, I am not worthy’
And, lying easy, turn your face to the wall.
But may I cure that habit, look up and outwards
And may my feet follow my wider glance
First no doubt to stumble, then to walk with the others
And in the end — with time and luck — to dance.”
 I was inspired to read this by listening to extracts on Pandemic Poems—the actor Samuel West’s project for the lockdown. Roughly at every 100th poem, he read a section from Autumn Journal. You can listen to the extracts at https://soundcloud.com/user-115260978 – nos. 99, 200, 302, 399, 499 and 600.