Twentieth Century Poetry: Selves and Situations

By Peter Robinson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 4
MacNeice, Munich, and Self-Sufficiency

I

In Modern Poetry: A Personal Essay Louis MacNeice makes ‘a plea for impure poetry’, which is ‘conditioned by the poet’s life and the world around him’. A poet is also to be a community’s ‘conscience, its critical faculty, its generous instinct’.1 The Munich crisis of September 1938 was a situation in which both conscience and criticism were engaged. The political analyses of the immediate moment and the retrospect of the following three months helped shape the character of MacNeice’s Autumn Journal as an object and a reading experience. The poet’s desire for an impure poetry conditioned by ‘the world around him’ is qualified by his sense that the way circumstance is articulated in a poem must be mediated by ‘the question of Form’.2 A poet’s technique then becomes a negotiation with situation in which both dependence and independence are exercised. These issues are informed by MacNeice’s debate with Aristotle in Autumn Journal about the desire to be ‘spiritually selfsupporting’ or to recognize that ‘other people are always | Organic to the self’. It is a debate whose terms are relevant both for questions in the poet’s private life and for the policy of appeasement adopted in the face of Hitler’s territorial ambitions.

An aim of this chapter is to consider how when MacNeice writes that ‘the sensible man must keep his aesthetic | And his moral standards apart’3 the lines calculatedly travesty the poet’s manifest beliefs about ethics and art. Further, it explores how these beliefs are demonstrated in the formal ordering of the poem—ones which, nevertheless, MacNeice

1 Louis MacNeice, Modern Poetry: A Personal Essay (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1938), preface (n.p.), 5.

2 Ibid. 2.

3 Louis MacNeice, Collected Poems, ed. E. R. Dodds (London: Faber & Faber, 1979), 135 (twice), 147.

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