Tuesday, August 20, 2013

`Farewell the Castle in the Air'

In the spring and summer of 1937, Louis MacNeice visited the Western Isles of Scotland, self-consciously following much of the route taken by Johnson and Boswell in 1773. The Irishman published his account of his travels in 1938 as I Crossed the Minch, a twentieth-century counterpoint to Johnson’s A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775) and Boswell’s A Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1785). One is struck by the generous catholicity of MacNeice’s references and tastes. Along the way he alludes to Gerard Manley Hopkins, Donald Duck, the Powys brothers, cricket, Sunlight Soap, Charles Laughton’s role as Rembrandt and much Irish, Scottish and English history. He works in passages written as verse and inserts passages parodying the styles of Walter Pater, D.H. Lawrence, Hemingway (“He put his hands in his pockets and opened the door with his knee. He went out into the rain. The rain was raining.”) and Yeats. He writes: 

“After lunch I walked up to Arnabost and took the road to the left, leaving it at Grishipol (which means Pig Steading) to visit the house where Dr. Johnson stayed. The house is beautifully situated by the sea—of grey stone, with no roof, but the three broad chimneys remain. It is not a big house and is full of weeds and dung. In holes in the wall there are pigeons’ nests, which contained baby pigeons covered with yellow down. If it had been Shelley who stayed here, how people would gush about this place.” 

That made me laugh out loud. Shelley may be the most irritating poet in the language, at least before the birth of Sharon Olds, and it’s nice to see MacNeice take a shot at the narcissistic twit. In his Journey, Johnson writes of the house, on the island of Col[l]: 

“The house of Grissipol [sic] stands by a brook very clear and quick; which is, I suppose, one of the most copious streams in the island. This place was the scene of an action, much celebrated in the traditional history of Col, but which probably no two relaters will tell alike.”  

Of W.H. Auden, his friend and co-author of Letters from Iceland (1937), MacNeice writes: 

“Wystan Auden, as everyone should know, is a poet and English Eccentric. He would agree that nature in the nude is a bore. He likes the human element; his favorite landscape is the Black Country. He could not, however, object to my going North as it was he who persuaded me last summer to go to Ireland.” 

Auden was born in York but his family moved to Black Country (Harborne, Birmingham) when he was a year old. As a child, Auden was fascinated by the limestone landscape of the moors and the declining lead mines of the North. One of his brothers became a geologist and Auden laces his poems with geological, mining and industrial allusions. In “Letter to Lord Byron” he writes: “Tramlines and slagheaps, pieces of machinery, / That was, and still is, my ideal scenery.” Among Auden’s masterpieces is “In Praise of Limestone.” In Forewords and Afterwords he writes: 

“I spent a great many of my waking hours in the construction and elaboration of a private sacred world, the basic elements of which were a landscape, northern and limestone, and an industry, lead mining.” 

MacNeice shares Auden’s northern temperament. He is a melancholy poet with a gift for celebration (rather like Auden and Dr. Johnson – especially the latter). He is a genial man comfortable in solitude. His humor can be somber in the Irish fashion. In this passage from late in I Crossed the Minch, I admire the way MacNeice simulates one’s progression from callow to seasoned while retaining the sense of improvised Irish gusto: 

“When I was nineteen and twenty I was very excited if I walked up a road. Because, like a character in G.K. Chesterton, I expected some adventure round the corner. But now I realize that, contrary to adolescent expectations, adventures are not things which happen at random. The globe-trotter, the flaneur, the wandering dilettante of sensations, these are not the people who get adventures. An adventure must be important to the adventurer. You cannot collect them with scissors and a pot of paste. You must work for them. They must be related to your work and come to you in the course of it. Farewell the castle in the air which never saw hod or trowel.”
On Sept. 3, we’ll remember the fiftieth anniversary of MacNeice’s death nine days before his fifty-sixth birthday. Starting in 1941, MacNeice worked as a script writer and producer for the Features Department of the BBC. In August 1963, he accompanied sound engineers on an underground visit to a cave in Yorkshire. They were collecting audio for what became his final radio play, Persons from Porlock. He was caught in a storm on the moors, remained in his wet clothes and developed bronchitis which turned into viral pneumonia. MacNeice entered the hospital Aug. 27 and died a week later.

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