Tuesday, September 03, 2013

`The Final Anomaly of the World'

“… the resignation, the protest, the urbanity, and the complaint: the ability to steal a lyrical moment from the sense of doom and the determination, always a little awkward and repetitive, to strike a new note, the constant resolution  to come to a resolution. With the end of the prewar years in sight, this vein was exhausted; this mine closed down while men streamed back to the actual coal pits.”

So writes Isaac Rosenfeld in his review of Louis MacNeice’s Springboard, published in the Oct. 22, 1945, issue of The New Republic and collected in The Age of Enormity (1962). An odd phrase, “the end of the prewar years,” rather than “the start of the war,” but the “prewar” condition in this case
had lasted a long time, starting years before Munich and Poland. MacNeice’s friend Auden wrote its epitaph, “a low dishonest decade,” not unlike our own. “Everyone,” Rosenfeld writes, “knew what was coming, but for that very reason no one was prepared.”

He begins his review with a rereading of MacNeice’s masterwork, Autumn Journal (1939), as a contrast with the new collection of wartime poems. Rosenfeld notes that Springboard is devoted to “the problem of commitment and risk in belief,” and writes with remarkable prescience: “Simplicity—mere moral energy or belief in belief—has become all too simple;” and thus, we add, irresistibly attractive to many. Much of Rosenfeld’s review focuses on the title poem, “The Springboard,” in which he senses a “constriction” contrasting with the poet’s earlier “roominess.” He sees this as a positive evolution in MacNeice’s style. Form serves to hone thought and jettison mere conversational chaff, what Rosenfeld calls “contrivance.”

The reviewer dubs MacNeice “a rational poet,” and we know what he means. He’s no Blake, awash with mystical blather. MacNeice always wants to say something and to say it sensibly and economically, never just for the effect. Rosenfeld writes: “A rationalist, moreover, is committed to a faith in means and intelligence, a belief in the possible success of human ventures that gives him a curiously optimistic coloring, abhorrent to poetry, which admits only hope.” This is a wise, discerning judgment, true to MacNeice’s life and work. Rosenfeld goes on to praise the optimism expressed in the fourth poem in the collection, “Explorations”:
“The whale butting through scarps of moving marble,
The tapeworm probing the intestinal darkness,
The swallows drawn collectively to their magnet,
 These are our prototypes and yet,
Though we may envy them still, they are merely patterns
 To wonder at— and forget.

“For the ocean-carver, cumbrous but unencumbered,
Who, tired of land, looked for his freedom and frolic in water,
Though he succeeded, has failed; it is only instinct
 That plots his graph and he,
Though appearing to us a free and a happy monster, is merely
 An appanage of the sea.

“And the colourless blind worm, triumphantly self-degraded,
Who serves as an image to men of the worst adjustment-
Oxymoron of parasitical glory—
 Cannot even be cursed,
Lacking the only pride of his way of life, not knowing
 That he has chosen the worst.

“So even that legion of birds who appear so gladly
Purposeful, with air in their bones, enfranchised
Citizens of the sky and never at odds with
 The season or out of line,
Can be no model to us; their imputed purpose
 Is a foregone design –

"And ours is not. For we are unique, a conscious
Hoping and therefore despairing creature, the final
Anomaly of the world, we can learn no method
 From whales or birds or worms;
Our end is our own to be won by our own endeavour
 And held on our own terms.”

Rosenfeld objects to judging man “the final / Anomaly of the world,” but he’s an unusual reviewer who recounts the evolution of his reactions. Initially, the judgment seems “too strong an expression,” but Rosenfeld reconsiders and accepts the statement, saying “it is necessary to the poem as poem, for it is the only one which is poetically true in a group of biological truth.” He concludes the review like this:

“It is one of the defects of a strictly reasonable account of things, too great perhaps for any poet to correct, that the truths of poetry do not always mingle with the truths of mere natural experience. All poetry can do is declare the final anomaly of the world and trust that reason will restrain itself. A rational poet is still a possibility, but a rational optimist is a dead duck.”
MacNeice died fifty years ago today, on Sept. 3, 1963, nine days before his fifty-sixth birthday.

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