Saturday, September 29, 2012

`Adding Noughts in Vain'

Idling at a train crossing, waiting for the cars to pass, is an invitation to reverie. No sense in fuming and pounding the wheel. Take the car out of gear, push the seat back and dream. Trains encourage blurry, drifting mental states, vicarious journeys. Who would guess the mingled sound of rails, ties and steel wheels (Louis MacNeice called it a “metal murmur”) could be soothing? The rhythmic passing of so many boxcars and gondolas is hypnotic, suggesting faraway places reached slowly, in days not hours. The sight or sound of a jet airliner never induces such thoughts.

Most years in the fall I reread MacNeice’s “Autumn Journal,” his masterpiece. After the Irishman’s death, Philip Larkin said he “displayed a sophisticated sentimentality about falling leaves and lipsticked cigarette stubs: he could have written the words of ‘These Foolish Things.’” MacNeice seems to have encouraged in himself a sophisticated sentimentality about trains. They reappear with regularity in his poems, often burnished with nostalgia, that amalgam of sadness and expectation characteristic of MacNeice’s work. The phrase quoted above is from “Trains in the Distance,” written in 1926, the year he turned nineteen: 

“Then distantly the noise declined like a descending graph,
Sliding downhill gently to the bottom of the distance
(For now all things are there that all were here once).” 

A similar sense of time passing and fixed elusively in memory is present in “Departure Platform”: 

“Opposite in corner seats we hope for nearness
And dearness in what is wrongly called the distance.” 

“I would like to give you more but I cannot hold
This stuff within my hands and the train goes on.” 

See also “Corner Seat” and “Star-gazer,” the latter written in January 1963, eight months before MacNeice’s death at age fifty-five:   

“Forty-two years ago (to me if to no one else
The number is of some interest) it was a brilliant starry night
And the westward train was empty and had no corridors
So darting from side to side I could catch the unwonted sight
Of those almost intolerably bright
Holes, punched in the sky, which excited me partly because
Of their Latin names and partly because I had read in the textbooks
How very far off they were, it seemed their light
Had left them (some at least) long years before I was. 

“And this remembering now I mark that what
Light was leaving some of them at least then,
Forty-two years ago, will never arrive
In time for me to catch it, which light when
It does get here may find that there is not
Anyone left alive
To run from side to side in a late night train
Admiring it and adding noughts in vain.”

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