History, Modern, Poetry, Reviews, UK

MacNeice in Ireland: A Prism of Delight and Pain

Until recently, I knew three things about Louis MacNeice (1907-1963): that he was from Ireland, that he was friends with Auden and that he wrote “The Sunlight on the Garden” . Then last year our friend Gabriel gave us a copy of Autumn Journal (1940), a long poem written in the months leading up to the outbreak of World War Two. It’s a book that sketches History as it is experienced personally, in real time, in a dance of daily impressions, emotions, opinions, memories, hopes and doubts. Although it’s written in quatrains, it easily conveys the sense of genuine internal dialogue. He questions the use of being an “impresario of the ancient Greeks” at a college; he decides it’s right to vote in a by-election; he fondly remembers a holiday in Spain; he regrets the loss of his wife. The book provides intimate access to Louis MacNeice’s mental reality.

Portrait of Louis MacNeice by his lover Nancy Sharp

Now that I’ve lived in Belfast for a few months and have read his Selected Poems (edited by Belfast poet Michael Longley), another aspect of MacNeice has crystallized for me, and that the importance of his Irishness in his poetry. It’s a topic that has irritated critics on both sides of the Irish Sea, partly because he evades categorization and is maddeningly ambivalent about his loyalties. Once when asked where he lived, he replied jokingly that he had “a foot in both graves”.  Historically, English critics have almost accepted him as an honorary Englishman, being Auden’s pal, while Irish critics view his membership as a fellow national as problematic. The fact is, though, that Louis MacNeice is an Irishman: he was born to parents originally from western Ireland and he spent the first nine years of his life in the North East, in Carrickfergus and Belfast:

I was born in Belfast between the mountain and the gantries
         To the hooting of lost sirens and the clang of trams:
Thence to Smoky Carrick in County Antrim
         Where the bottle-neck harbour collects the mud which jams

The little boats beneath the Norman castle,
          The pier shining with lumps of crystal salt;
The Scotch Quarter was a line of residential houses
          But the Irish Quarter was a slum for the blind and halt.
“Like crucifixes the gantries stand” in “Belfast”

At nine, he left the country and spent the rest of his life in England (minus a brief teaching stint in the USA) but he never stopped writing about his childhood in Ireland. While it is tempting to read his childhood poems (“Autobiography” and “Carrickfergus”) simply as lyrics to his youth, or therapeutic examinations of formative trauma, they are also subtle but serious reflections on the turbulent history and politics of the country of his birth. Just as the overlay of internal experience on shared historical reality is a feature of Autumn Journal, his Irish poems are enriched by their historical context; they are snapshots of a figure in a particular time and place. MacNeice’s ideal poet, remember, is “a reader of the newspapers”, “informed in economics” and “actively interested in politics” (Modern Poetry [1938]).

What’s more, the uncomfortable ambivalence that characterizes all of MacNeice’s poetry, his insistence on the essential and dynamic variety, a world where things are “incorrigibly plural” may partly be the effect of growing up in a country that constantly pulls in two opposite directions:

And if the world were black or white entirely
        And all of the charts were plain
Instead of a mad weir of tigerish waters,
         A prism of delight and pain,

We might be surer where we wished to go
        Or again we might be merely
Bored but in brute reality there is no
        Road that is right entirely.

What is most immediately striking about MacNeice’s attitude to his childhood home is a sense of disconnection. It seems, in spite of the vividness of his memories, that the north never felt like home to him, even when he was in it. In “Carrick Revisited” (1945) he describes it as an accidental ‘interlude’.

Torn before birth from where my father’s dwelt,
Schooled from the age of ten in a foreign voice,
Yet neither western Ireland nor southern England
Cancels this interlude; what chance misspelt
May never now be righted by any choice.

Whatever then my inherited or acquired
Affinities, such remains my childhood’s frame
Like a belated rock in the red Antrim clay
That cannot at this era change its pitch or name—
And the pre-natal mountain is far away.
“Carrick Revisited”

This disconnection is built into the history of Ulster itself. Originally Irish, like MacNeice, it is has not been fully Irish nor quite English for a long time. The events that created this state (the Plantations, the Battle of the Boyne, Partition, as you like) “may never now be righted by any choice” even in 2020.

The Norman castle at Carrickfergus

Louis’ father John Frederick MacNeice (1866-1942) was a rector for the anglican Church of Ireland, and he would later become a bishop. John MacNeice was a man of conscience who sought interfaith cooperation and peace. In 1912, for example, he supported Home Rule and refused to sign the Ulster Covenant, a brave (though hopeless) stance, considering the Ulster Volunteer Force was founded that very year and marched the streets in their thousands against ‘Rome Rule’.  In 1936, when officiating at the funeral of Sir Edward Carson (the architect of Irish Partition), John MacNeice refused to allow the Union Jack to hang over Carson’s tomb. (Interesting side note: Carson was also the prosecutor whose cross-examination of Oscar Wilde put the latter in gaol for homosexuality).

While John MacNeice was personally on the side of interfaith cooperation, he must have been aware that the Church of Ireland owed its existence to the repression of the country’s Catholic majority. It was the church of English colonists, for centuries the only church acceptable to the Crown (in spite of its dearth of adherents). In 1704, for example, the Test Act restricted public office to members of the Church of Ireland, a law that remained in place until 1829.  And from the 16th to the 19th centuries, all Irish regardless of their true faith, were compelled to pay a tithe to the Church of Ireland, a practice that only ended after the Tithe War (1830-1836) .

 “Carrickfergus”, an apparently simple poem about MacNeice’s childhood, implies this history, the jarring juxtapositions and sad complexities of a society shaped by colonial interests:

I was the rector’s son, born to the anglican order,
Banned for ever from the candles of the Irish poor;
The Chichesters knelt in marble at the end of a transept
With ruffs about their necks, their portion sure.

Patrons of St. Nicholas’ Parish Church where Louis’ father preached, the Chichesters had a huge amount to do with the poverty of the Catholic population. Sir Arthur Chichester (1563-1625) arrived in Ireland to assist Elizabeth I in the Nine Years War, a conflict that started when Irish Gaelic earls Hugh O’Neill and Hugh Roe O’Donnell rebelled against English rule. In 1600, Chichester was appointed head of the English garrison at Carrickfergus and he immediately resorted to scorched-earth tactics in the area not only to deprive O’Neill’s army of food but also to starve and murder local civilians. In his own description of the campaign, he boasted, “I burned along the lough within four miles of Dungannon and killed one hundred people, sparing none, of what quality, age or sex so ever, besides many burned to death; we kill man, woman and child, horse, beast and whatsoever we find…” It sounds as if he was pleased with himself and indeed he was handsomely rewarded for his service; under James I, Chichester was appointed Lord Deputy of Ireland. He served in this role from 1605 to 1616, during which time he oversaw widespread persecution of Catholics and engineered the Plantation of Ulster, uprooting Catholics and awarding their land to wealthy Scottish and English landowners. Biographer David Lloyd (1635-1692) praised him for being “effectually assistant, first to plough and break up that barbarous nation by conquest, and then to sow it with seeds of civilty.”

Portrait of a Psycho (c) Belfast Harbour Commissioners; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

When he arrived in Ireland, Chichester had been on the verge of bankruptcy; by the time he was removed from Irish affairs, he held title to 100,000 acres of land.  MacNeice’s ironic “their portion sure” conceivably refers to Chichester’s “cut” rather than to any special nook in Heaven.

Louis MacNeice’s parents are seen dimly. His father is always shown in his official capacity, an anglican churchman, and his mother Elizabeth (Lily) a soft ghost. The poem “Autobiography” describes her with painful vagueness, “My mother wore a yellow dress, / Gently, gently, gentleness.”. Sadly, Lily contracted uterine cancer when Louis was still very young. After a hysterectomy she fell into a bout of depression and left their home for a psychiatric facility in Dublin. A year later, she contracted tuberculosis and died. MacNeice writes simply, “When I was five the black dreams came; / Nothing after was quite the same.” (“Autobiography”).

It is perhaps stretching a point to say that “Autobiography” is a political poem, but it is still a notable coincidence that two things of historic significance happened in 1914 so that “Nothing after was quite the same”. The first was the “black dream” of World War One, a bloody debacle that caused a whole generation to lose its taste for war. The second was an amendment to the Home Rule Act that would exclude Ulster counties from impending Home Rule, effectively cutting the country in two. The amendment was powerfully argued for by Sir Edward Carson, the Irish Unionist and first signatory to the Ulster Covenant of 1912, which had vowed to resist Home Rule using “all means necessary.” Before this Home Rule Act was put into law, the Great War started but Partition was now practically certain: Northern Ireland would be separated, traumatically, from its motherland.


MacNeice dramatizes the building conflict between Unionists and Catholics mainly through details caught by a child’s eye, snatches of conversation gleaned from the domestic circle. “The Gardener” from Novelettes is the portrait of a gardener “With a finch in a cage and a framed/ certificate of admission/Into the Orange order” who becomes increasingly senile and decrepit until he can no longer even attend the Twelfth of July parades:

At ten o’clock or later
You could hear him mowing the lawn,
The mower moving forward,
And backward, forward and backward
For he moved while standing still;
He was not quite up to the job.
The Orange Parade of 1920

In “Belfast” he glimpses wretched Catholic women briefly and feels a mixture of pity and shame:

In the porch of the chapel before the garish Virgin
A shawled factory-woman as if shipwrecked there
Lies a bunch of limbs glimpsed in the cave of gloom
By us who walk in the street so buoyantly and glib.
Belfast Linen mill 1918
And in Autumn Journal (Canto xvi) he recalls an atmosphere of fear heightened by rumour and ignorance:

And I remember, when I was little, the fear
Bandied among the servants
That Casement would land at the pier
With a sword and a horde of rebels;
And how we used to expect, at a later date,
When the wind blew from the west, the noise of shooting
Starting in the evening at eight
In Belfast in the York Street district
(Autumn Journal canto xvi)

This vignette evokes two incidents related to the future Irish Civil War: the gun running of Roger Casement and the bloody Belfast riots of 1920-22.

Roger Casement

In the lead up to the Easter Rising, Irish Nationalist Sir Roger Casement arranged for shipment of guns from the German government, for delivery in April 1916. The weapons were carried in a Norwegian vessel Aud-Norge, while Casement and his comrades travelled to Ireland in a German U-boat. The British managed to scuttle Aud before it landed but the U-boat put Casement ashore at Banna Strand, 21 April 1916 (three days before the Easter Rising). He was discovered there and arrested on charges of high treason, sabotage and espionage against the Crown. His was a cause célèbre due to his fame as a humanitarian activist in the Congo and Peru, for which he had been knighted in 1911. The British Government used (possibly forged) diaries detailing his homosexual liaisons to dissuade supporters from advocating clemency. Despite high-profile intercessors and a United States Senate appeal against the death sentence, he was hanged on 3 August 1916.

Gun-running at that time was something of a national sport. In April 1914, in the Larne gun-running, Major Frederick H. Crawford and Captain Wilfrid Spender had managed to smuggle almost 25,000 rifles and between 3 and 5 million rounds of ammunition from the German Empire for the use of the Ulster Volunteer Force. Shipments landed in Larne, Donaghadee and Bangor with no police intervention. The Howth gun-running incident  occurred that same year, in July, when 1,500 Mauser rifles were delivered to Irish Volunteers from a private yacht in broad daylight. Scottish troops intervened ineffectually and, when baited by the crowd, attacked the protesters with rifle fire and bayonets, killing four civilians and wounding 30 more.

As for the “shooting in the York Street district”, even if MacNeice cannot have personally witnessed it since he was at school in England, it suggests the “carnival of terrorism”  that rocked the city between 1920 and 1922 and claimed the lives of at least 455 people, 58% of them Catholic–in a city where Catholics were only 25% of the population. The Irish Government estimated that 50,000 Catholics left the north permanently in response to violence and intimidation in this period . Neither the British Government nor the local Unionist leadership made any effort to reinstate these displaced people:

When my silent terror cried;
Nobody, nobody replied.

Checking the roll call of the dead, 1920

Inevitably, there are echoes and tributes in MacNeice, to Yeats and Joyce. In Ulysses, Stephen Daedalus utters that famous statement of despair, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” Canto XVI of MacNeice’s Autumn Journal follows directly from that thought:

Nightmare leaves fatigue:
We envy men of action
Who sleep and wake, murder and intrigue
Without being doubtful, without being haunted.

This canto, as well as “Valediction” (1934), is one of MacNeice’s most direct comments on his attitude to Ireland. Both poems express a reluctant connection and an agonizing frustration with its problems. In “Valediction” he burns his bridges with the Old Country in a somewhat priggishly elegiac tone:

…being ordinary too I must in course discuss
What we mean to Ireland or Ireland to us;
I have to observe milestone and curio
The beaten buried gold of an old king’s bravado,
Falsetto antiquities, I have to gesture,
Take part in, or renounce, each imposture;
Therefore I resign, goodbye, the chequered and the quiet hills
The gaudily-striped Atlantic, the linen-mills
That swallow the shawled file, the black moor where half
A turf-stake stands like a ruined cenotaph;

Canto xvi of Autumn Journal is comparatively unhinged, an exhilarating philippic that lashes out against all of it:

I hate your grandiose airs,
Your sob-stuff, your laugh and your swagger,
Your assumption that everyone cares
Who is the king of your castle.
Castles are out of date,
The tide flows round the children’s sandy fancy;
Put up what flag you like, it is too late
To save your soul with bunting.
Odi atque amo:
Shall we cut this name on trees with a rusty dagger?

Brian Boru, legendary King of Munster

The quote from from Catullus 85 (“I hate and I love. How can I do that you might ask./I don’t know, but I feel it and I am tortured.”) exposes this is as a love poem: Catullus’ extensive cursing of Lesbia was only a sign of his wounded love, and MacNeice’s rage is belied by exhausted admissions and entreaties:

Such was my country and I thought I was well
Out of it, educated and domiciled in England,
Though yet her name keeps ringing like a bell
In an underwater belfry.

 “Why should I want to go back/ To you, Ireland, my Ireland?” he asks, and the question answers itself but ultimately solves nothing.


Gorgeous Lorca

How do you distract yourself from the appalling vistas of Life as we know it right now? One way is to ameliorate reality with large doses of art. One of the pleasures of the last few months’ sequestering is getting around to reading the poetry of Federíco García Lorca, one of the giants of Twentieth-century Spanish literature. Just this week a new biography has been released titled Deep Song: The Life and Work of Federíco García Lorca by Stephen Roberts. Although I haven’t read the biography yet, it’s a good occasion to share a pequeña mordida of this amazing poet and playwright.

Lorca with his little sister Isabel, who later became a professor and writer.

Between 1921 and 1927 Lorca wrote a series of 18 poems that he described as a “tragic poem of Andalusia”. Publishing them in 1928 as Romancero Gitano (Gypsy Ballads) , he shot to fame. Only eight years later he would be assassinated in murky circumstances, but his body of plays and poetry live on and have influenced generations of writers, artists and musicians, including Leonard Cohen.

Here is the first poem of Romancero Gitano, dedicated to his sister Conchita.

Ballad of the Moon, Moon

For Conchita García Lorca

The moon came to the forge
in her spikenard bustle.
The boy gazes at her, gazes.
The boy is gazing.

In the agitated air
the moon sways her arms,
showing, sensual and pure,
her hard tin breasts.

“Run away, moon, moon, moon.
If the gypsies came,
they would turn your heart
into necklaces and silver rings.”

“Child, let me dance.
When the gypsies come,
they will find you on the anvil
with your little eyes shut tight.”

“Run away, moon, moon, moon.
I can hear their horses.”
“Child, let me be, don’t trample
my starched whiteness.”

The rider was galloping closer
beating upon the drum of the plain.
Inside the forge the boy
had his eyes shut tight.

Across the olive grove,

Bronze and dream, the gypsies came.
Their heads held high,
their eyes half shut.

How the nightjar sings!
Ay, how she sings in the tree!
The moon goes through the sky
leading a boy by the hand.

In the forge they weep,

wailing, the gypsies.
The air set sail, set sail.
The air is setting sail.

You can listen to the poem here, set to music. 

Obituary, Poetry

Clive James’s Ape-Call

When I was growing up in the 1980s, my brothers and I were occasionally allowed to stay up late to watch Saturday Night Clive. This was The Daily Show before The Daily Show existed, where the host offered comedic commentary on current events. Although the humor was often relatively adult, my parents’ morality policing was relaxed for once because Clive James had a quality that my parents prized highly: Wit. In that unmistakable nasal sing-song drawl, he cast off crafty one-liners and launched into metaphorical flights of fancy. His sarcastic references to Thatcher, Reagan, Gorbachev and the Royals piqued my interest in world news by revealing that important adults could be devious, ridiculous and weak – i.e. human.



“On the world scene, President of the United States Mr. Ronald Reagan has reacted angrily to suggestions that he might not really have forgotten being told about the Iran affair. ‘I can clearly remember forgetting,’ he says. ‘I’ve even forgotten whose finger this is.’” (bit from The Clive James Show in 1987)


What I didn’t know then was that Clive James wrote poetry. When he retired from show business, he gradually shifted to full-time versifying. The first I knew of his interest was when I also started writing poetry as a teenager and saw one of his poems in an anthology, a kind of obituary titled “Johnny Weissmuller Dead in Acapulco”. Despite scoffing at the idea that a TV celebrity had what it took to be a poet, I had to admit that this one wasn’t all bad, especially the final stanza:


There was a chimpanzee at his funeral,

Which must have been someone’s idea of a smart promotion,

And you might say that dignity had fled,

But when Tarzan dropped from the tall tree and swam out of the splash

Like an otter with an outboard to save Boy from the waterfall

It looked like poetry to me,

And at home in the bath I would surface giving the ape-call.


So news of Clive James’s death, though long anticipated, was unsettling. I felt I’d neglected him, as if he were a great-uncle or an old teacher. I looked back at clips from those TV shows of the 1980s, but they only increased my unease. The jokes seemed stale, naturally enough, because humor doesn’t travel very well in time or across borders. But even allowing for inevitable verdigris, his witticisms seemed labored and his face alarmingly unexpressive: eyes so deep-set they were like two black holes over a spuddy nose and a slightly off-kilter smirk.




Knowing he was a poetry enthusiast, I wondered if he’d be more appealing on the page and decided to mark the occasion of his death by buying his Collected Poems. In a 2003 interview with Michael Parkinson, Clive James warbled about why poetry is different to other forms of writing for him:


…[It] is a way of staying in childhood, it’s a way of staying obsessed with language, as children are. There’s a beautiful couple of lines by Dylan Thomas in one of the poems he wrote towards the end of his troubled and confused life, and he was talking about being a kid and playing in the park in Swansea, and he said, “the ball I threw when playing in the park/has not yet reached the ground.” I think it’s wonderful, that’s the way he felt about his life. And when I read that, I thought, “I’ll never forget that,” and I never have. It’s one of the things that made me want to be a poet, to try and say something memorable and I think that is really what poets do, they try to put it together out of this tremendous sense of everything coming apart, which I’ve always felt.


As plausible as all this sounds, it’s not the whole story. Poetry for him was, at least partly, a way of getting hot women to pay attention to him, especially once his TV airtime had dried up. The reason I venture to say this is that he frequently says so in his poems (“Obscurity, in my view, is rarely a tolerable aim in the arts” he pontificates in a footnote to “Funnelweb”). “Publisher’s Party”, for example, is an admirably clear poem about a beautiful woman at a publisher’s party who chooses to seduce someone other than Clive James:


Lacking in social skills, licensed to bore,

He was the kind of bloke

A girl like her would normally ignore,

Unless, of course, he’d won the Booker Prize.

Alas, he had. I can’t think of a joke –

Only of how she lingered there until

He woke up to the full force of her looks;

Of how we rippled with a jealous thrill,

All those of us who’d also written books

Out of an inner need;

And now a panel-game of hacks and crooks

Had staked him out for her to stalk and kill –

As if the man could write, and she could read.


In “Literary Lunch” from Angels Over Elsinore, he delivers an old man’s gentle lament. No longer can he take the lithe young would-be in his arms; all he can do is pay humble homage to her beauty through sophisticated academic whiffling:


Reciting poetry by those you prize—

Auden, MacNiece, Yeats, Stevens, Charlotte Mew –

I trust my memory and watch your eyes

To see if you know I am wooing you

With all these stolen goods. Of course you do.


Of course she knew he was trying to get into her pants; she probably needed a publishing connection and had heard he’d shag a fire-hydrant if it wore a dress. This old-man shtick is, of course, disingenuous too. In an obsequious obituary to James in the Financial Post, Luke Slatterly recalls that at age 62 Clive danced the night away at a Sydney dance club, and boasted about making a bee-line for tango wherever he jetted to. Even when this Casanova of Kogarah ends up cadging a ride with ‘an attractive middle-aged blonde,’ Slatterly refuses to admit that James was a horny old goat, but rather a Higher Being whose nature was best expressed in the artistic medium of Dance:


James’s passion for the tango speaks, I think, to some of the qualities of the man. Not only the tango intense, languid, sexy, and intoxicating, it is also tragic, poetic, lyrical, abstruse, elegiac and melancholy, and has been described as a “sad thought that dances”.




At 64, this Sad Thought That Dances embarked on a torrid affair with ‘Ex-Model’ Leanne Edelsten (also an attractive middle-aged blonde), ‘ravishing’ her periodically until he was 71, leaving her breathlessly declaring, ‘The guy’s a legend…he’d leave men half his age for dead’. Edelsten may not be Emily Dickinson, but her evocative account of their trysts on Australia’s A Current Affair was arguably more memorable than Clive’s poetic oeuvre:


Edelston: We would always drink tea with a Cherry Ripe, so…

Martin King: A cup of tea? Before?

Edelston: Yes, always. With a Cherry Ripe. And after




Similarly indelible, like a diesel-stain on a doily, was the Daily Mail’s reference to a 2005 affair with opera singer Ann Howell:


She claimed that when he first ‘seduced’ her, he had been eating shortbread and invited her to ‘suck the crumbs from between my teeth’.


I’m sorry, but if I have to know about this, then you do too. Besides, it’s clear he wanted everyone to think about him doing such things. In his poem “The Nymph Calypso”, there’s a horrifying but all-too probable chance that he is casting himself as Odysseus, with Edelston, or some ringer, being Calypso begging him to stay on just one more night:


Old studs like you need youth to love. I’m it.

I’m always eager, and you’re still quite fit:

A last adventure to light up the sky.

I’ll tell my tale forever, don’t forget:

The greatest lover that I ever met.’

As for Penelope, he could depend

On her care for the time he had to live.


If Clive is Odysseus here, then ol’ dependable must be his wife, the Dante scholar Prue Shaw, who did indeed accord him a humane measure of care and companionship in his decade of dying–but only after throwing him out of her house. I imagine, even more than the incessant sexual boasting and humiliating tabloid stories, she was more offended by the sight of him daily tapping away at pretentious doggerel convinced he was writing himself into some sort of Celestial Syllabus. After 40 years of marriage to a giant literary ego, she can hardly have expected much, but that must have grated. He may be a fine essayist, I wouldn’t know, but his output in the poetry department resembles less that of Dante Alighieri than that of the hero of his poem “The Eternity Man”:


Before he died in 1967

At the age of eighty-eight

He had managed to write it five hundred thousand times,

And always in copperplate script.

Few streets or public places in the city of Sydney

Remained unmarked by the man with a single obsession—

Writing Eternity


One of James’s favorite tricks is to write about other more famous writers in order to siphon off a little of their fame, to derive some glory by association, like a dog covering up the pee of other poets with his own much smellier pee. One of his chosen dedicatees is Philip Larkin, and you can see him going through all the bullet-points: Things we all know about Larkin: stay-at-home, morose, vernacular, officially great. As a springboard into it, James describes the moment he heard of Larkin’s death, when he was touching down in Nairobi seeing all the wonderful sights. There are many, many stanzas about all the exotic things James sees and the implication seems to be that travel assists the imagination, so in this respect he definitely has the leg-up on Larkin, who was a sadsack who considered Hull the World:


In point of fact I swallowed Kenya whole,

A mill choked by a plenitude of grist.

Like anabolic steroids for the soul,

Every reagent was a catalyst –

So much to take in sent me round the twist.


He also mentions that he was filming a TV show, flying first-class and getting invited into the cockpit by the pilots. And yet, in spite of these obvious advantages, James is prepared to acknowledge that Larkin was a good poet. He magnanimously concedes defeat, though it’s a close call:


Yet even with your last great work ‘Aubade’

(To see death clearly, did you pull it close?)

The commentator must be on his guard

Lest he should overlook the virtuose

Technique which makes majestic the morose.

The truth is that you revelled in your craft.

Profound glee charged your sentences with wit.

You beat them into stanza form and laughed:

They didn’t sound like poetry one bit,

Except for being absolutely it.


The whole thing sounds like the sort of poem the town wag would read out at the local rugby club at a special anniversary piss-up. Archaic diction like ‘lest’ and ‘glee’, clunky thesaurus options like ‘virtuose’, the oxymorons like ‘profound glee’ and ‘majestic the morose’ – these signal Poetry with a Capital ‘P’, declamatory, public, pompous and amateur. It’s possible to argue that James was deliberately writing this way to emphasize his disadvantage, but I doubt it. I think he just didn’t notice details unless they wore high heels. Larkin deliberately spoke only for himself and did so as naturally as possible, saving any special effects not to say ‘Hey, look at me, I’m writing Poetry!’ but to draw attention to what he wanted to emphasize. You can see this in any of his poems, for example the first stanza of “Poetry of Departures”:


Sometimes you hear, fifth-hand,

As epitaph:

He chucked up everything

And just cleared off,

And always the voice will sound

Certain you approve

This audacious, purifying,

Elemental move.


Larkin noticed the world around him all the time, James didn’t (unless she wore lipstick) …until he started dying. The poems he wrote after being diagnosed with cancer are different. They are slightly better, probably because he had more time to devote to writing them. They are also painful because they convey the physical and emotional suffering of someone completely unprepared for it. You can see a man used to having an adoring live audience having to deal with loneliness. You can see him floundering around trying to regain love, trying to appreciate little things and to show his family he cares about them. The poems are not very attractive–there is quite a lot of whinging and self-importance–but they are honest. 


The grand old man. Do I dare play that part?

Perhaps I am too frail. I don’t know how

To say exactly what is in my heart, 

Except I feel that I am nowhere now. 

But I have tempted providence too long:

It gives me life enough, and little pain. 

I should be grateful for this simple song,

No matter how it goes against the grain

To spend the best part of a winter’s day

Filing away at some reluctant rhyme

And go to bed with so much still to say

On how I came to have so little time. 


It turned out that he had more time than he thought he did, and he said a lot more than he thought he would. And as much as his poems get on my tits, I am glad about that.