Autobiography by Louis MacNeiceThis difficult, haunting poem with its sinister refrain – “Come back early or never come”– is about the tragic death of the poet’s mother. Read through these extracts carefully andunderstand what you can, making notes you can use for the examination.The final poem in Louis MacNeice’s collection Plant and Phantom (1941) is the lyric,“Cradle Song”:Sleep, my darling, sleep;The pity of it allIs all we compass ifWe watch disaster fall.Put off your twenty-oddEncumbered years and creepInto the only heaven,The robbers’ cave of sleep.The wild grass will whisper,Lights of passing carsWill streak across your dreamsAnd fumble at the stars;Life will tap the windowOnly too soon again,Life will have her answer –Do not ask her when.When the winsome bubbleShivers, when the boughBreaks, will be the momentBut not here or now.Sleep and, asleep, forgetThe watchers on the wallAwake all night who knowThe pity of it all.The poem had already appeared between hard covers, in Poems 1925–1940, published inthe United States at the beginning of 1941. There, too, it was the final poem in the book;there, too, it was assigned a date of composition (“October, 1940”); and there it bore as asubtitle the dedication “For Eleanor”, which in Plant and Phantom is carried by thewhole book (dedicated “To Eleanor Clark”). “Cradle Song” concentrates itsautobiographical meaning in a repeated phrase – “The pity of it all” – that fuses theattentiveness of a lover with a broader and more melancholy kind of watchfulness.That attentiveness is far from uncomplicated. Although “Cradle Song” operates with adeliberate simplicity of means, “The pity of it all” brings into play matter not at home instraightforward registers of love. The immediately obvious echo (it may or may not be anallusion) is of Othello Act Four, Scene One, “. . . but yet the pity of it, Iago; O Iago, thepity of it, Iago!”. This suggestion could hardly, on the face of things, be more out of place:what is the wounded rage of sexual jealousy doing in a lullaby? True, MacNeice takes 1
away the staccato edge from Othello’s repeated words, smoothing and calming them into“The pity of it all”, but this doesn’t quite erase the presence of the maddened Moor.What is more, the voice in MacNeice’s poem is that of a lover addressing a young womanasleep – asleep on a bed, quite possibly – whose innocence shades into a kind ofignorance; like Desdemona, discovered on her bed asleep at the beginning of the lastscene of Othello, she seems unaware of the “cause” that will keep the speaker (and those“watchers on the wall”) so busy.Cradle Song” makes its poetic voice the mediator between the loved one and the“watchers on the wall / Awake all night”, but another poem, written very shortly before(and also at Eleanor’s home in Connecticut), inverts the lullaby genre, and is notcomforting, but comfortless. In “Autobiography”, a wakeful child makes a song out of hisown abandonment in the night; its refrain, “Come back early or never come”, is one notof reassurance, but of wounded ultimatum. The poem is a lullaby thrown into reverse, orturned inside out.When I woke they did not care;Nobody, nobody was there.Come back early or never come.When my silent terror criedNobody, nobody replied.Come back early or never come.The poem seems to bite back its own remembered pain. This voice does not solicit pity,and one way that is shown is in its rejection of self-pity.[Peter McDonald, edited]...My mother wore a yellow dress...But when MacNeice was just five years old, his mother died. It was aloss he never fully came to terms with, and one which cast a longshadow over the rest of his life.…My Mother wore a yellow dress;Gently, gently, gentleness.Come back early or never come.When I was five the black dreams came;Nothing after was quite the same.Come back early or never come…From AutobiographyAfter his mother’s death, MacNeice’s father immersed himself in hiswork. He preached every Sunday in the parish church of St Nicholas.The young MacNeice found the church and religion a terrifyingexperience. However, he appreciated the power and beauty of his 2
father’s sermons.[unknown]This moving poem by Louis MacNeice is about the illness and loss of his mother, whodied when he was five years old."She suffered gynaecological problems, a mental breakdown, which meant she left thefamily to go into a nursing-home in 1913, and, finally, death from tuberculosis a yearlater.”The loss of his mother at such an early age had a profound and lasting effect onMacNeice; his sister Elizabeth writes that “His last memory-picture of her walking up anddown the garden path in tears seems to have haunted him for the rest of his life”.“Autobiography”, one of his finest poems, turns this haunting into eerily effective art as itmoves from an evocation of the beloved mother, “My mother wore a yellow dress; /Gently, gently, gentleness”, into the nightmarish aftermath of her going, “When I was fivethe black dreams came; / Nothing after was quite the same”(Michael ONeill, University of Durham)The haunting poem “Autobiography” was also written at this time and it revolves aroundMacNeice’s childhood in Northern Ireland, a lurid kaleidoscope of heightened, discreteimages bonded by a dark, obsessive refrain.[Maria Johnston]Louis MacNeice’s Autobiography – A ReadingOn the surface, the poem, written in 1940 reads as a rather detached account ofMacNeice’s childhood biography. However, its simple, rather formal structure of eightrhyming couplets each separated by a refrain conceals a wealth of feeling that is incomplete harmony with the subject matter, and which shifts in direction and grows inintensity as the poem develops. The poetic argument concerns MacNeice’s loss ofchildhood innocence, warmth and security and his awareness of the isolation, coldnessand insecurity of manhood. Thus, the refrain-line, “Come back early or never come”(though constant in metrical pulse) might in the hands of a skilled verse speaker rangethrough a variety of emotions from regret, request, command, plea, prayer, evenresignation, for he knows that his idyllic youth, his Eden innocence, will not ever berecaptured. There is hope, but simultaneously a recognition that this hope has littlegrounds for realisation. Indeed, this line has a yearning, incantatory quality that puts it onthe level of a liturgical response, or prayer, despite MacNeice’s own acknowledgedagnosticism. The contrast between the refrain (variously inflected) and the metric patternof the couplets underpins the shifts in emotion and understanding that the poemcontains. This is further compounded by the depth of meaning beneath the surface of thealmost emotionless expression, with its simple diction, lucid syntax, uncomplicated 3
structure and spare writing. However, what gives the poem its conviction and its honestyis the use of symbolism, which, though rooted in MaNeice’s personal life, has an almostuniversal application.In the first stanza the confident, comfortable metre emphasises MacNeice’s childhoodhappiness. The world is seen through the eyes of a boy: the trees are always green, thesun shining, the earth abundant in its fulness and wealth. That we take it for granted issuggested by the rather offhand attitude. However, the past tense suggests that MacNeicehas since discovered the harsher realities of the adult world; and that the youthfuloptimism of continued simplicity and promises for the future have been shattered.Implicit in the lines is the knowledge that now as an adult he recognises that trees are notgreen (though he may have seen and painted them that way) but a variety of greens,yellows, greys, purples, blues and that trees are not always sporting their youthful summerabundance in leaf. In poetry “green” is frequently used to symbolize youth, hope, freshlife.Stanza two presents an economical portrait of MacNeice’s father, and his reaction to hisfather’s character and values. MacNeice’s father, John Frederick MacNeice, was a Churchof Ireland rector in a Northern Irish parish, and eventually became a bishop. As a child,Louis MacNeice was in considerable awe of his father, and in his posthumously publishedprose-autobiography The Strings Are False admits to being afraid of his father’s“conspiracy with God”. An energetic man, fired by an evangelical Puritanism andearnestness, John Frederick MacNeice carried his religious beliefs into every corner of hislife:Religion never left us, it was at home as much in the church,it fluttered in the pages of a tear-off calendar in the bathroomand it filled the kitchen with the smell of silver polishwhen Annie was cleaning the communion plate.Of particular importance is John Frederick’s unusual political stance: a strong nationalist,he championed the cause of Home Rule for Ireland, even though most of the NorthernIrish clergy were Unionist in politics. It is perhaps this feature, compounded with LouisMacNeice’s later loss of Christian faith that informs the lines,My father made the walls resoundHe wore his collar the wrong way round.The simple metre suggests an element of slight humour as well as underpinning theoddness of belief both religiously and politically. To a child the clergy’s reverse collarmust seem more than strange – almost supernatural – an apt symbol of the topsy-turvyworld of adulthood with its apparent contradictions. Furthermore, the lines are suggestiveof the booming echoing sermonizing rebounding off masonry, and mirror the rigidconfinements of location in which Louis MacNeice spent his early life in Carrick Fergus,Co. Antrim.In The Strings Are False he writes about a world where his childish self was afraid of thedark, the violence of sectarian voices, the imagery of the primitive religion he 4
encountered in the nursery, the stone images of his father’s church and the bleak tollingof its bell:The human elements of this world need not be detailed;guilt, hellfire, Good Friday, the doctor’s cough, hurriedlamps in the night, melancholia, mongolism [his brotherwas mentally retarded], violent sectarian voices. All thissadness and conflict and attrition and frustration were setin this one-acre near the smoky town within the sound…of the tolling bell.For comfort MacNeice turned to his mother. Stanza three, with its final line repetitions,captures the close intimacy of their relationship, while the security and warmth shesymbolizes is conveyed in the mention of her “yellow dress”. Here the refrain line takeson an added note of poignancy which is intensified by stanza five and the replacement ofthe colours of youth, life and warmth (“green” and “yellow”) by the colour of death andthe unknown (“black”). The understatement of “Nothing after was quite the same”masks a heartfelt cry from a lonely, isolated child suddenly put into confrontation withthe removal to hospital, and death, of his mother. MacNeice’s sister writes more fully ofthis – but is her account any more eloquent?In March 1913 she (his mother) had an operation whichcompletely cured her former malady, but at the same timeshe quite suddenly developed an agitated melancholia.Louis and I saw her change almost overnight from a motherwho had always been the mainstay of the household – sereneand comforting, apparently the very essence of stability –into someone who was deeply unhappy, and no longer ableto make decisions. Louis in particular, as the youngest, wasgreatly attached to his mother, and before her illness I rememberhim as being with her a great deal. She always remainedgentle and loving, but as she became more and more sad andrestless Louis, who was only five and a half, must have beencompletely bewildered and greatly disturbed.His mother’s sudden departure for hospital, his need of her, his uncertainty of her returnand his knowledge of her death are captured in the refrain. Stanzas five, six and sevenportray MacNeice’s response to the death of his mother. The world has shown him thathe could not trust in the permanence of things, and this fundamental distrust of humanrelationships and experience threw him back to a dependence on himself. He becamelonely, isolated, reserved. His childhood needs seem not to have been answered. Hisconfused state is expressed in the paradox of the “dark” lamp and the line “When mysilent terror cried.” This economically and effectively conveys his introverted behaviour,as he is thrown back to the resources of self. The parallel structures ofNobody, nobody was thereNobody, nobody repliedcoupled with the repeated refrain suggest the terror, pain and loneliness of the child. 5
MacNeice’s The Strings Are False helps to resolve some of the mystery of stanza five,The dark was talking to the dead;The lamp was dark beside my bed.MacNeice’s father was plunged into despair by the death of his wife, and spent agonised,sleepless nights mourning for her. Louis MacNeice’s own nightmares were made worse byhis own (vicarious) witnessing of his father’s nightmares:I now slept in his room and found it even worsethan the nightmares. Because he was sleeping very badly,he would toss and turn and groan through the night, so that,if I was awake when he came up, I would be kept awake for hourslistening to him; but always pretended to be asleep. My greatobjective now was really to be asleep before he arrived withthe lamp and his own gigantic shadow.His “black” father (darkened by death, depression and his professional garb) becomes thedark lamp by the son’s bed, replacing the warmth and solidity of the mother in her yellowdress. The final stanza records MacNeice’s response to the world of uncertainty. Hisrealisation that action and the will to continue can only come of self is expressed in thefirst half-line, “I got up”. This is a determined action, a positive response, almost anawakening (in terms of getting up out of bed, or starting a new day). The punctuation –the longer pause introduced by a semicolon rather than comma – reinforces the action.The remaining line and a half reflect his belief that immediate human contact has beenbroken. He is observed walking “alone”. The position of this word at the end of theaction, the verse and the poem is important. The warmth of his childhood has beenreplaced by a sun that is “chilly”. He has turned his back on a world from which he feelshe has been rejected, and now prepares stoically to face a wider world. Significantly,MacNeice spent most of his life in England as a self-exiled Irishman.One of the problems facing a creative artist is the need to retain an element of privacywhile simultaneously communicating effectively in a public statement. Too muchexposure of self may lead to vulnerability. When, as here, the source of inspiration isdirectly autobiographical and of obvious importance to the emotional sensibility andmaturity of both the author and the reader, the creation of the poem demands quiteunusual skills. The very urge/excitement to create and communicate may be painful. Toomuch self-pity may seem to be nothing more than sensational attention-seeking, an appealfor sympathy. This is particularly relevant in this poem in which the subject-matterfocuses on childhood isolation and the collapse of deeply-held, intimate relationships.Even without recourse to close biographical knowledge the poem can communicate itsthemes, sensitively and urgently. This is a measure of MacNeice’s craftsmanship andartistry.In the hands of an unskilled writer such circumstances may have led to a sentimentalapproach. There is no concerted appeal to emotion, but a recognition of the actuality ofevents. He does not ask for the reader’s sympathy. The process of detachment calls for a 6
detached stance and tone. The sentences are short, uncomplicated and direct; theexpression stark and spare. There are, for example, (outside the requirements for verbalgrammatical complement) very few adjectives used to qualify nouns. To list them is tounderpin the biographical/emotional detail of the poem: “wrong”, “yellow”, “black”,“silent”, “chilly”. This economy of expression is used to create an emotional landscape,the bleakness of which is intensified by the repeated refrain. Its aptness to the particularsituation in the verse preceding and throughout emphasises the ambivalent nature ofrelationships, and the nostalgic but fearful yearning. It is within this line, and the feel ofalmost relentless power brought by accumulated repeatings that the emotional centre ofthe poem – frightening, menacing, needing – lies.[Roger Elkin] 7
D.B.Moore – The Poetry of Louis MacNeice‘The epitome of the despairing nostalgic contemplation of his childhood which cast a net overMacneice’s mind, which amounted almost to an obsession” p.101The poem starts with a ‘statement of childish simplicity’.(Line 4) He is exorcising with flippancy the impression on his childish mind of one whom he foundsomewhat alarming.‘The last three verses…are desolate’ Senktas – Come Back Early, If Only in the Refrain: Louis MacNeice’s ‘Autobiography’ and the Poetics of RecoveryIn “Come Back Early, If Only in the Refrain: Louis MacNeice’s ‘Autobiography’ and the Poetics ofRecovery,” Renata Senktas follows the same line of “musical” investigation. Drawing on less-knownfacts about MacNeice’s life, Senktas probes the meaning of the recurrent refrain “come back early ornever come” in his “Autobiography.” Senktas construes the poem as MacNeice’s attempt to revisithis troubled childhood past. Suspended between “nostalgia and anxiety,” this revisiting is launchedfrom an equally uneasy present, marked by distress and apprehension on the one hand and wistfulremembrance on the other. These conflicting emotions are encapsulated in the poem’s ambiguousone-line refrain, which may be read as an address to the dead mother, thus turning the poem intoan elegiac expression of bereavement. It is for this reason, the critic maintains, that the disturbinglyrepeated refrain reverberates with past memories, whose haunting presence brings out a trance-likecadence of loss and recovery, remorse and relief. Senktas argues that the line she examines“transforms the moment of past longing . . . into the present moment of writing (and reading)”(136). It creates the impression that the events it evokes are as yet unresolved and consequentlyinvests the poet with the (illusory) power to shape their course. Through regular re playing of themelodious form MacNeice captures some much-desired lightness. This, argues Senktas, may not leadto a truly positive resolution, but at the very least it brings temporary comfort.