Monday, January 29, 2007

Louis MacNeice, "Snow"

The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.

And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes –
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one's hands –
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.


From Poems (1935)

Last night was the first snow in New York for this winter, so I thought it would be appropriate to take such as this week's theme, beginning with what is likely MacNeice's best known poem. On the one hand, this poem can be taken as illustrating a certain metaphysical sensibility that we observed in "Train to Dublin" during TPQ's first week – MacNeice's embrace of the particulars of sense experience, "The drunkenness of things being various." His masterful control of diction and syntax is also on display here: such pairings as "collateral and incompatible" and "peel and portion"; the repetition of "World", itself made immediate by the absence of an article "the" or "this" etc.; and the excelling exuberance of the non-punctuated "On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one's hands". The paradoxical independence and interrelation "collateral and incompatible" is consummated in the final line's "between", meaning both shared connection and separating division, reinforced by the mention not only of "glass" (with implicit immaterial reflections) but an unspecific "more" as well.
MacNeice's poem has a significant socio-political valence as well. Its imagery of division, difference and incompatability relate to the divisions within (Northern) Ireland. The mention of roses links back to the English Civil Wars of the Roses between the House of Lancaster and the House of York, represented respectively by a red and a (snow-)white rose. This allusion is channeled in part through Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (if I remember correctly) where the houses and their emblems are used to represent opposing groupings of students at Stephen's boarding school; Stephen who decides to reject his obligation to the Nationalist cause of Ireland. Snow, on the other hand, is the concluding image of the concluding story, "The Dead", in Joyce's Dubliners. In the Irish tradition more generally, of course, the rose is a Nationalist emblem of Ireland, as it remains the term of feminine representations ("an Irish rose"). Within this context, the latent violence within some of the imagery may become apparent: the snow and roses as explosions outside the window, with fire inside as well. MacNeice's poem has continued to be a significant reference point in subsequent Irish writing - see, for instance, Muldoon's "History" or Carson's "Snow".

(More about Louis MacNeice [1907-1963]:

1 comment:

Julia said...

thanks for sharing that - I always though "Bagpipe Music" was his best known poem though - I love Louis Macneice and you have made me want to re-read him - thanks again!