The whole world is on lockdown. What do we read?

Plenty of people are posting their suggestions for good reading in difficult times. I'll be making a few contributions to the discussion over the coming weeks.

THE EAR by Louis MacNeice

In 1938 the Anglo-Irish poet Louis MacNeice wrote a book-length poem, Autumn Journal, which tracks his thoughts and feelings about the Munich crisis and the looming war. So, like us, MacNeice is dwelling on his own uncertainty, his own fear, about what is to come. Composed in 24 sections I think it’s one of the great (& most readable) poems of the 1930s in English. In it MacNeice discusses many subject and goes to many places. He moves around (in real time & in flashbacks) from his native Ireland to England, where he lectures in classics at Birmingham University; in memory he visits Spain just before the civil war, and later goes there again in person; he visits ancient Greece; he frets about the wife who’s walked out and will soon divorce him; he thinks about the other divorce between England and Ireland; he constantly takes note of the people around him.

The great quality of this and all MacNeice’s poems is groundedness in real experience and events. “The poet’s first business is mentioning things”, he wrote. You will find below a much shorter poem written by MacNeice in 1940 when he was 33. It is about the sound of things that enter the ear of a person — perhaps while lying in an insomniac bed — who is anxious about the uncertain future in time of war. It was written two years later than Autumn Journal but has some of the same qualities, though compressed into just 12 lines.

I don't say this is comforting, candy-coated verse. But there is a lot of solace, entertainment or wisdom to be found from reading one's own feelings and experiences set out in the words of a brilliant poet. If poetry has a function at all, I say that is it.


There are many sounds which are neither music nor voice,
There are many visitors in masks or in black glasses
Climbing the spiral staircase of the ear. The choice
Of callers is not ours. Behind the hedge
Of night they wait to pounce. A train passes
The thin and audible end of a dark wedge.

We should like to lie alone in a deaf hollow
Cocoon of self where no person or thing would speak:
In fact we lie and listen as a man might follow
A will o' the wisp in an endless eyeless bog.
Follow the terrible drone of the cockchafer, or the bleak
Oracle of a barking dog.





Posted on March 30th, 2020


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