Lucy Sweeney Byrne

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOK REVIEWS -

Au­tumn Jour­nal was writ­ten be­tween Au­gust and De­cem­ber 1938. Be­fore I say any­thing else, let me say this: it is stun­ning. In­tel­li­gent yet un­pre­ten­tious, mov­ing with­out be­ing sen­ti­men­tal, at times funny, at times aching. Each sec­tion is formed with all the sim­ple grace of a tautly twisted bud, set to bloom with ev­ery read­ing.

MacNe­ice, in writ­ing this, was gifted that rare bless­ing so of­ten sought by writ­ers – the im­pres­sion of hav­ing man­aged to trans­late the thought and ex­pe­ri­ence ex­actly as it was felt, al­low­ing it to be trans­mit­ted with the least pos­si­ble in­ter­fer­ence di­rectly from him to us.

We are there with him, we feel the loss, the ten­sion, the dread, the won­der.

Au­tumn Jour­nal cov­ers the pe­riod in which it was writ­ten, and for its sub­ject mat­ter ranges from the highly per­sonal to the po­lit­i­cal, tak­ing in rem­i­nis­cences of MacNe­ice’s ex-wife, love, sui­cide, the state of Ire­land, pre-war Lon­don, an­cient phi­los­o­phy, the class sys­tem in Britain, and his vis­its to Spain as it fell to Franco.

This ex­ten­sive list sug­gests a Tol­stoyan or, dare I say, Franzenesq­ue tome, some­thing heavy and wor­thy and ex­ces­sively re­searched. In­stead, we have a poem that is truly, vis­cer­ally alive. This im­me­di­acy, which is what brings Au­tumn Jour­nal so tan­ta­lis­ingly close to per­fec­tion, is some­thing, strangely, MacNe­ice seems to have felt the need to qual­ify.

In his open­ing Note, writ­ten in March 1939, he says: “It is the na­ture of this poem to be nei­ther fi­nal nor bal­anced. I have cer­tain be­liefs which, I hope, emerge in the course of it but which I have re­fused to ab­stract from their con­text . . . po­etry in my opin­ion must be hon­est be­fore any­thing else and I refuse to be ‘ob­jec­tive’ or clear-cut at the cost of honesty.” This prick­li­ness is baf­fling, and cer­tainly un­nec­es­sary.

Re­gard­less, this poem, taken for what it is – an im­pres­sion of a time as it was lived; ideas and ex­pe­ri­ences caught in pass­ing, never over­worked, nor so­lid­i­fied – is a won­der. I read it ev­ery sin­gle au­tumn, to re­mind me what life is.

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