Saturday, 9 February 2008

Macneice's Autumn Journal (1939)

I've been reading MacNeice's sprawly, centripetal but often arresting and compelling verse-journal (written Autumn 1938) and am very favourable struck by the mood of the piece: evocative of the failures in Spain, the palpable imminence of war with Germany, the textures of quotidian English life. A lot of it is fascinating and immersive, but I was particularly taken by one detail early on. Section V of this 24-part poem opens in a London brooding on the knowledge that Hitler is knocking on the metaphorical door:
To-day was a beautiful day, the sky was a brilliant
...Blue for the first time for weeks and weeks
But posters flapping on the railings tell the fluttered
...World that Hitler speaks, that Hitler speaks
And we cannot take it in and we cannot go to our daily
...Jobs to the dull refrain of the caption 'War'[.]
People gossip not about the cricket, but about 'Hodza, Henlein, Hitler,/the Maginot Line'; and everything is overshadowed by the prospect of invasion.
What will happen next. What will happen
...We ask and waste the question on the air;
Nelson is stone and Johnnie Walker moves his
...Legs like a cretin over Trafalgar Square.
And in the Corner House the carpet-sweepers
...Advance between the tables after crumbs
Inexorable, like a tank battalion
...In answer to the drums.
In Tottenham Court Road the tarts and negroes.
...Loiter beneath the lights
And the breeze gets colder as on so many other
...September nights.
A smell of French bread in Charlotte Street, a rustle
...Of leaves in Regent's Park
And suddenly from the Zoo I hear a sea-lion
...Confidently bark. [p.15]
The sense of Britain as unprepared, the naval hero Nelson gorgonised, and only a facile advertising icon to replace him -- of Britain there like a carpet to be swept up by advancing tanks -- is nicely rendered. But what's extraordinary about this is that final bark from the Zoo, given that these lines were written in 1938. Nobody in England knew that Hitler's planned invasion of Britain (wafted over from France like the smell of the bread), a plan literally to roll tanks across Trafalgar Square, was going to be called Operation Sea-Lion. (According to Wikipedia, Gro├čadmiral Erich Raeder didn't even start drawing up the plans for Sealion until November 1939). It's bizarrely prescient of MacNeice to include his confident and rather threatening barking sea-lion in a poem written over a year earlier.