The Burning Perch was published in 1963, a matter of weeks after Louis MacNeice's death at the age of fifty-five. It was an early death, and at the time of writing this volume MacNeice can have had little notion that it would be his last; indeed, the poems were composed during a period when the writer was making a new start in his working and private lives, having moved away from London and on to a part-time contract with the BBC (where his long and prolific career as a radio writer and producer had begun in 1942), and having established a successful relationship following the collapse of his second marriage. For all that, The Burning Perch is a dark book, full of the kinds of foreboding and anxiety that seem to belie the biographical new start from which it emerges; MacNeice himself recognized as much in the volume's dedicatory lines, where the contents are summarized as 'nightmare and cinders', and his partner Mary is asked to 'Forgive what I give you'. Ironically, perhaps, it is this last and posthumous collection of poems which has come to be seen as one of MacNeice's strongest volumes, and, in terms of its influence on later poets, his most original and influential book.
At the time of his death MacNeice was a known and respected, but no longer a widely celebrated poet. Like other members of his generation, including W. H. Auden, he was often read as a survivor of the 1930s; his best-known work, the book-length Autumn Journal (1939), was interpreted as the most characteristic product of a wide-ranging, but slick and journalistic poet, who had largely failed to develop his talents after the circumstantial impetus of the years of pre-war tension and crisis had lessened. Like Auden too, MacNeice was routinely criticized for no longer being the kind of poet he once was (or, more accurately, for being no longer the kind of poet which in truth he never was in the first place). At all events, The Burning Perch is the work of a writer who lives in the shadow of a distorted past, and whose claims on a future have to be fought for; as a result, the poems are written self-consciously against the odds, and this struggle becomes in part their subject. If one of the book's preoccupations is the past (seen in terms both of history and of the personal memory), another is the future - a future under various incalculable threats, notably from the Cold War and its 'Runways in rut, control / Towers out of control, and burns / Whose gift is not to cure' ('The Pale Panther'). To imagine a far future, in the early 1960s, was necessarily an act of faith as well as imagination, and MacNeice's interest in posterity, in The Burning Perch, results in poetry which makes an issue out of keeping faith: with memory, with imagination, and with language itself.
The Burning Perch is filled with the personnel, the gadgets and the impedimenta of modern life: dentists and tax-collectors, pet shops, taxis, battery-hens, satellites, computers, traffic-jams, electric fences, sleeping pills, frozen sperm, spacemen and telephone kiosks populate the poems as aspects of a contemporary world seen with particular sharpness. This much, of course, had in one respect always been the case in MacNeice's writing: Autumn Journal, too, was similarly exact in its eye for detail. But by 1963 MacNeice sees these things as aspects of a present over which the past and the future cast strange lights and long shadows, and the resultant effects are less documentary than surreal:
On the podium in lieu of a man With fallible hands is ensconced A metal lobster with built-in tempi; The deep sea fishermen in lieu of Battling with tunny and cod
Are signing their contracts for processing plankton.
On roof after roof the prongs
Are baited with faces, in saltpan and brainpan
The savour is lost, in deep
Freeze after freeze in lieu of a joint
Are piled the shrunken heads of the past
Lines like these, from the poem 'In Lieu', move from a horror of mechanization to the mechanization of horror, following a nightmare logic of association (the fishermen lead to 'baited' in the next stanza, while faces, brains and heads accumulate to grisly effect). And, as with many of the volume's images, these are recapitulated in other poems: mechanical actions proliferate, as in 'Spring Cleaning', where 'under the water / Black fingers pick at the ocean bed', or 'New Jerusalem', in which 'Bulldozer, dinosaur, pinheaded diplodocus / Champ up forgotten and long-dry water-pipes'; human fingers, too, recur in odd ways, so that 'October in Bloomsbury' has 'amputated delicate fingers tingle', while 'Memoranda to Horace' watches 'one's precious identity / Filtered away through what one had fancied / Till now were one's fingers, shadows to shadows'. The horrific 'offals of unborn children' is part of a recurring concern with children unborn or unconceived, so that 'Memoranda to Horace' insists on how 'the point was to recognize / The unborn face', and 'Off the Peg' imagines 'when the coffinlike cradle pitched on the breaking bough / Reveals once more some fiend or avatar'; 'Spring Cleaning' hears how 'In spruce new wards new mothers shriek' while 'New deaf incapsulated souls / Gaze out at noisy birds of dawn'. The poem 'Perspectives', too, ends with an unborn child:
And down at the end of the queue some infant Of the year Two Thousand straddles the world To match the child that was once yourself. The further-off people are sometimes the larger.
The image of the child is double: it reflects in terms of personal memory back into the past, and in terms of a chillingly impersonal posterity into the future, while in both aspects it can as easily become an image of horror as of hope. The symbolic economy, so to speak, of The Burning Perch relies on such relations, and the book's contemporary surface has these for its depth of sombre background.
One of the most impressive achievements of the collection is its concentration of means, through which recurring images become more unsettling and strange. This is not the only kind of concentration at work, however, for MacNeice is at the height of his powers as a verse technician in The Burning Perch, and there are many poems in which the cadences of the speaking voice are heightened and intensified to produce poetry whose formal pulse beats unnervingly, and to disconcertingly original effect. MacNeice wrote of how he wanted to escape 'the "iambic" groove' in English verse rhythm, and in The Burning Perch this is achieved without the artificial gimmicks of either free verse or pastiche classicism. In 'Charon', for example, MacNeice is able to play off line division against the speaking voice within a framework that never adopts the 'iambic groove', and at the close he brings things to a dead halt:
We flicked the flashlight And there was the ferryman just as Virgil And Dante had seen him. He looked at us coldly And his eyes were dead and his hands on the oar Were black with obols and varicose veins Marbled his calves and he said to us coldly: If you want to die you will have to pay for it.
The laconic, bitten-back final line here sends shudders through a poem in which rhythmic instability (mimicking perhaps the stop-starting of the other-worldly bus journey it describes) has been of the essence; a dactylic impetus never quite produces a completely dactylic line, while the run-ons of sense across line-endings further complicate rhythmic matters, but the overall sound of MacNeice's writing is both compelling and fluid. Earlier work (and particularly the lyric poetry of his previous two volumes Visitations, 1957 and Solstices, 1961), had seen the maturing of MacNeice's formal originality, but the rhythmic fluency and power of The Burning Perch are the products of a lifetime's acuteness of hearing.
'Soap Suds', the poem with which MacNeice opens the collection, provides an excellent example of the formal command which enables poetry to make new shapes and sounds for its subject matter. The poem's principal idea is simple enough - that of personal recollection - but its understanding of that idea becomes a series of complications, twists and turns in sequential time, in which the recollecting self is dizzy-ingly implicated. 'Soap Suds' uses a long line, of shifting rhythmic identities, without rhyme to build its four-line stanzas, and it deploys its images at the beginning with an open-handed clarity:
This brand of soap has the same smell as once in the big House he visited when he was eight: the walls of the bathroom open To reveal a lawn where a great yellow ball rolls back through a hoop To rest at the head of a mallet held in the hands of a child.
Even lines as long as these are not quite long enough to contain the poem's voice within them: the prominent enjambment of 'big / House' makes it hard to voice any pronounced rhythmic pattern for the first line, so that already MacNeice is creating a sense of speed in the verse, of a voice running on from one thing to the next. At the same time, the ways in which image opens out from image, as recollection from recollection, become almost subliminally associated with this sense of speed: nothing stands still here, whether croquet ball or bathroom wall, and the sentence (and stanza) ends somewhere a long way in time from the point at which it began - 'This brand of soap' is being smelled by an adult, while 'the hands of a child' are those of the child this adult once was, now long gone, who can be summoned only by enumeration of the things in the house which he prized:
And these were the joys of that house: a tower with a telescope;
Two great faded globes, one of the earth, one of the stars;
A stuffed black dog in the hall; a walled garden with bees;
A rabbit warren; a rockery; a vine under glass; the sea.
It is with this list that MacNeice slows down the verse, as though the moment of recollection, where detail develops into detail, could create a kind of stasis in which nothing can happen, and so nothing will change. In fact, the details are not haphazard, and several find their way into poems elsewhere in the volume which is here beginning (there will be a poem near the end of The Burning Perch, entitled 'Star-Gazer', for example, while a dog will feature in 'The Taxis' and — with overtones of the dog Cerberus in Hades — in 'Charon'; the sea will be the subject of the poem 'Round the Corner').
However, the stasis of the second stanza of 'Soap Suds' does not last into the poem's second half. Returning to the initial recollection of the croquet game with its mallet and yellow ball, MacNeice speeds up the verse to accommodate recollections that start to run away with themselves as they hurtle towards the present tense:
To which he has now returned. The day of course is fine And a grown-up voice cries Play! The mallet slowly swings, Then crack, a great gong booms from the dog-dark hall and the ball Skims forward through the hoop and then through the next and then
Through hoops where no hoops were and each dissolves in turn And the grass has grown head-high and an angry voice cries Play! But the ball is lost and the mallet slipped long since from the hands Under the running tap that are not the hands of a child.
The formal momentum seems unstoppable; but it stops, and stops with a child who is emphatically not here. The lines move to an almost bewildering number of different possible measures, and the lines protract themselves into each other so that, for instance, the repeated triple stresses of 'a great gong booms from the dog-dark hall' are not the end of a line, but a prelude to the rhyming and running on 'and the ball / Skims'. In terms of imagery, visual and otherwise, the poem resolves into an expanding (or contracting) series of circular figures: the soap, the ball, the globes, the gong, the hoops, and finally again the ball and the soap. The circular movement of the poem itself brings the reader back to the adult hands of the beginning, not with recollections clarified and given meaning, but with the remembering self unsettled and threatened by an irruption of images with a life and intent of their own.
The poem's 'grown-up voice', which soon becomes an 'angry voice', is a voice in a garden, and seems to have overtones of God's voice in Eden; it is possible to read 'Soap Suds' as an exercise in memory under the shadow of the Fall. But 'Play!' echoes from this into other poems in the book, such as 'Sports Page' where 'On your Marks! En Garde! Scrum Down! Over!' modulates into a conclusion that 'The lines of print are always sidelines / And all our games funeral games', or 'Children's Games', with its virtuoso amalgamation of playground rhymes and activities. The hoop, which in 'Soap Suds' is both a croquet hoop and a child's hoop, returns in one of the five-line pieces making up 'As in their Time':
He had clowned it through. Being born For either the heights or the depths He had bowled his hoop on the level Arena; the hoop was a wheel Of fire but he clowned it through.
The games of children in The Burning Perch prefigure, and are also implicit in, the suffering and the deaths of men. 'Soap Suds' begins the book by compressing such knowledge into a kaleidoscopic series of recollections, and allowing these to complicate simple distinctions between past and present, between first things and last things. In miniature, the poem expresses the tendency of MacNeice's book as a whole.
The Burning Perch is haunted by many ghosts, some from the past and others from the future. The result of this is that the poetry's take on the present time is one in which everything, no matter how definite, prosaic or concrete, is subject to the sudden destabilization of uncanny shifts into the future or past. 'October in Blooms-bury' looks at tourists and visitors near the British Museum, where 'Black men and schoolchildren rummage for culture', but warns of how 'the tutelary spirits are hard to please':
Those epicureans who haunt the lawns, whose amputated delicate fingers tingle, Whose delicate eyelids are dropped for ever not to be pained by the great new institutes,
Who sometimes even when out of mind become what we miss most, In the callbox for instance lifting a receiver warm from the ear of a ghost.
While the contemporary world (and, in particular, the contemporary London of poems like 'Charon', 'New Jerusalem' and 'Goodbye to London') is busy chewing up the past, or picking its bones, the past has a way of surging back into these modern perspectives. MacNeice also writes poems which inhabit places where the past has become a modern business-opportunity: 'Constant' visits Istanbul, where there is too much history Tilting, canting, crawling, rotting away, Subsiding strata where ghosts like faults, like mites, Reminders of stagnation or collapse, Emerge into the mist.
'Rechauffe' and 'This is the Life' take similarly jaded views of Egypt, while 'Ravenna' is itself written explicitly from the visitor's point of view of the mosaics and 'A bad smell mixed with glory'. In all these places, ghosts are both present and disconcertingly without apparent meaning or intent for the present-tense observers, who seem to be merely on the way to becoming ghosts themselves.
Traditional literary ghosts want to communicate; but the ghosts of The Burning Perch have no such designs. On the other hand, these ghosts are present in the very means and acts of communication (like the telephone 'receiver warm from the ear of a ghost') between the living. The designer-city of 'New Jerusalem' is one in which people pretend to be separate, but live therefore in a state of illusion:
As for the citizens, what with their cabinets Of faces and voices, their bags of music, Their walls of thin ice dividing greynesses, With numbers and mirrors they defy mortality.
The state of 'greyness' recurs often in these poems, as the drab background to modernity (elaborated in the poems 'The Grey Ones' and 'Greyness is All'), but the recognition that one cannot, after all, 'defy mortality' need not confirm the drabness. 'Round the Corner' speaks of the sea as 'The only anarchic democracy, where we are all vicarious / Citizens', and insists that we remember this 'as we remember a person / Whose wrists are springs to spring a trap or rock / A cradle'; the images are puzzling at first, but like others in the book they intensify by echoing through different poems, and they represent perhaps the counterbalancing alternatives to the condition of 'greyness', places for good ghosts rather than drab ones.
'The Introduction' is one of MacNeice's most powerful - and most subtly disturbing — love poems, but it is also a way of tuning in to the ghostly, or the uncanny, in the very intimacy which such things might conventionally threaten. Much possessed by death, the poem will not let go of love, even though it is pitched into the disorientating confusion of past with present, future with past, of so many of the Burning Perch poems. Beginning with 'They were introduced in a grave glade', the poem works a number of verbal transformations and variations to reach its destination in 'They were introduced in a green grave'; on the way, the pastoral scenery undergoes its own transformations:
Crawly crawly Went the twigs above their heads and beneath The grass beneath their feet the larvae Split themselves laughing.
The lovers themselves are afraid: 'she frightened him because she was young / And thus too late' is a conventional enough fear, but the poem's hall of mirrors within a few lines turns this into 'he frightened her because he was old / And thus too early'; the attempted conclusion, 'You two should have met / Long since, he said, or else not now' is not the end of the matter. Instead, the poem repeats and changes until it reaches the 'green grave': it is important that the colour is green, and not grey. Mac-Neice's dedicatory lines end with the promise to 'keep my appointment / In green improbable fields with you', and the love poetry of 'The Introduction' is as good as the poet's word in this respect. Mortality is accepted as well as defied here.
The Burning Perch makes acceptances like these partly by allowing the future, for which it is always already 'too early', to zoom into the poetry's perspectives. In 'Budgie' a pet bird stands on duty to see in whatever the future holds; as the poem concludes, the difference between remote past and remote future is difficult to discern, and while individual destruction is assured, expression itself, resolved into its barest minimum, remains an irreducible fact:
The radio telescope Picks up a quite different signal, the human Race recedes and dwindles, the giant Reptiles cackle in their graves, the mountain Gorillas exchange their final messages, But the budgerigar was not born for nothing, He stands at his post on the burning perch —
I twitter am — and peeps like a television Actor admiring himself in the monitor.
The irony of the poem's return to its ground bass of contemporary observation at the end is typical of The Burning Perch's refusal to leave behind the present, as is the added irony of MacNeice's domestication of the Yeatsian golden bird in 'Sailing to Byzantium' into a creature from The Burning Perch's own menagerie (thus linking with a poem like 'Pet Shop' — and perhaps prompting the reader to remember that Byzantium itself has turned up already in the seedier report of 'Constant'). But the bird's nobility, and the nobility of its calling, seem if anything the stronger for these layers of irony. Again, a larger poetic strategy is being triumphantly compressed here.
The long, four-part poem 'Memoranda to Horace' appears more relaxed in its meditations on such a strategy, and it is, in many ways, a virtuoso performance in its combination of intricate form with supple conversational scope and command. And yet MacNeice's sustained meditation here on language is far from casual. The initial question of 'why bother?', in the face of 'Dissolving dialects' and the transitory nature of language itself, to write poetry and so raise 'a monument / Weaker and of less note than a mayfly / Or a quick blurb for yesterday's detergent' receives indirect, but important answers as the poem progresses. In crossing from age to age, and from reader to reader, writer to writer, it is poetry itself which becomes the agent of a seemingly impossible communication. It is not, in fact, so much the communication of the dead with the living, as that between the dead and those living readers who will themselves become the dead in time: Horace, like other ghosts in The Burning Perch, teaches us how to be what inevitably we will become. MacNeice talks to the past, as it were, for the future to hear:
It is noisy today as it was when Brutus
Fell on his sword, yet through wars and rumours
Of wars I would pitch on the offchance My voice to reach you. Yours had already
Crossed the same gap to the north and future, Offering no consolation, simply
Telling me how you had gathered Your day, a choice it is mine to emulate.
This faces the facts equably: there is 'no consolation', in any easy sense, to be had from the kind of communication poetry offers, and there is at best 'the offchance' of success. Nevertheless the 'choice' on offer is real, and it can be made, in a way that sounds through those 'wars and rumours / Of wars' which it will not drown out.
Certainly, the world of The Burning Perch is a grim one. Just as certainly, however, the poems themselves are possessed of a real and compelling vitality. The paradox is one which the poetry seems often to acknowledge, and which MacNeice himself acknowledged when he wrote of how 'Fear and resentment seem here to be serving me in the same way as Yeats in his old age claimed to be served by "lust and rage"'. In the same note (written after the book had been selected as a Choice of the Poetry Book Society), the poet wrote of how 'most of these poems are two-way affairs or at least spiral ones: even in the most evil picture the good things, like the sea in one of these poems, are still there round the corner'. If the vitality of the writing is confirmed by the number of readers who, in the years since MacNeice's death, have found it both memorable and inspiring, so too, perhaps, is the writing's brooding on matters of posterity and communication across time made relevant by the ways in which the collection has been a potent influence on later poets: much of Paul Muldoon's work, for example, is indebted to MacNeice's last poems in direct ways, and many other poets have been similarly enabled by the book's originality and power. For a volume so taken up with death (and so unfortunately and inadvertently prophetic of Mac-Neice's own death), The Burning Perch remains extraordinarily vital, and truly a new start rather than a dead end, so much so that poets other than MacNeice himself have been able to follow the start made there. For poetry of this quality, as MacNeice's bewildered victim in 'After the Crash' discovers, 'It was too late to die'.
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