On Louis MacNeice's 'Snow'
There are not many poets I could point to and say ‘yes, that is the first time I read X, and here is how I felt about it.' But there are two I remember encountering for the first time more vividly than most.
The first is the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. When I moved to London for the first time I bought Stephen Mitchell’s translations from the Brick Lane Bookshop. I had drifted into a job I wasn’t sure about and would quit soon after. A friend was subletting me a room, which suited me because it was cheap and because I didn’t know how long I was going to be there, but in retrospect must have contributed to the sense of insecurity. Rilke’s poems are about transience, comfortingly mystical. The circumstances met the poems (sometimes I think this is how it works).
The second is Louis MacNeice. I remember encountering MacNeice for the first time because he produced real resistance. To my unfamiliar teenage ear the poems felt too tightly controlled, almost prickly. It sounds - and it is - ridiculous (it may even have been slightly celtophobic) but that feeling was mirrored in his surname. MacNeice. Clinical, sharp, abrasive.
There was a flintiness to his subjects, too: real life in the 1930s, with little sentiment and any broader themes (that I could spot) introduced elliptically. It was all a world away from the poetry we had been introduced to at school or the lyrics I was listening to at home. It wasn’t what I thought poems were. I remember thinking: this is a bit hard, I’m not sure it’s worth it.
It’s difficult to reconcile those feelings with how important MacNeice is to me now or with his poem, ‘Snow’, a short, sharp hymn to the multifariousness of the world. The context is simple: MacNeice is sitting in a room, in front of a fire, eating a tangerine. It is snowing. There are roses in the window. We are thrown in at the point at which the scene has become an overwhelming spectacle. Perhaps it has just started to snow, or perhaps MacNeice has only just noticed.
Whatever is going on, though, it is a surprise and that sense of surprise persists throughout the poem. By the end, the ‘huge roses’ have become something other than themselves, alien and strange.
‘Snow’ does all the right poemy things. The sounds match the sense. The world is busy, busier than we realise and so is a phrase like ‘soundlessly collateral and incompatible’. Then there’s that tangerine. The words come down to single, propulsive syllables, so that you almost have to spit to say ‘spit the pips and feel’. But there is a deliberate unpoeticness to 'Snow', an awkwardness in the phrasing and language and this is one of the things I like most about it. (That and the refusal to explain: why is there more than glass between the snow and the roses?)
The end of the first line trips you up immediately: the natural thing would be to put ‘was’ on the next line, with the rest of the verb. As it is, you have to stop and start again. Too often, enjambent just draws attention to a word. Here, by breaking the verb in two, it literally does what the verb describes.
One of the reasons we sometimes take enjambment for granted is that so few poets now use meter that most modern poetry is enjambed by default. MacNeice is not using a set meter here. Most of lines have six stresses, I think, but there is no strict pattern. But there are patterns. One phrase stands out because it is in iambic pentameter: ‘Word is suddener than we fancy it.’
There are other ways in which MacNeice goes out of his way to break expectations. ‘Fancy it’ and ‘Suddenly’ are baggy words you might not expect to hear in a short poem, where space is at a premium. Every now and then he gives you the satisfaction of a normal line or a clean rhyme. The heightened language (‘incorrigibly plural’) is leavened with the ordinary: ‘crazier’.
The only two rhymes in the poem are ‘Against it / Fancy it’ and ‘Supposes / Huge roses’. I’m told two-syllable rhymes like this are associated with so-called 'light verse' and children's rhymes. They are not neat. But how satisfying is it to land on ‘roses’ at the end! That satisfaction derives in part from the fact that everything that came before - the words, the rhythm, the images - has been slightly offbeat. Just in the previous line there were four triple beats and no punctuation. Even with ‘huge roses’, I have to stress both words, like an engine juddering to a halt.
'Snow' is one of MacNeice's best-loved poems. The tightly-controlled playfulness is typical, as is the man-of-the-world philosophising. Yet MacNeice is usually more of a chatterbox: 'Snow' is almost unique among his work in being focussed on a single image, just the window, the roses, the snow.
That one image is exploded into an endless, multiplying elements - snowflakes, rose petals, tangerine pips and fire - and that whirligig is in turn mirrored in the way the language remakes itself under your tongue. World is suddener than we fancy it. MacNeice doesn't simply assert it: he makes it true.
This is a new (hopefully improved) version of a post from a few years ago.
Mystical is misleading - the worst thing that has happened to Rilke, as Don Paterson has said, is the way in which he has been turned into a self-help guru. Yet (as Paterson also argues) Rilke really does help: “The Sonnets, for all their occaisional obscurity, make a great deal of sense. This has to be placed at the heart of any discussion if the poems are actually to be useful to us.” The essay at the end of Paterson’s Orpheus (Faber, 2006) is the best guide to those poems I’ve come across - and a brilliant piece of critcism in its own right - though I would recommend starting with Mitchell’s translations over Paterson’s own (pretty uninsipring) ‘versions’.
It’s interesting (at least to me) to think how many poets are best known by ‘unrepresentative’ poems. There’s Auden’s ‘Stop the Clocks’ (which was written ironically but is now used at funerals) or Larkin’s ‘This Be The Verse’, where the sentiment may be Larkinesque but the form isn’t. Perhaps also Derek Mahon’s ‘Everything is Going to Be Alright’. There must be more…