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What I thought of Autumn Journal

February 9, 2021

“Close and slow, summer is ending in Hampshire,
Ebbing away down ramps of shaven lawns where close-clipped yew
Insulates the lives of retired generals and admirals
And the spyglasses hung in the hall and the prayer books ready in the pew
And autumn going out to the tin trumpets of nasturtiums
And the sunflowers’ Salvation Army blare of brass
And the spinsters sitting in a deck-chair picking up stitches …”

Louis MacNeice wrote Autumn Journal during the second half of 1938. He had not long split up with his wife, and while he pretended that he didn’t miss her, he obviously did. He was also trying to understand the political movements in Spain in the year before the Civil War, having visited the country earlier as a tourist. The rise of fascism is a major theme throughout Autumn Journal, and the book resonates in contemporary UK because it serves as an analogue for the worrying developments in Russia, under Putin; in the US, under Trump; and in the UK, with Brexit under Johnson, as well as for the assumption of power by oligarchs and dictators in Belarussia, Hungary, and India.

” … not realising
That Spain would soon denote
Our grief, our aspirations;
Not knowing that our blunt
Ideals would find their whetstone, that our spirit
Would find its frontier on the Spanish front,
Its body in a rag-tag army.”

Possibly my favourite ever poem is MacNeice’s Snow:

“World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.”

But while Snow is a poem about differences:

“On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one’s hands—
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.”

Autumn Journal is a poem about similarities, even when it pretends not to be:

“… And when I should remember the paragons of Hellas
I think instead
Of the crooks, the adventurers, the opportunists
The careless athletes and the fancy boys,
The hair-splitters, the pedants, the hard-boiled sceptics
And the Agora and the noise
Of the demagogues and the quacks; and the women pouring
Libations over graves
And the trimmers at Delphi and the dummies at Sparta and lastly
I think of the slaves.
And how one can imagine oneself among them,
I do not know;
It was all so unimaginably different
and all so long ago.”

Which goes to show that every age of disruption is heralded in by a choir of cheerleaders and exploited by a plague of chancers. We’re no different to 1930’s Europe or Ancient Greece. And while in some ways, that can be depressing – as a species, we seemed doomed to repeat the worst moments of our history – oppression and greed never survive for long. Always we make progress, and the human characteristics of decency, goodness, trust, patience and fairness win out.

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