In this essay, I shall analyze the work of Louis MacNeice, entitled, ‘The sunlight on the garden.’ It is a modern verse that offers a self-reflexive commentary on life and its key elements. In similarity to the traditional epic verse, the poem is an expression of the speaker’s particular personalities and motives. I intend to explore these two subjects in greater detail in my essay. According to the Oxford English dictionary, a poetic analysis is a process, or ‘detailed examination of studying a poem…to determine its nature, structure, or essential features.’ This is a common practice used by both readers and critics in the reading of prose and poetry and I will adopt this technique in my essay.
MacNeice’s poem from the thirties transcribes the period of great hardship in the Western World, as well as the speaker’s self-hardship of love and death. The Wall Street Crash in 1929 started a worldwide economic depression that lasted for much of the decade and industries such as steel, shipbuilding and coal mining suffered. Moreover, unemployment in Britain soared which left a hollowed and pessimistic outlook on life. This had a strong impact upon the poetry of the time, this particular poem illuminating the confusions and irresolvable issues of the common man. There are many social and political events that influenced MacNeice’s work, the First World War being the most significant. Though the event took place decades before the poet’s publication, there are strong elements of futility, death and decay in his language.
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The line, ‘we are dying, Egypt, dying’ in particular, is reflective of the dreary society that both the poet and the people lived through. The poet’s reference to the Shakespearian tragedy suggests that the speaker or even MacNeice himself suffered from heartache or loss. The line, ‘hardened heart’ expands this idea, revealing a meta-level of vulnerability and self-consciousness of both the poem and its writer. Moreover, MacNeice’s use of the pronoun ‘we’ rather than, ‘I’ highlights that this is a communal suffering, a contrast to the typical self-infliction of epic poems.
There is great discussion as to the traditions of the poem, MacNeice’s experiments with classic meter and rhyme making the poem difficult to follow. The partial-serpentine rhymes, ‘minute within it’ for example, are demonstrative of his varying rhyme scheme and poetic technique. However, there are evident poetic qualities that suggest that he is writing in the style of lyric-epic poets. Firstly, the poem’s occasion is focused on the past rather than the present-self. The line, ‘but glad to have sat…with you’ emphasizes the speaker’s preoccupation with past events and his constant struggle with time and death. Furthermore, the narration of events (combined with the speaker’s emotional and reflective self-expression), creates an identity of the lyric self that is not found in the traditional epic.
The speaker’s constant preoccupation with the self and of death is a strong characteristic of elegiac poetry. Moreover, instead of using the typical third-person perspective found in Greek epic poetry, MacNeice uses, ‘we’ and ‘you’, typical of the lyric-epics of the time. Perhaps the poet, like other modernist writers, aspired to move away from the traditional epic layout and create a more modernized work as this was a fashionable movement in the early twentieth century. The poet Wordsworth, for example, experimented with new styles and verse forms to re-invent and modernize the lyric. Having identified the poetic form and tradition, I am now going to analyze the language in MacNeice’s work.
The use of imagery in all forms of poetry is a common technique used to draw the reader into poetic experiences, primarily through the senses. This is a characteristic in, ‘The Sunlight on the garden’, where the work’s title immediately evokes a simple image of beauty, nature and hope. The first line, however, immediately transposes one’s expectations as MacNeice’s speaker descends into a metaphysical state of suffering, ‘sunlight…hardens and grows cold.’ Moreover, the imagery of Egypt ‘dying’ also reveals the somewhat macabre state of his vision; absent in love, emotion and feeling, ‘hardened in heart.’ MacNeice’s vivid poetic imagery such as the line, ‘nets of gold’, arouses our senses and evokes the speaker’s pure and simple vision. Furthermore, the imagery of, ‘birds’ and ‘flying’ appeal to not only our sense of sight but also to the speaker’s hope for freedom. However, on a meta-level, again our understanding is transposed as the imagery of ‘Cage’ and ‘net’ enforces not freedom but a sensation of being trapped and confined in one’s self.
In addition to imagery, another dominant characteristic of MacNeice’s poem is rhyme. The rhyming scheme follows the same pattern (ABCBBA) in each stanza. The partial-serpentine rhyme of the poem acts as an enjambment, the syllabic meter from the previous line being carried to the next. This is again similar to the continuity of time and death that the poet discusses. The enjambment of the first line in the poem follows a rhyming word which then follows another rhyming word (‘garden hardens…cold’). In doing so, the unavoidable continuity of time and fate is highlighted. Moreover, the confusion of poetic forms and rhyme scheme adds to the futility and the speaker’s lack of power or control. The use of alliteration ‘cannot cage’ emphasizes the futility of one’s attempts to stop time. Again the speaker’s self-consciousness is exposed by the poet as he ultimately fails in this, the line, ‘we cannot beg’ emphasizing his vulnerability of self.
The disjointed and reckless rhyme scheme, as well as the varied pentameter, trochaic and heptameter, sound more fluid when spoken orally to an audience. MacNeice continues this old tradition of verbal poetry and in doing so, the beauty of the poem overcomes the confusion of the poetic form, acting as a work of art for both the eyes and ears. Now that I have analyzed rhyme and rhythm, I am going to look at the purpose of the poem and the issues the poet raises. One of the fundamentals purposes of the poem that presents itself is that the speaker has a constant preoccupation with love and regret. The line, ‘our freedom…advances towards its end’ is suggestive of a strong nostalgia and pessimism in the speaker. This is a self-consciousness that he readily admits to his audience, perhaps something that he could not have done through another medium. There is also a strong debate upon reading the poem that he could be talking to his lover. The sentiments in the last stanza, ‘glad to have sat…with you’ and, ‘hardened in heart’ imply that the poem’s purpose is a written expression of his feelings towards her, a romantic perspective on the traditional lyric-epic.
However, the most prominent purpose for MacNeice’s work is that the poem is the speaker’s farewell to his loved ones. The line, ‘we shall have no time for dances’ coupled with the endless discussion of time and indeed death, infers that life, indeed his life is running out and no matter how many a ‘net of gold’ he uses, one cannot prevent it. Having analyzed the purpose of the poem, I am now going to identify the implication of the poem on primarily the reader and the effects on society itself. At first glance, there is a little political reference in the poem, something that one would not have expected, particularly at a time of economic turmoil and war. However, there is a strong implication on our philosophical understanding of love, life and fate. The phrase ‘we cannot cage the minute’, for example, highlights the delicacy and futility of time that not even the speaker can stop or control. This, in turn, highlights the vulnerability and weakness of a man who has no control over fate, despite ‘the nets of gold’.
This weakness of man represents a nation under threat with the foreboding threat of another war and the future economic difficulties in the thirties. There might also be a political implication in the line, ‘We cannot beg for pardon’, relating in my mind to the horrors and mistakes made in the first-word war. In conclusion, the poem, ‘The sunlight on the garden’ written by Louis MacNeice, is a typical lyric-epic poem focused around love, loss and time. There are many other themes (the speaker’s gender for example) and aspects of the poem’s structure that I could have looked at in greater detail, rather than focusing solely on imagery and rhyme. The poem educates us about the importance of time and the growing shift occurring in epic poetry, a movement in which MacNeice evidently took part and which in turn affected the evolution of poetry in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.