Sunday, 14 September 2014

Louis MacNeice's Autumn Journal: "This Zero Hour of the Day"

London in 1938, at Tottenham Court Road. © George W Baker. Used under Creative Commons license

At this time of year I like to read Louis MacNeice's Autumn Journal. Considered his greatest work by many, this book-length poem in 24 sections describes life in Europe, mainly in London, in the buildup to World War II. It's a poem of mounting tension and anxiety, but also a chronicle with MacNeice's characteristic light touch of his love affairs, his travels, and so on. It is his life in those months of late 1938, and it manages to be both superb poetry and a brilliant kind of reportage. It's completely personal as well as relevant and immediate in terms of what was happening in society and politics.

I see MacNeice as a kind of journalist - he's just so precise and readable. I can't recommend Autumn Journal too highly. I think it is quite unique amongst chronicles of a very momentous time, and it is both thrilling and daunting that his writing feels so relatable today.

Here is an excerpt from Autumn Journal - one of my favourite passages.

from AUTUMN JOURNAL (Louis MacNeice)


And when we go out into Piccadilly Circus
    They are selling and buying the late
Special editions snatched and read abruptly
    Beneath the electric signs as crude as Fate.
And the individual, powerless, has to exert the
    Powers of will and choice
And choose between enormous evils, either
    Of which depends on somebody else's voice.
The cylinders are racing in the presses,
    The mines are laid,
The ribbon plumbs the fallen fathoms of Wall Street,
    And you and I are afraid.
To-day they were building in Oxford Street, the mortar
    Pleasant to smell,
But now it seems futility, imbecility,
    To be building shops when nobody can tell
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
Inexorably, 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.
And so to my flat with the trees outside the window
    And the dahlia shapes of the lights on Primrose Hill
Whose summit once was used for a gun emplacement
    And very likely will
Be used that way again. The bloody frontier
    Converges on our beds
Like jungle beaters closing in on their destined
    Trophy of pelts and heads.
And at this hour of the day it is no good saying
    'Take away this cup';
Having helped to fill it ourselves it is only logic
    That now we should drink it up.
Nor can we hide our heads in the sands, the sands have
    Filtered away;
Nothing remains but rock at this hour, this zero
    Hour of the day.


  1. Hi Clarissa! Last week I was going to comment on your post on Robin Williams and Walt Whitman but got sidetracked. (And by sidetracked I mean I planned on rewatching "Dead Poets Society" but re-watched "Carlito's Way" instead.)

    More to the point though, I really like Autumn Journal, which comes as no surprise. I agree with how precise McNeice is. The verse "it seems futility to be building shops when nobody knows what will happen next" seems to perfectly capture the mood of his time and perhaps even of our own?

    And, coincidently, just this afternoon, I listened to McNeice on tape reading his poem "Meeting Point" . I wonder if he ever recorded parts of "Autumn Journal". Not only he has the best voice but I am also getting lazier. xx

    1. Hi Paula, so nice to hear from you! I hope you're well. Sidetracked, ha - I feel like I could write a book of my life about being sidetracked (sometimes it's good, most often it's not.)

      Yes, Autumn Journal seems very much of our time these days, more so than in many other autumns, I think... It is amazing how he depicts anxiety slipping in to otherwise pleasant everyday events: home to his flat by Primrose Hill (a very expensive area these days) and admiring "the dahlia shapes of the lights on Primrose Hill" which bleakly turns into "Whose summit once was used for a gun emplacement/And very likely will/Be used that way again."

      'Meeting Point', ah, it's so good. Whether he recorded Autumn Journal or not I'm not sure... It would be lovely to hear that!