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
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
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
Nothing remains but rock at this hour, this zero
Hour of the day.