In his 1941 poem “London Rain,” Louis MacNeice writes “The world is what was given / The world is what we make. ” In “London Rain” itself, MacNeice does not emphasize the latter sentiment, ultimately hinting at the difficulty of trying to “make” anything in his concluding description of his “wishes…come[ing] homeward / their gallopings in vain. ” Yet for all the suggestions of impotence in “London Rain’s” final stanza, in MacNeice’s work as a whole—as in the work of his friend and contemporary W. H. Auden—the “made” world becomes a central topic.
Both men draw heavily in their poetry on images of man and the man-made, emphasizing the extent to which the human permeates the world we know and suggesting both the role that humans play as the “makers of history” and the value of things that they make. Discussing his long poem “Letter to Lord Byron,” W. H Auden comments that Byron is “the right [recipient for the poem], I think, because he was a townee … and disliked Wordsworth and all that kind of approach to nature, and I find that very sympathetic. This interest in the urban world manifests itself throughout Auden’s poetry. In “Letter to Lord Byron,” for example, Auden describes “tramlines and slag heaps, pieces of machinery. ”
In “Stop all the clocks,” he lingers over an image of “aeroplanes [that] circle moaning overhead. ” In “Dover,” he modernizes his picture of a Norman castle with the descriptor, “flood-lit at night,” and in “There is no Change of Place,” he describes how “metals run, / Burnished or rusty in the sun, / From town to town. Filled with trains and factories, vacant lots and city streets, Auden’s poetry is grounded not in the more timeless pastoral landscapes of his Romantic and Georgian predecessors but rather in an industrialized world shaped and re-shaped by the works of man. Auden did not write exclusively about urban landscapes, of course. Especially in his early poems, references to “gaitered gamekeeper[s]” and rolling foothills (“No Change of Place”) suggest the lingering influence of earlier poets like Thomas Hardy whose works draw heavily on rural settings.
Yet even in his poems of the natural world, Auden frequently incorporates traces of the man-made, forming what he himself labels “human landscapes. ” Auden most directly espouses this sentiment in “Letter to Lord Byron,” in which he states outright that “to me Art’s subject is the human clay, / And landscape but a background to a torso. ” His oft-anthologized poem “In Praise of Limestone” offers a more subtle example of this tendency.
In that work, Auden refers to the cracks between rocks as “gennels,” employing urban imagery of the narrow passageways between houses to evoke the natural fissures between stones. Similarly, he labels limestone rocks “solid statues,” reminding readers of the stone’s anthropogenic uses. He even anthropomorphizes the landscape itself, describing streams that “chuckle,” cliffs that “entertain,” and landscapes almost effeminate in their “rounded slopes / with their surface fragrance of thyme and, beneath, / a secret system of caves and conduits. For Auden, who throughout the poem draws few distinct borders between the work’s characters and the landscapes that they inhabit, the limestone uplands that he so admires are “extension[s]” of their human occupants, important not so much in their own right as for their human characteristics and connections. Like Auden’s poetry, the works of Louis MacNeice are characterized by a distinctly urban sensibility. MacNeice, who spent much of his adult life living in and near cities, fills his poems with the artificial.
Rubber gloves and celluloid, suburban houses, traffic lights, and night clubs recur throughout his poems, reminding readers of the pervasiveness of the man-made. Indeed, even MacNeice’s more abstract descriptions serve this purpose, as when he draws on imagery in artifice in his bleak declaration “the jaded calendar revolves. / Its nuts need oil, carbon chokes the valves, / The excess sugar of a diabetic culture” (“An Eclogue for Christmas”).
Like Auden, MacNeice certainly does not abandon the natural world, but the pastoral is largely an interruption to a series of works that rarely leave the city–that most anthropocentric of spaces—for long. The meter and imagery of MacNeice’s poems contribute more subtly but no less importantly to this sense of his work as anthropocentric. In Autumn Journal, for example, MacNeice evokes the stylish sentiment of 1930s cinema in his description of “you in bed with bright / Eyes, or in a cafe stirring coffee / Abstractly and on your plate the white / Smoking stub your lips had touched with crimson. Similarly, MacNeice’s 1941 poem “Swing-song,” with its jaunty rhythms and chorus-like closing lines, echoes the strong rhythms and upbeat tempo of ‘30s and ‘40s swing music. As with his more obvious images of urban life, these subtle allusions to cinema and music—which are as much as cities the constructions of mankind—suggest a world in which the work of man dominates, serving as a reminder of the ways in which humans shape not simply the world around them but also the sensibilities of that world’s inhabitants.
Neither for Auden nor for MacNeice does this abiding fascination with the man-made correspond to an idealization of the urban or industrial. In “City without Walls,” for example, Auden labels modern man’s life “directionless and meaningless. ” For him in that poem “urban humanity has turned into compulsive hermits in caves of steel and glass. ” Auden takes a similarly grim view of urban life in “As We Like It,” recalling cities’ “byres of poverty” and the “peaked and violent faces” of “feverish[,] prejudiced” people who “do not care. If anything, MacNeice takes an even less idealized view of the man-made. He dismisses much of the artifice laid out in “Belfast,” for example, as “harsh / Attempts at buyable beauty,” characterizing the poem’s titular Irish city as “lurid,” filled with abusers and the “cowled and haunted faces” of their victims. Yet for all their refusal to idealize the traces of the man-made that populate their poems, Auden and MacNeice do find beauty as well as decay in urban landscapes.
In “Birmingham,” for example, MacNeice lingers long over the minutiae of everyday urban life, his evocative and wide-ranging descriptions suggesting a deeply felt enjoyment of this typical city scene. In his 1938 essay Modern Poetry, MacNeice comes back to this point, insisting “You must not think that good things are only to be found in Xanadu … The dwellers in Xanadu never saw a van going down the street and piled with petrol tins in beautiful reds and yellows and greens. As in “Birmingham,” MacNeice here suggests that artifice is not a vulgar topic unsuited to poetry, as earlier poets like Wordsworth, for example, seems to suggest. Instead, MacNeice sees the urban and the artificial as a source of beauty in its own right. Auden makes a similar suggestion throughout his works, declaring in “Letter to Lord Byron,” for example, that for all its intermittent grimness, the urban landscape of his poetry “was, and still is, my ideal scenery. This insistence on the appeal and importance of the urban culminates in “Spain” and “New Year’s Letter” in Auden’s references to the “just city,” a symbol that he goes on to explore more extensively in his later poem “Memorial for a City. ” It is telling that Auden locates his social ideal not in the solitude of the rural landscape, like, for example, Thoreau, but rather in the heart of the human-dominated world. Just as the lovers of “Lay your sleeping head, my love” are “Mortal, guilty, but to me / The entirely beautiful,” so too are the things of man flawed yet omnipresent and ultimately, for Auden as for MacNeice, beautiful.
Both born just after the turn of the twentieth century, W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice inherited a poetic tradition deeply rooted in the natural world. As cities themselves grew and spread following the industrial revolution, British poets like Tennyson, Browning, and Arnold turned their backs on urban life, and while some nineteenth-century novelists and essayists chart and even praise the industrial development of their era, William Wordsworth dismisses cities as “monstrous” things.
The poetry of Auden and MacNeice represents a dramatic break from the unrelenting pastoralism of the men’s Romantic and Georgian predecessors both in its emphasis on the pervasiveness of the man-made and in its celebration—if not idealization—of that artifice. Ultimately, then, perhaps the most modern element of the two men’s writing is its insistence that, as MacNeice himself says, the world is decidedly “what we make. ”