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Bagpipe Music -- Louis MacNeice

The second of our guest poems, sent in by Anustup Datta
(Poem #18) Bagpipe Music
   It's no go the merrygoround, it's no go the rickshaw,
   All we want is a limousine and a ticket for the peepshow.
   Their knickers are made of crepe-de-chine, their shoes are made of python,
   Their halls are lined with tiger rugs and their walls with head of bison.

   John MacDonald found a corpse, put it under the sofa,
   Waited till it came to life and hit it with a poker,
   Sold its eyes for souvenirs, sold its blood for whiskey,
   Kept its bones for dumbbells to use when he was fifty.

   It's no go the Yogi-man, it's no go Blavatsky,
   All we want is a bank balance and a bit of skirt in a taxi.

   Annie MacDougall went to milk, caught her foot in the heather,
   Woke to hear a dance record playing of Old Vienna.
   It's no go your maidenheads, it's no go your culture,
   All we want is a Dunlop tire and the devil mend the puncture.

   The Laird o' Phelps spent Hogmanay declaring he was sober,
   Counted his feet to prove the fact and found he had one foot over.
   Mrs. Carmichael had her fifth, looked at the job with repulsion,
   Said to the midwife "Take it away; I'm through with overproduction."

   It's no go the gossip column, it's no go the Ceilidh,(1)
   All we want is a mother's help and a sugar-stick for the baby.

   Willie Murray cut his thumb, couldn't count the damage,
   Took the hide of an Ayrshire cow and used it for a bandage.
   His brother caught three hundred cran when the seas were lavish, (2)
   Threw the bleeders back in the sea and went upon the parish.

   It's no go the Herring Board, it's no go the Bible,
   All we want is a packet of fags when our hands are idle.

   It's no go the picture palace, it's no go the stadium,
   It's no go the country cot with a pot of pink geraniums,
   It's no go the Government grants, it's no go the elections,
   Sit on your arse for fifty years and hang your hat on a pension.

   It's no go my honey love, it's no go my poppet;
   Work your hands from day to day, the winds will blow the profit.
   The glass is falling hour by hour, the glass will fall forever,
   But if you break the bloody glass you won't hold up the weather.
-- Louis MacNeice

     (1) Caelidh : pronounced 'kaley', Gaelic term for a round of
     gossiping visits.

     (2) cran : a measure for the quantity of just-caught herrings.


     This poem is by Louis MacNeice (1907-1963), one of the great
     modern Scottish poets. It is set in in Scotland in the 1930's,
     they years of the Depression, years which led up to the Munich
     crisis if 1938 and the outbreak of WWII in 1939. The poem found
     an honoured place in a wonderful recent anthology of "Poetry to
     be Read Aloud".

     I really love the poem's vigorous meter and its wonderful sound
     - you can actually hear the bagpipes playing in the background.
     Definitely a poem to read aloud. In a weird way, one is reminded
     of the poetry of Philip Larkin, of whom more later.


73 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Sandford Smith Ben (ELSLON) said...

Hope you don't think this is too pedantic but I think Louis MacNeice is from
Northern Ireland not Scotland.
And I don't think that's the right definition of a ceilidh either...
Thanks for the site
Ben Smith

Sullivan Jonah said...

A Ceilidh is a party with dancing and live music.
MacNeice was born in Ireland, although he is considered (and thought of
himself as ) a British poet.
Jonah Sullivan

Rob Spence said...

Well, Louis MacNeice was of course from Northern Ireland, which means that he was British- his family was of the upper class, his father being a senior Church of Ireland
clergyman, and he was educated at Marlborough, a leading public (i.e. private) school, and at Oxford. For most of his life he worked for the BBC in London- so there's really no Scottish connection at all.
I like the vigour and colloquial feel of this poem, but I don't think the atmosphere it evokes is a pleasant one- surely we have here the sense of apathy and despair that characterised Britain as it slipped into the war with Germany. MacNeice - like Eliot
and Pound- despaired for a civilisation gone rotten. God knows what he'd make of today's Britain...

o.ohare said...

And this is totally pedantic. MacNeice was born in Belfast in 1907. "Nothern Ireland" was not at that time a political entity. In other words he was born in Ireland and was therefore Irish. He would no doubt have also considered himself to be British and indeed worked and lived for most of his life in London.
William Kirk

Andrewdcramb said...

In Scots gaelic, the word " ceilidh " can have both the meanings referred to
above. I would guess that Macneice's ancestors were almost certainly scottish
not Irish. It is strange no-one has attempted to interpret the poem, but I
would have thought it is a perfect comment on modern day Britain !!

MoparGurl15 said...

What's the irony of the sugar stick in Bagpipe Music? Any clue? Who are the
speakers in this poem? The falling glass...what is it represanting? I'd
really appreciate any insight.
student at CSUSM

Helayne Beavers said...

In response to Veronica's question:

The "glass" referst to a weatherglass, or barometer. There's no particular irony to the the sugar stick, it just refers to the practice of giving a baby candy to shut it up from crying.

Ambrose Kennedy said...

The question from one commentator suggesting that Louis McNeice would
have found modern day Britain in worse condition than when he penned
this verse fails to take into account the state of the country when the
poem was written . There was no National Health Service, infant
mortality was high , there was no minimum wage, there was no
pregnancy(never mind paternity) leave, health and safety at work was so
rudimentary as to be practically non-existent, only monied people could
avail of further education, TB was rife and usually fatal , life
expectancy was much shorter, there had been a horrendous World War
barely over 20 years before and the world was on the cusp of another
one, etc. I could go on indefinitely. Why do people tend to think that
the age in which they live is the worst in history when all common sense
and humanitarian criteria indicate that while the world is never perfect
it does (slowly ) improve in what most would feel are the crucial
On a lighter note - one of the funniest things I've ever heard was the
late Sir Michael Horden reading this poem on a programme called "Muses
With Milligan"(hosted by the also unfortunately late Spike) which goes
back to the late 60s or early 70s.

Ambrose Kennedy

helen MACMILLAN said...

MacNiece was born in Belfast - you are right, from there he moved to either America or Canada, it escapes me.

RTCot said...

Thanks for posting the poem! I appreciate the comments after it, also. But
I have a few more questions:
Can anybody explain "Blavatsky"? The only Blavatsky I can find is a 19th
century Russian Helena Blavatsky who was the founder of Theosophy. I don't think
she had any connection to Scotland, but I don't know for sure.
What does "Laird o' Phelps" mean. Laird is Scottish for Lord, so does this
mean, the Lord of Phelps? Is Phelps a region of Scotland?
Lastly, are you sure the poem was written during the Depression? It sounds
post-WWII to me.
Thanks! Chris

Fludernik said...

Does anybody know what the Herring Board is? Does it have to do with herring (i.e. fish), but that does not seem to fit the line. It also cant be herring bone, I guess.
Thanks for any info.

Blavatsky is indeed that Madam Blatvatsky about whom Yeats and the theosophists were wild. In conjunction with the yogiman (i.e. yoga man), the line suggests that spiritualist approaches are no longer "in".


Malcolm Coggins said...

Hi Everyone,

If you like this poem, try to listen to a Rock Version of "Bagpipe Music" by The River Gods circa 2004 London England

Sadly, no longer together

They were a tremendous line-up

Les Binks Drums Ex Judas Priest

Pete Fresen Lead Guitar Now with Alice Cooper

Tommy Lundy Guitar & Vocals The late, great (deceased)

Phil Rynhart Bass & Vocals

The lyrics have been taken in their entirenty from Louis MacNieces poem.

It is awesome !

So much so, the lead guitarist Pete Fresen is now part of Alice Coopers Band

Find and enjoy !


Malcolm Coggins
Purchasing Officer
Triage Services Ltd

Gordon Alexander said...

To the writer who said that as MacNeice was born in Belfast in 1907, you
are right and wrong. As Ireland was part of the UK, he would have been a
UK citizen, born in the Irish area of that political entity. He most
certainly saw himself as British.

Alexander Gordon

Support Scotland's Bid to host the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow - visit

JT Thompson said...

MacNeice spent a lot of time in Ireland, and was friendly with Irish
poets, actors, writers and artists - particularly with Donagh
MacDonagh, for instance.

He would certainly have been familiar with the Irish use of céilidh;
Dublin was constantly ag céiliúradh in the 1930s!

The Herring Board - there were a bunch of 'boards' of this, that and
the other at the time, government bodies overseeing farming, fishing,
tourism, and so on, certainly in Ireland, probably in Britain as well.

Blavatsky was a reference to Madame Blavatsky all right. The
Theosophists are just one of the groups of purveyors of easy
solutions MacNeice satirises here.

The poem starts out by using the format of the skipping rhyme to mock
modern (then) life. Skipping rhymes were always political - we
skipped to 'Vote, vote, vote for de Valera..." so he's using what's
already there.

He also pulls in current sentimentalities - "playing of old Vienna"
and mocks them too.

What is the point, he's saying, of all the lovely dreams sold to us:
the country cottage with its pretty pot of pink geraniums on the
windowsill; the profitable fishing boat bringing in many cran (a cran
is 37.5 imperial gallons, by the way; the word comes from a Gaedhlig
and Gaeilge word for a basket) of herring but being barred by
pointless government rules from selling them.

He's mocking socialism, with the Stakhanovite working woman, mother
of many children for her nation, who says "I'm through with

In the end, disillusioned with any attempt at self-sufficiency, aided
by government grants, or any attempt at power and control, aided by
the electoral process, he recommends the intellectual reader to the
course of action taken by most of the poets of his generation: sit on
your arse (in a government or academic job) for fifty years and hang
your hat on a pension.

Ah, and a laird - not a lord but a small landowner, normally seeing
himself (however his neighbours may see him) as a kind of chieftain.

JT Thompson said...

Ah yes, and 'went upon the parish', by the way, means going on the
dole, accepting unemployment benefit paid by the government. And a
'mother's help' is what we'd now call an au pair - a woman who helps
a mother with her children. A packet of fags, for our transatlantic
brothers, refers to cigarettes, nothing more sinister. And the
'glass' that is falling refers to a barometer showing falling air
pressure, and so forecasting ill weather.

A. McElroy said...

Louis MacNiece was indeed born in Belfast, N. Ireland, the son of a Bishop of the Church of Ireland. He lived in a very lovely home up the Malone Road, the home of the establishment of Belfast. The house was later purchased by the Dominican Order of Nuns and added to the next door house called Aquinas Hall as a hostel for Catholic girls attending Queen's University and other institutions of higher learning in Belfast. It was run by the Dominican nuns. I spent three very happy years in Aquinas Hall and Bishop's House in my undergraduate years.

M. Astbury said...

Yes, MacNeice was born in Belfast. He wrote Bagpipe Music after a visit to The Hebrides in 1937.

Anonymous said...

To those who wonder what it means, remember where and when it was written (i.e Britain in 1937).

In 1935 Hitler had effectively repudiated the Versailles treaty reintriducing conscription and unveiling an Air Force, in 1936 German troops had occupied the Rhineland without any significant response from the other European powers, the Italian fascists who had attacked Abyssinia in 1935 effectively won in 1936, the same year the Spanish civil war started with the Luftwaffe attack on Guernica in April 1937 but in Britain these issues were all being studiously avoided by politicians focussed on 'bread and circuses' for the domestic population and desperate to avoid spending money preparing for another major European war whilst the country was still recovering from the Depression.

On that basis I've always understood the poem to be a political satire on the way in the late 1930's when it was written people were so willing to think that everything could remain comfortable with little if any effort. Even whilst at the same time the drumbeats leading to war in Europe were getting ever louder.

Hence all the little comforts and easy options are 'no go' because they buy no long lasting solution to the problems on the horizon. What he's saying is you can bury your head in the sand all you like, with examples of how people do so ranging from entertainment to the idea that they can get paid for being idle, but doing so won't protect you from the coming storm. And indeed the following year in 1938 saw both the Anschluss and the annexation of the Sudetenland.

It should be read in the context set by other contemporary writers such as Orwell.

Anonymous said...

Some really useful comments here. How do people intepret the second stanza about John McDonald?

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