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House on a Cliff -- Louis MacNeice

(Poem #1062) House on a Cliff
 Indoors the tang of a tiny oil lamp. Outdoors
 The winking signal on the waste of sea.
 Indoors the sound of the wind. Outdoors the wind.
 Indoors the locked heart and the lost key.

 Outdoors the chill, the void, the siren. Indoors
 The strong man pained to find his red blood cools,
 While the blind clock grows louder, faster. Outdoors
 The silent moon, the garrulous tides she rules.

 Indoors ancestral curse-cum-blessing. Outdoors
 The empty bowl of heaven, the empty deep.
 Indoors a purposeful man who talks at cross
 Purposes, to himself, in a broken sleep.
-- Louis MacNeice
In previous Minstrels commentaries Martin and I have talked about the
ominous brilliance that runs through MacNeice's output from the 1930s: poems
such as "The Sunlight on the Garden" and "Snow" seem to capture perfectly
the menace of that 'low dishonest decade'. Sadly, the potential of those
early poems was never fulfilled; indeed, his post-war work suffers from a
seeming lack of conviction that was only beginning to be reversed when he
died in 1963 ("of pneumonia, which he contracted recording a radio programme
in a damp cave" -- so Michael Schmidt informs us, in his magisterial "The
Lives of the Poets").

MacNeice was not unaware of this regression, and "House on a Cliff" can be
read as an expression of his frustration. Outdoors is the world that the
poet wishes he could describe -- "the chill, the void, the siren" -- but
something is lost, "the locked heart and the lost key" make "his red blood
cool", until all he can do is "talk at cross / Purposes, to himself, in a
broken sleep".


[Minstrels Links]

Poems by Louis MacNeice:
Poem #18, Bagpipe Music
Poem #521, The Suicide
Poem #757, The Sunlight on the Garden
Poem #864, Snow
Poem #1039, Prayer Before Birth
Poem #1062, House on a Cliff

Today's poem is very reminiscent of William Empson's equally powerful
apologia for not writing more poetry:
Poem #233, Let It Go -- William Empson

And it also reminds me of this one, by Ted Hughes:
Poem #882, Wind -- Ted Hughes

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Louis MacNeice was a great poet. This is a good poem, but maybe not one of my favorites. I like how he made friends with the great Dylan Thomas and ended up drinking all their money.

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