Friday, November 16, 2007

Trope and Louis MacNeice — a Poetry Friday post

First, a word about trope. I first heard the word in a music history class in college. I took two full years of music history, since I was a music major, and the word "trope" cropped up in the very first one, the study of Medieval and Renaissance music. I learned then that a trope is a theme, and Gregorian chants are typically tropes. Other religious music uses tropes as well, for Torah and Haftorah in Judaism, and for Psalms in the Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Episcopalian churches as well as in the Church of England.

The word "trope" is used in literature to describe a common theme, motif or a pattern. In linguistics, a "trope" is a play on words. In poetry, it is all of the things I've described already, depending on the particular poet and the person analyzing the poems. Suffice it to say that a recurring image, setting or turn of phrase can be a trope. It's most frequently a theme, symbol or idea that recurs within the work of a particular poet, possibly being returned to at various points throughout a career.

As Jama Rattigan pointed out a few weeks ago, apple orchards were a frequent image or motif in the poems of Robert Frost, who wrote "After Apple Picking", "The Cow in Apple Time" and "Goodbye, and Keep Cold". Even "Mending Wall" contains references to Frost's apple orchard.

I've been reading The Collected Poems of Louis MacNeice over the past several weeks, and I'm finally ready to write my first MacNeice post. Reading a collection of poetry spanning the lifetime of a particular poet is an excellent way to discover particular tropes, even if they are not something that the poet may have been aware of. As I mentioned in a "Quoteskimming"* post a few weeks back, his poem, "Bagpipe Music", is one of my favorites. (In all fairness, my list of favorite poems is extraordinarily lengthy.) First, the poem, and then a discussion of trope in MacNeice.

Bagpipe Music
by Louis MacNeice

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 crêpe-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 whisky,
Kept its bones for dumb-bells 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 tyre 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,**
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,
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.

In the penultimate stanza of the poem, and, indeed, throughout the poem, MacNeice discusses then-contemporary life and politics. British and Irish politics, to be precise. MacNeice was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1907. He was educated in England, at Oxford, and his everyday jobs included jobs in academia and as a feature writer and producer for the BBC from 1941-49, which included much of the time that Britain was involved in World War II (they officially declared war on Germany in 1939 following the invasion of Poland). Before the war, MacNeice's poems addressed the depression (economic and emotional) then existing. Poems like "The individualist speaks" and "Turf-stacks", for instance. MacNeice wrote a number of war poems during the Blitz, and wrote more still years after the war was over. "Brother Fire", written in 1943, talks about England's early policy of appeasement toward Germany and the air-raids to come; "The Trolls (Written after an air-raid, April 1941)" tells of the experience of being in (and being witness to) the destruction of an air-raid. Later poems, like "The Atlantic tunnel (a memory of 1940)", "Homage to Wren (a memory of 1941)", and "Rites of War".

In the final stanza of "Bagpipe Music", written in 1937, MacNeice's reference to "the glass" is not to a windowpane or a drinking glass, but to the barometer. The stanza speaks of futility — no matter how much you work, the money all goes; no matter what you do to the barometer, the rough weather (literal and figurative) will come. A poem from eleven years earlier, "Glass falling", written in 1926, presages this closing stanza:

Glass falling
by Louis MacNeice

The glass is going down. The sun
Is going down. The forecast say
It will be warm, with frequent showers,
We ramble down the showery hours
And amble up and down the day.
Mary will wear her black goloshes
And splash the puddles on the town;
And soon on fleets of macintoshes
The rain is coming down, the frown
Is coming down of heaven showing
A wet night coming, the glass is going
Down, the sun is going down.

The tone in these two poems is very different, "Bagpipe Music" being mocking and sharp, "Glass falling" being dolorous. Where "Bagpipe Music" lilts along, racing towards its end with its snappy metre and crackling consonants and short vowel sounds, "Glass falling" mopes along with long tones and humming, vocalized consonants (check out all the Ms and Ns and even the Ws, Ls and Rs) and internal repetition ("down" appears 8 times) or slower words like "ramble" and "amble". It uses assonance to keep itself slow, and onomatopoeia (the use of a word that imitates a sound) to give effect, as where the "goloshes . . . splash". There is an end-rhyme scheme of a sort as well, that lends the poem structure, although it's not a specific form (ABCCBDEDEFFE).

And yet.

With all the differences, these poems both speak of inevitability. Of the inability to prevent or avoid bad weather, actual or figurative. Of the bleakness that comes with the clouds and rain and the disappearing of the sun.

Well. I don't feel right leaving you on such a sour note, so I will include a third poem by MacNeice, from his final collection of poems which was published only days after his unexpected death from pneumonia in 1963.

by Louis MacNeice

Maybe we knew each other better
When the night was young and unrepeated
And the moon stood still over Jericho.*****

So much for the past; in the present
There are moments caughte between heart-beats
When maybe we know each other better.

But what is that clinking in the darkness?
Maybe we shall know each other better
When the tunnels meet beneath the mountain.

For those of you who care about such things (and I will assume I'm not the only soul who does), MacNeice's "Coda" is written using tercets (three-line stanzas), and is a variation of a roundel or rondeau, in that the line "Maybe we knew each other better" (or a variant thereon) appears in the first line of the first stanza, the third line of the second stanza, and the second line of the third.

The Collected Poems of Louis MacNeice that I've been reading is the 1967 edition edited by E.R. Dodds. Afficianados should note that a new edition called The Collected Poems of Louis MacNeice edited by Peter McDonald was published in January 2007 by Faber & Faber, and can be gotten as an import through Amazon (I couldn't find any other sites that had it).

* Quoteskimming: My term for ganking writing-related quotes from here and there
** ceilidh: pronounced kay-lee; a Gaelic term for "visit", it refers to a dance
*** cran: a measure of the quantity of herrings caught
**** cot: a cottage
***** Jericho: Not used here to mean a town in the book of Joshua, but a recurring motif or trope in MacNeice's poems, and most likely a reference to his college days. Jericho is the name of a neighborhood in Oxford, which takes its name from a pub called the Jericho Tavern. In the 1950s, it was a red-light district, just the sort of place one might find "a bit of skirt in a taxi."

In other news: This is the last week of featured snowflakes for the Robert's Snow for the Cure project. The first "batch" o'flakes opens for auction on Monday, November 19th at 9 a.m. EST and runs through Friday, the 23rd at 5 p.m. EST. You can see precisely which flakes will be on the block next week over at The Robert's Snow page. While there, you can find information on how to register to be a bidder, and can check out the bidding rules.

To check out the snowflakes featured in today's blogosphere, click on the Robert's Snow button. Jules at 7-Imp has posted a new 2007 snowflake from Brian Biggs called "Ice Skaters Waltz" done in black and white and grey. In addition, Jules and Eisha have also been keeping an ongoing list of blog posts thus far featuring snowflakes and the artists who created them.


Swaty said...

I learnt much from the post, thank you.

Swaty mitra,

Kolkata, India

Kelly Fineman said...

Thanks for stopping by, and I'm glad the post was helpful!

NPT said...

Very nice elucidation. I've long admired "Bagpipe Music," but didn't know the other two poems. It's wonderful to see the rhythmic similarities between works of such contrasting tones.

Kelly Fineman said...

N.P.: I liked "Bagpipe Music" so much that I set out to find more of his work, eventually settling on a collection. I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

Anonymous said...

Bagpipe Music isn't about British and/or Irish life or politics.

The poem is about Scotland, hence the Scottish names - Macdonald, Macdougall, the Laird of Phelps, McDougall, Murray, Carmichael.

There are also other Scottish references - Hogmanay, heather, Ayrshire.

You can find a video on Youtube of LM reading the poem, and explaining that it is talking about the traditional Highland and island culture being supersesed by modern life.