We with our Fair pitched among the feathery clover
Are always cowardly and never sober,
Drunk with steam-organs, thigh-rub and cream-soda
— We cannot remember enemies in this valley.
As chestnut candles turn to conkers, so we
Knock our brains together extravagantly
Instead of planting them to make more trees
— Who have not as yet sampled God’s malice.
But to us urchins playing with paint and filth
A prophet scanning the road on the hither hills
Might utter the old warning of the old sin
— Avenging youth threatening an old war.
Crawling down like lava or termites
Nothing seduces, nothing dissolves, nothing affrights
You who scale off masks and smash the purple lights
— But I will escape, with my dog, on the far side of the Fair.
"The Individualist Speaks" by Louis MacNeice
I came across this a few weeks ago, through an essay on MacNeice by Peter Green in the New York Review of Books. Although he was conjoined by Roy Campbell with Stephen Spender, W. H. Auden and Cecil Day-Lewis in the leftist panto beast "MacSpaunday", MacNeice didn't have their political commitment. Green writes:
...MacNeice was not born to be a joiner: he was always on the outside looking in, always liable, like his (much-quoted) persona in “The Individualist Speaks,” to “escape, with my dog, on the far side of the Fair.”
The idea that the individualist = MacNeice is, as Green says, well-worn: puzzling, though. I don't know the date, but the poem seems transparently a fable about Britain between the wars, partying away while German resentments smoulder away sur le Continong. But the individualist isn't the hero: he spots the danger, but it doesn't occur to him to do anything about it; all he thinks about it his own safety, and his dog's (it's escaping with the dog that attracted me, you'll realize). At best it's a self-mocking identification; as it happens, MacNeice insisted on coming home from America when war did break out.
Come to that, a good deal of what Green says about MacNeice seems wrong - for example, that "What first strikes a reader of MacNeice’s poetry is its sensual exuberance, its accurate brilliance of imagery." What strikes me is the deliberate inaccuracy of the imagery, how he often aims past the sensual world at some other, half-seen target.
Although that last line gets quoted, the whole poem isn't much reprinted - not included in the Faber Selected Poems, for example. Perhaps it seems too transparent, too one-dimensional and obvious; but the mildly disconcerting rhythmic irregularities, the peculiar images of fairs and lights and dogs, the mix of blitheness and doom: highly adhesive.
Text copied from a comment to a blog post by Paul Muldoon on MacNeice's "The Taxis". The commenter relates this dog to the one at the end of that (much later) poem:
...but the cabby looked
Through him and said: "I can’t tra-la well take
So many people, not to speak of the dog."
I'm grateful for the poem, but his suggestion that this is some recurrent hound from Irish myth is daft.
The version of "The Individualist Speaks" in the Collected Poems is slightly different: the second line of the final stanza doesn't have the phrase "nothing dissolves"; to my mind that reduces the line's force, in scansion and sense. If anybody can tell me anything about the textual history it will save some pedantic fossicking.
The illustration is "Fun Fair" by Clifford Frith, from a series of posters commissioned in 1947 by J. Lyons to decorate their tea-rooms.