Archibald MacLeish’s Early Poems

Reading the entire works of a poet from beginning to end is in some ways like reliving the poet’s life, even a little like growing with him as his insights and philosophy grow. In addition, you gain insights into his poetry because you can follow shifts in his style while simultaneously seeing how his style was influenced by those around him. You can also follow the development of images and symbols that become vital to a fuller understanding of the poet’s work.

“Baccalaureate” is the oldest poem in Archibald MacLeish: Collected Poems 1917-1982:

BACCALAUREATE

A year or two, and grey Euripides,
And Horace and a Lydia or so,
And Euclid and the brush of Angelo,
Darwin on man, Vergilius on bees,
The nose and dialogues of Socrates,
Don Quixote, Hudibras and Trinculo,
How worlds are spawned and where the dead gods go, -
All shall be shard of broken memories.


And there shall linger other, magic things, -
The fog that creeps in wanly from the sea,
The rotten harbor smell, the mystery
Of moonlit elms, the flash of pigeon wings,
The sunny Green, the old-world peace that clings
About the college yard, where endlessly
The dead go up and down. These things shall be
Enchantment of our hearts' rememberings.

And these are more than memories of youth
Which earth's four winds of pain shall blow away;
These are youth's symbols of eternal truth,
Symbols of dream and imagery and flame,
Symbols of those same verities that play
Bright through the crumbling gold of a great name.

While I found it only mildly interesting in itself, I found the symbols, the “magic things” that lie at the heart of his poetry quite interesting. Of course, the idea that symbols will live while the ideas of great writers like Socrates and Quixote will disappear could merely be attributed to the fact that MacLeish is a poet and not a philosopher or novelist. On the other hand, the “symbols” he chooses are “experiences” that are “eternal” precisely because they are a part of nature and do not rely on human interpretation. In terms of MacLeish’s poetry itself, the symbolism of “the sunny green” and, in particular, “moonlit elms” become increasingly significant as you read his works.

While I was not particularly impressed by most of MacLeish’s early poems, there are several interesting lines and images to be found in them. The following images appear in from the long poem The Happy Marriage (1924):

Man is immortal for his flesh is earth,
And save he lives forever -- why, he dies:
Woman is mortal, for her flesh will rise
In each new generation of her birth.
She is the tree: we are the feverish
Vain leaves that gild her summer with our own
And fall and rot when summer’s overblown

Now though I’m not sure it’s politically correct today to ascribe the child only to the woman, I found the comparison of woman to the tree and man to the leaves particularly interesting, considering the constant reference to trees and leaves in MacLeish’s poems. Strangely enough, Germanic creation myths also suggest that woman was derived from the elm tree. Of course, in Germanic myth man is also a tree, an ash, and not the leaves of the elm tree. But it is always the poet’s personal adaptation of myths and symbols that is most interesting, not the use of myth per se.

Even this MacLeish poem about death contains references to trees, in particular “elm” trees:

SOME ASPECTS OF IMMORTALITY

The alley between the elm trees ends
In nothing, abruptly, as a life ends.

Down that straight avenue I stare
At the final blank, the abyss of air.

A nursemaid with a carriage steers
Across the vista, pushes, nears
The brink, goes over, disappears.

Too ignorant, think I, for fears.

There’s a startling contrast between the ancient elms and the nursemaid with the child in the carriage, but even more startling is his perception of the end of the row of elms as the final abyss, death. When we go beyond the trees we encounter the nothingness of death. Of course, this fear is balanced against the irony of the final line, for we surely know that it’s not the nursemaid that’s “too ignorant,” but, rather, the narrator that has been overcome by an “irrational” fear.

MacLeish’s poetry from 1917 to 1928 seems largely derivative. His long early poems seem to owe much to T.S.Eliot, even going so far as to borrow an opening line from The Golden Bough. Ezra Pound is also a major influence. Even the much-anthologized “Ars Poetica” seems derivative and atypical, somehow borrowed from the imagist movement that was sweeping the world of poetry.

In fact, it is only in the section serendipitiously named “from New Found Land (1930) that MacLeish seems to have discovered his own voice. It is, to be sure, a melancholic voice that has been echoed in many of his earlier poems, but finally MacLeish seems to have discovered his “own” vision. He effectively combines two of the images from the earlier “Baccalaureate” to create a vision of beauty underlaid by an impending sense of loss:

MEMORY GREEN

Yes and when the warm unseasonable weather
Comes at the year's end of the next late year
And the southwest wind that smells of rain and summer
Strips the huge branches of their dying leaves,

And you at dusk along the Friedrichstrasse
Or you in Pans on the windy quay
Shuffle the shallow fallen leaves before you
Thinking the thoughts that like the grey clouds change,

You will not understand why suddenly sweetness
Fills in your heart nor the tears come to your eyes:
You will stand in the June-warm wind and the leaves falling:
When was it so before, you will say, With whom?

You will not remember this at all: you will stand there
Feeling the wind on your throat, the wind in your sleeves,
You will smell the dead leaves in the grass of a garden:
You will close your eyes: With whom, you will say,

Ah where?

Perhaps this philosophical conjunction is merely the natural result of having come of age in the optimistic roaring twenties and suddenly finding yourself in the middle of America’s greatest Depression, but MacLeish seems to make it uniquely his own. It is precisely this inability to understand “why suddenly sweetness/ Fills in your heart nor the tears come to your eyes” that seems to haunt modern man. We have lost our innocence and are too often unable to experience life’s joys directly and fully because of the awareness that sorrow and misery lurks not too far away.

The poem “You, Andrew Marvell” should instantly recall memories of Marvel’s famous “To His Coy Mistress” with its classic statement on carpe diem. MacLeish’s poem, emphasizes how swiftly time flies by, but, unlike Marvell, seems incapable of celebrating the moment with such knowledge:

YOU, ANDREW MARVELL

And here face down beneath the sun
And here upon earth's noonward height
To feel the always coming on
The always rising of the night:

To feel creep up the curving east
The earthy chill of dusk and slow
Upon those under lands the vast
And ever climbing shadow grow

And strange at Ecbatan the trees
Take leaf by leaf the evening strange
The flooding dark about their knees
The mountains over Persia change

And now at Kermanshah the gate
Dark empty and the withered grass
And through the twilight now the late
Few travelers in the westward pass

And Baghdad darken and the bridge
Across the silent river gone
And through Arabia the edge
Of evening widen and steal on

And deepen on Palmyra's street
The wheel rut in the ruined stone
And Lebanon fade out and Crete
High through the clouds and overblown

And over Sicily the air
Still flashing with the landward gulls
And loom and slowly disappear
The sails above the shadowy hulls

And Spain go under and the shore
Of Africa the gilded sand
And evening vanish and no more
The low pale light across that land

Nor now the long light on the sea:

And here face downward in the sun
To feel how swift how secretly
The shadow of the night comes on .

The phrase “the always coming on,” to me, at least, conveys a sense of impending doom although literally, of course, the poem merely describes the night moving from east to west. It’s probably not entirely accidental, though, that the first city described, Ecbatan, is an ancient Persian city long since vanished. Time, after all, can be measured not only by the day but by the century. It is not a peaceful darkness that encompasses Ecbatan, but, rather, a “flood” of darkness that lies about the “knees” of the trees.

The night moves on, passing Palmyra, another ancient city in Syria, where there are “wheel ruts in the ruined stone.” Finally, this dark force swiftly and secretly “comes on,” throwing a long shadow over the narrator. Strangely enough, though, the narrator is lying “face downward in the sun,” suggesting that he has already given in to the night long before the night actually arrives. Perhaps that’s appropriate for a series of poems written in the middle of the Depression.

4 thoughts on “Archibald MacLeish’s Early Poems

  1. Hello, I’d like to read more from you site. The top page confused me because I didn’t know where to click to go to each “blog.”

    I was wondering if you could tell me how to get to each of these “blogs” from the page written in the url section of this form.

    Thanks!
    Jeffrey

  2. Sorry about the confusion.

    I haven’t started the “other blogs” yet. That was just a place holder for future developments. I haven’t given that address to anyone yet, so I never went back and removed it.

    “In a Dark Time” contains everything I’ve written so far.

    Hopefully after tax season I can start some of the other blogs.

    Sorry for the confusion.

What do you think?