MacLeish’s Last Poems

Archibald MacLeish’s last poems are probably even more personal and less political than the poems he wrote in the 50’s. He touches on the theme of loss repeatedly while balancing this theme against what almost appears to be a new-found optimism.

The first two poems appear in Part One: New Poems, and were published in the 1976 edition of his Collected Poems. “Family Group” to some degree ay help to explain the pessimism of his earlier poems:


That’s my younger brother with his Navy wings.
He’s twenty-three or should have been that April:
winters aged you, flying the Dutch coast.
I’m beside him with my brand-new Sam Brown belt.
The town behind us is Dunkirk. We met there
quite by accident, sheer luck.
Someone’s lengthened shadow – the photographer’s? –
falls across the road, across our feet.

This other’s afterward –
after the Armistice, I mean, the floods,
the weeks without a word. That foundered
farmyard is in Belgium somewhere.
The faceless figure on its back, the helmet buckled,
wears what look like Navy wings. A lengthened shadow
falls across the muck about its feet.

Me? I’m back in Cambridge in dry clothes,
a bed to sleep in, my small son, my wife.

The early demise of his younger brother must have haunted MacLeish for years, particularly because it appears his brother died after the Armistice, after the war was supposed to be over, after he had already served his time in the war. The shadow in both pictures may well be a photographer, but symbolically it seems to represent death itself, the constant nearness of death even in peace time.

Surprisingly, however, there is also a new emphasis on opposition to the Tragic Vision, an affirmation of life itself that somehow transcends death:


Stupid? Of course that older lot were stupid.
Any up-to-date, in poet
knows the bloody world was made for woe
and life for death and man is either dolt or dupe,

but those old locals never seemed to learn.
Emerson unlocked the tomb
and stood and stared at what had once been human,
once been his, and made that entry in his journal.

Whitman, in the stinking wards, uncovered
dead men’s faces when the squad
came round at night and morning for the bodies,
but not to rage at death – to kiss them with his love.

Emily, although she said she wrote
as boys beside a graveyard whistle,
pressed no terrified finger to her wrist:
what frightened Emily was joy, the robin’s note.

And later, when the word was Tragic Vision
haunting thickets of despair –
beckets of all the boredom flesh is heir to –
Frost went walking off alone in his derision.

Too ignorant to know what nightfall meant,
or why the thrush calls when the stars begin,
he told the weeping world he’d not come in
(even if asked, he said, and he hadn’t been)
to mope among the hemlocks and lament.
He was out for stars, he told them, with that Yankee grin.
Stupid? Like all the rest: he didn’t know.

And yet there’s something does know in that poem.

Apparently rejecting the poetry that dominated his earlier years, T.S. Eliot, Pound, etc., MacLeish turns back to the Transcendentalists, and to Robert Frost (making me wonder if I should reread Frost). I like the irony of the opening stanza, and its rejection of being “up-to-date,” or “in.” Although Emerson and Whitman have reputations of being hopeless romantics, MacLeish references seem anything by escapist. At the very least, they are willing to confront death itself. Finally, there’s Frost’s ability to reject the contemporary poetry of despair to become the most famous poet of his generation. When darkness falls, don’t despair, seek out the distant stars that symbolize hope and dreams themselves.

I don’t think that it is purely accidental that MacLeish ended the last book of poetry published during his lifetime with “The Wild Old Wicked Man,” a reference to a famous Yeats’ poem:


Too old for love and still to love! –
Yeats’s predicament and mine – all men’s:
the aging Adam who must strut and shove
and caper his obscene pretense

And yet, within the dry thorn grove,
singer to singer in the dusk, there cries
(Listen! Ah, listen, the wood dove!)
something conclusion never satisfies;

and still when day ends and the wind goes down
and not a tree stirs, not a leaf,
some passion in the sea beats on
and on
(Oh, listen, the sea reef!)

Too old for love and still to long …
for what? For one more flattering proof
the flesh lives and the beast is strong? –
once more upon the pulse that hammering hoof?

Or is there something the persistent dove,
the ceaseless surges and the old man’s lust
all know and cannot say? Is love

what nothing concludes, nothing must,
pure certainty?

And does the passionate man
most nearly know it when no passion can?
Is this the old man’s triumph, to pursue
impossibility – and take it too?

Perhaps I merely like this poem because the poem by Yeats had appealed to me years before or because it reminds me of Yeats’ “Crazy Jane Talks to the Bishop," one of the first poems I ever memorized. But I like to think that MacLeish adds a new perspective on the theme while still confirming Yeats’ assertion of the power of love. MacLeish seems to go beyond (or is that through?) Yeats’ physical love to find the meaning of love itself. Desire, though physical, is not just physical desire, it is a desire for something stronger than flesh, something more enduring. An old man’s physical passion for a woman truly reflects a passion for love itself, an impossible love that transcends this physical reality.

MacLeish’s Later Poems

Although there are still significant political poems among those written in the 50’s, MacLeish for the most part seems to have turned to more personal themes. Many of the poems are devoted to writers he has known, several discuss the art of poetry, and a few, my personal favorites, are devoted to old age.

Although I’ve never seen it in an anthology, I actually prefer “Theory of Poetry” to “Ars Poetica.” Indeed, I find it ironic that most people only know MacLeish from “Ars Poetica” since much of his poetry certainly wouldn’t meet the definition of poetry suggested by that poem:

Ars Poetica

A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit,

As old medallions to the thumb,

Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown –

A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds.


A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs,

Leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,

Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,
Memory by memory the mind –

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs.

A poem should be equal to:
Not true.

For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea –

A poem should not mean
But be.

Published in 1926, “Ars Poetica” exemplified the principles of the Imagists in their reaction against the consciously “intellectual” poetry that seemed to hold the day. When written, it served a welcome purpose in calling poetry back to its unique qualities. In some ways it seems to reflect the qualities of the Asian poetry that inspired Pound and others, poems that relied almost solely on images to convey their meaning. In some ways, it even describes the kind of poetry I’ve become fondest of in recent years. On the other hand, it seems to me that it places nearly impossible limits on poetry and confines it to the narrowest of ranges.

Although I agree with the conclusion that “A poem should not mean/ But be,” strictly speaking, it is, after all, impossible for a poem to be “wordless/ As the flight of birds.” If “all the history of grief” could be conveyed in the image of “an empty doorway” or “a maple leaf” how many poems would we need?

On the other hand, the best of his poems certainly fit the definition suggested in “Theory of Poetry.”

Theory of Poetry

Know the world by heart
Or never know it!
Let the pedant stand apart—
Nothing he can name will show it:
Also him of intellectual art.
None know it
Till they know the world by heart.

Take heart then, poet!

It is love, not mere knowledge, that ties us to the things of this world and determines their importance in our lives.

One of my favorite poems in this section, though, uses one of MacLeish’s predominant symbols, the leaf, to suggest the shortness and beauty of life:

The Old Men in the Leaf Smoke

The old men rake the yards for winter
Burning the autumn-fallen leaves.
They have no lives, the one or the other.
The leaves are dead, the old men live
Only a little, light as a leaf,
Left to themselves of all their loves:
Light in the head most often too.

Raking the leaves, raking the leaves,
Raking life and leaf together,
The old men smell of burning leaves,
But which is which they wonder – whether
Anyone tells the leaves and loves –
Anyone left, that is, who lives.

Although there is a deep sadness in the poem, there is also an inevitability, and sense of rightness, that transforms death from a tragic mistake to a natural evolution.

Finally, there is MacLeish’s “With Age Wisdom,” which suggests that there is at least some small consolation for aging:

With Age Wisdom

At twenty, stooping round about,
I thought the world a miserable place
Truth a trick, faith in doubt,
Little beauty, less grace.

Now at sixty what I see,
Although the world is worse by far,
Stops my heart in ecstasy.
God, the wonders that there are!

I’m no longer sure how I felt about the world at twenty, but know that I took it for granted and longed for the kind of despair that inspired the great artists of the time.

Now I just appreciate the beauty that I discover around me, whether the beauty of birds at the feeder in winter or the spring daffodils heralding the oncoming summer.

Could this be Bush’s Brave New World ?

A year or two ago MacLeish’s “Brave New World,” published in 1948, might have seemed rather dated, unless, of course, you gave it more thought than most of us are apt to what our country really believes in, at least as shown by our actions.

Of course, those of us who have supported the ACLU for years realize that America is not quite the “land of the free” that most of us have been taught to imagine. If we learned nothing else from history, we should have learned that the McCarthys of the world, the FBI, at least as envisioned by J Edgar Hoover, and the Nixon Administration often doesn’t trust people to be “too free.”

Now, though, with the recent enactment of The Patriot Act and its many restrictions, our attempts to corral Muslims in California, and recent suggestions that we might turn captives over to countries who are more willing to use torture than we are, it seems downright newsworthy:

Brave New World

But you, Thomas Jefferson,
You could not lie so still,
You could not bear the weight of stone
On the quiet hill,

You could not keep your green grown peace
Nor hold your folded hand
If you could see your new world now,
Your new sweet land.

There was a time, Tom Jefferson,
When freedom made free men.
The new found earth and the new freed mind
Were brothers then.

There was a time when tyrants feared
The new world of the free.
Now freedom is afraid and shrieks
At tyranny.

Words have not changed their sense so soon
Nor tyranny grown new.
The truths you held, Tom Jefferson,
Will still hold true.

What’s changed is freedom in this age.
What great men dared to choose
Small men now dare neither win
Nor lose.

Freedom, when men fear freedom’s use
But love its useful name,
Has cause and cause enough for fear
And cause for shame.

We fought a war in freedom’s name
And won it in our own.
We fought to free a world and raised
A wall of stone.

Your countrymen who could have built
The hill fires of the free
To set the dry world all ablaze
With liberty –

To burn the brutal thorn in Spain
Of bigotry and hate
And the dead lie and the brittle weed
Beyond the Plate:

Who could have heaped the bloody straw,
The dung of time, to light
The Danube in a sudden flame
Of hope by night –

Your countrymen who could have hurled
Their freedom like a brand
Have cupped it to a candle spark
In a frightened hand.

Freedom that was a thing to use
They’ve made a thing to save
And staked it in and fenced it round
Like a dead man’s grave.

Thomas Jefferson, of course, is used as a symbol of all those freedoms found in our Bill of Rights that we too often take for granted. In 1787 Thomas Jefferson stated his belief that "A bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth, general or particular; and what no just government should refuse, or rest on inferences." Do you suppose that those were the kinds of governments he would have chosen to support rather than supporting those who can provide us with cheap oil or one that has more potential consumers than the rest of the world combined and can cheaply produce Christmas ornaments for American companies?

Perhaps, though, Jefferson expected the gradual erosion of men’s rights, as suggested by the following statement made in 1788 to William Stephens Smith:

It astonishes me to find… [that so many] of our countrymen… should be contented to live under a system which leaves to their governors the power of taking from them the trial by jury in civil cases, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of commerce, the habeas corpus laws, and of yoking them with a standing army. This is a degeneracy in the principles of liberty… which I [would not have expected for at least] four centuries.

I’ll have to admit that there are some historical references here that I can’t tie to a particular event or country (I’m not sure I ever had a class that covered the 40’s and 50’s), but that doesn’t mean that I can’t appreciate the overall truth of the poem, or take delight in the images conveyed in the last two stanzas.

I’m particularly fond of the contrasting image of our forefathers who “hurled/ Their freedom like a brand” contrasted with the image of contemporaries who “cupped it to a candle spark/ In a frightened hand.” In our early years our nation’s freedom threatened the European monarchies, but, once we were threatened by communism we seemed more than willing to support any monarch, no matter how insignificant, if only he would oppose that evil empire, communism. Is there any doubt that we’re still willing to make that sacrifice for capitalism?

Instead of actively promoting freedom around the world, though it certainly remains a propaganda device to be used against those countries we oppose, we are content with preserving it in our own country where it is safely “fenced in.”

America was Promises

Although MacLeish apparently rejected Communism, his long poem “America Was Promises” published in 1939 certainly seems to advocate that common Americans claim their rightful heritage, the promise of America, no matter what it takes to do so.

Although this long poem often soars into a Whitmanesque vision of an ideal America, what seems most remarkable about it is the use of the past tense in the title and the suggestion near the end that it is no longer possible to just await the American dream, we must take it “brutally.”

The poem begins with a simple restatement of the dream, a statement made necessary, perhaps, by losing sight of that dream:

Who is the voyager in these leaves?
Who is the traveler in this journey
Deciphers the revolving night: receives
The signal from the light returning?

America was promises to whom?

Although it seems a little surprising that he needs to ask who were the promises made to, it becomes clear later in the poem why he does so.

He briefly reiterates the reasons people came to America:

East were the
Dead kings and the remembered sepulchres:
West was the grass.

And all beautiful
All before us

America was always promises.

Clearly, he distinguishes between the ordinary people who came to America and the royalty, with their privileges, that they left behind. In some ways his description is reminiscent of Fitzgerald’s vision of America in The Great Gatsby, where the American Dream is seen as a “green light, the orgiastic future.”

MacLeish answers the question “to whom” by pointing to Jefferson:

Jefferson knew:
Declared it before God and before history:
Declares it still in the remembering tomb.
The promises were Man’s: the land was his –
Man endowed by his Creator:
Earnest in love: perfectible by reason:
Just and perceiving justice: his natural nature
Clear and sweet at the source as springs in trees are.
It was Man the promise contemplated.
The times had chosen Man: no other:

Clearly the promises were the promises of a Jeffersonian democracy where men were equal, and all had the potential to attain “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” According to MacLeish, it is this vision that promoted the Declaration of Independence:

And Man turned into men in Philadelphia
Practising prudence on a long-term lease:
Building liberty to fit the parlor:

While that may well be an oversimplification of what went on in Philadelphia, where a careful balance was being struck between the common man and the wealthy class, it is the dream that helped to inspire colonists to join the cause.

MacLeish sees this dream of equality, of Jeffersonian democracy, being usurped by the aristocracy:

And the Aristocracy of politic selfishness
Bought the land up: bought the towns: the sites:
The goods: the government: the people. Bled them.
Sold them. Kept the profit. Lost itself.

According to MacLeish, America is in danger of becoming what it had left behind, a country dominated by an aristocratic class that ruled by means of its wealth.

In this light, MacLeish seeks a new answer to the American Dream and strangely enough finds that answer not in America’s history but in that of several foreign countries:

We do not ask for Truth now from John Adams.
We do not ask for Tongues from Thomas Jefferson.
We do not ask for justice from Tom Paine.
We ask for answers.

And there is an answer.

There is Spain Austria Poland China Bohemia.
There are dead men in the pits in all those countries.
Their mouths are silent but they speak. They say
"The promises are theirs who take them."

It seems ironic that MacLeish would choose these countries to provide the answer, and my history is not good enough to know for sure what all of them had in common, but my best guess is that they all, like Spain and Bohemia, revolted to attain freedom and failed in that attempt, suppressed by fascist leaders. In other words, if Americans do not take action, they, too, will lose the freedoms their fathers fought for, lose those freedoms to a ruling class, an aristocracy of business and social class that dominates through their wealth.

The poem ends on a near-revolutionary note:

Listen! Brothers! Generation!
Companions of leaves: of the sun: of the slow evenings:
Companions of the many days: of all of them:
Listen! Believe the speaking dead! Believe
The journey is our journey. Oh believe
The signals were to us: the signs: the birds by
Night: the breaking surf.

America is promises to
America is promises to
To take them
With love but
Take them.

Oh believe this!

If MacLeish’s vision of America is reminiscent of Fitzgerald’s, his solution to the problem is similar to Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, where workers have to join together and take action to preserve their freedom. If the World Book Encyclopedia is to be trusted, writers became the voice of a disillusioned public whose very beliefs had been challenged by the Depression.

The Great Depression, which began in 1929, left millions of workers jobless. But it also changed the attitude of many Americans toward the labor movement. Before 1929, most people regarded business executives as the nation’s leaders and union members as dangerous radicals. But people lost faith in business leaders after business could not relieve the depression. Many Americans began to believe the way to fight the slump was to increase the purchasing power of wage earners. The political climate changed from one favoring management to one favoring labor.

Apparently such beliefs have been forgotten in the relatively prosperous times of recent years where labor and unions have fallen out of favor and some say that the only role of the government is to unfairly tax its hard-working citizens.