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.

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