A Poem for Ireland: Thinking Through ‘Dublin’

‘”A tourist in his own country” it has been said, with the implication that this is somehow discreditable; but of what sensitive person is the same not true?’  — Derek Mahon

‘The pubs in Dublin were even more assertive than usual this 16 June, Bloomsday. For me the pilgrimage began at Davy Byrne’s, which was Joyce’s favourite pub’. So wrote the great poet of metaphor and movement Louis MacNeice in an article for the New Statesman in 1962. Not himself a Dubliner – born in Belfast he regarded himself as a ‘Connaughtman born into exile’ and spent most of his life in England working for BBC Radio – the ever-in-transit MacNeice had nevertheless, as he declared, ‘always found the city a home from home’ and in this evocative love-letter his deep affection for the ‘old Dublin’ is keenly felt. With the shrewd, searching eye of a film director* he lights on the city’s innate ‘theatricality’,  rhapsodises about ‘the astonishing light and the air that caresses’ and, crucially for this poet of dialectical mindset, recognises with trademark insight the ‘paradoxes of the Dubliners themselves’: ‘They seem always to have the virtues of their vices and vice versa’. That word ‘paradox’ goes to the heart of MacNeice’s sense of Dublin and of himself. Dublin, as he concludes, ‘remains constant and constantly variable’.

When MacNeice in the autumn  of 1939 came to write ‘Dublin’, he was in Ireland (moving between Dublin and Antrim) and working on his seminal study of W.B. Yeats’s poetry as the world stood on the brink of war. Having been to the USA earlier that year he was focused on getting back across the Atlantic and to his lover the American travel writer Eleanor Clark who was, as it happened, one of the poem’s first readers, MacNeice having sent it to her in a letter sent from Dublin to New York in September 1939. Part of a larger sequence that was initially titled ‘The Coming of War’ (published in The Last Ditch, 1940), then edited and re-titled ‘The Closing Album’, ‘Dublin’ unfolds in time as a haunted and haunting evocation in which the complexities, contradictions and paradoxes of the city and its history become enlivening forces for the process of the poetic act itself at a time of profound pressure. ‘You give me time for thought / And by a juggler’s trick / You poise the toppling hour’, he addresses Dublin as wayward, deceptive muse. In this way both city and poem become vital spaces for creative performance and restless enquiry at a time when MacNeice’s own conflicted mind is preoccupied with thoughts of personal and public crisis.

MacNeice has long been recognised as one of the master poets of the eternal and the everyday, the physical and metaphysical, and in ‘Dublin’ we are shocked into recognising both the stone-clad physicality of the city’s architecture (‘Grey brick upon brick, / Declamatory bronze /On sombre pedestals – ’) and the more intangible, ungraspable aspects of its composition: ‘And the air soft on the cheek […] The lights jig in the river / With a concertina movement’. Casting a by turns cold and captivated eye on Dublin in all of its multi-storied grittiness and grandeur – ‘Her Georgian facades…the glamour of her squalor‘ – the poet composes and re-composes the city through the poem, fusing its warring, double-crossing elements into a work of music and metaphor that, like the city, turns and returns on itself.

And the past is all too fresh throughout in this city that is ‘historic with guns and vermin’ and not only through the figures of history that are invoked – O’Connell, Grattan, Moore, Nelson (still) on his pillar – but through the very rhythm that carries us along, as MacNeice reprises the pulsating, three-beat metre of Yeats’s ‘Easter 1916’  – a poem that dramatises the act of poetry as an unending process of writing and of rewriting, remembering and dismembering. The lines of ‘Dublin’ are shadowed by Yeats’s equivocations and oxymorons most of all as the oppositions of life and death, stone and water, violence and vitality provide the sliding ground bass for the poet’s complex improvisation of sound, sense and image. We feel time pass as we walk the poem’s lines, follow its twists and turns, its lights and shadows, fleeting harmonies and clashing dissonances, as one moment tumbles into the next, one sound-image modulates into another and the scene shifts yet again.

‘Asked if he were an Irish poet or an English one, he would reply that he was simply “a poet”.’ — Derek Mahon

‘Not an English town’ and ‘not Irish’, it is little wonder that MacNeice (self-described as ‘an Irish man of Southern blood and Northern upbringing whose father was a Protestant bishop and a supporter of Home Rule’) always at a remove, found Dublin a ‘home from home’. ‘Fort of the Dane / Garrison of the Saxon’, as Edna Longley has remarked, the city’s ‘mongrel genealogy resembles the poet’s own.’ The poetic spirit, ever-conflicted, ever-in-process, finds itself precariously at home in a city that, despite its immovable statues, mythic histories and marmoreal facades, cannot ever be still, much like the larger Irish landscape itself, that was, as MacNeice wrote in his study of Yeats:

capable of pantomimic transformation scenes; one moment it will be desolate, dead, unrelieved monotone, the next it will be an indescribably shifting pattern of prismatic light.

As the poet Conor O’Callaghan has observed, MacNeice possessed ‘an imagination that thrived on out-of-placeness, on not belonging’. In his incorrigible plurality the poet complicates any fixed notion of ‘Irish’ identity and deepens and enlarges our own sense of city and country beyond superficial boundaries. Both Dublin (the historical, geographical place) and ‘Dublin’ (the poem) are living, breathing organisms brimming with tensions and energies, their forms fluid, their coordinates constantly changing. In many ways then, MacNeice – poet of Ireland, of England, but most persuasively of the world – should be regarded as the great poet of both place and out-of-placeness, of the modern mind in motion. For ultimately, the place of writing, as Seamus Heaney memorably put it, is essentially the stanza form, the poem itself.

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* It is therefore no surprise that the poem works so well on film as in this recent tribute by Stephen James Smith:

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About cinderellasweepingup

Poetry critic
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