Friday, July 2, 2010

Louis MacNeice On Heraclitus

The phrase "everything flows" is often attributed to Heraclitus.  However, it is open to question whether Heraclitus actually said those words.  More likely, the phrase was attributed to him by a later ancient commentator.  Be that as it may, "flowing" is the theme of the following poem by Louis MacNeice.  (An aside:  Derek Mahon, who we heard from in my previous post, has written a fine elegy to MacNeice titled "In Carrowdore Churchyard.")

                 Variation on Heraclitus

Even the walls are flowing, even the ceiling,
Nor only in terms of physics; the pictures
Bob on each picture rail like floats on a line
While the books on the shelves keep reeling
Their titles out into space and the carpet
Keeps flying away to Arabia nor can this be where I stood --
Where I shot the rapids I mean -- when I signed
On a line that rippled away with a pen that melted
Nor can this now be the chair -- the chairoplane of a chair --
That I sat in the day that I thought I had made up my mind
And as for that standard lamp it too keeps waltzing away
Down an unbridgeable Ganges where nothing is standard
And lights are but lit to be drowned in honour and spite of some dark
And vanishing goddess.  No, whatever you say,
Reappearance presumes disappearance, it may not be nice
Or proper or easily analysed not to be static
But none of your slide snide rules can catch what is sliding so fast
And, all you advisers on this by the time it is that,
I just do not want your advice
Nor need you be troubled to pin me down in my room
Since the room and I will escape for I tell you flat:
One cannot live in the same room twice.

Louis MacNeice, Solstices (1961).

               John Singer Sargent, "A Mountain Stream, Tyrol" (1914)


PAL said...

Thanks for the MacNeice - never seen it before.Perfect last line. You never seem to come across his later stuff. He seems to have lost his mojo for a bit after the war and by the time he hit his stride again just before he died, he was another forgotten poet. His surname always looks wrong when you write it, don't you find? You want to write 'MacNiece'.

Do keep the pictures going. the Sargents are a real revelation - never encountered those before, either.

Stephen Pentz said...

Thank you again for your comments, PAL.

Yes, MacNeice did seem to come into his own again in his last three volumes: Visitations (1957), Solstices, and The Burning Perch are wonderful. Between Holes in the Sky (1948) and 1957 there was definitely a dry spell: Ten Burnt Offerings and Autumn Sequel aren't quite up to what came before and after.

And thank you for the comment on the Sargent paintings. I prefer his outdoor watercolors (of the Alps, Venice, etc.) to his "high society" portraits (which seem to get more attention).