Several weeks ago, we looked at Stephen Spender’s poem which was impossible to read without “the lump in the throat” as it connected to the present tragic times. Such is the power of verse.
Stephen Spender and today’s poet Louis MacNeice were friends at Oxford, and he was the junior member of the Auden Group in the late twenties of the last century.
At first blush, today’s poem, which is not one of his most well-known, seems a hymn to the joy and emancipation of springtime. It is one of my very favourite seasonal poems; like Keats’s ode “To Autumn”.
But the poem is deeper than that, much deeper. Its philosophy is that the Mayfly has only one day in which to live its life – and as for us, dear humans, we better take good note, act accordingly, and make the most of it.
This, therefore, turns out to be another poem appropriate for these tempestuous times. Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow … This has been the human predicament since the beginning of time; yet now the rules of engagement have been subtly changed. It is within our powers to remain locked down, playing hide and seek with the virus and not wagering the rest of our life on a journey or a chance encounter. But what do our heart and soul tell us to do?
In reality, it has brought the unpleasant inevitability of our own death one step closer. It now becomes an extra risk of the job we do, the people we meet and the life we (or our family members) lead. It is difficult enough keeping one’s end up in the face of death in the fullness of years. Now we have to weigh the consequences of our lifestyle the moment we step outside our front doors.
But the trouble with us humans is, we do not have the convenience of a front door in our minds: we worry perpetually. We are wired to be worried! This balancing act is with each of us, 24/7, whilst we are awake. So, what can the Mayfly teach us?
This is where the poem (although written without the present drama of unseen virus and unknown killer) can help. It highlights those apparently insignificant things with which we measure the passing of the months, and puts them in a chronological order. “The kingcups (buttercups) ephemeral are gay gulps of laughter”.
The poet’s eye and the poet’s pen turn wildflowers into symbols of merriment – abundant now as we walk and drive through the beautiful Algarve countryside. The poem teaches us to find solace in nature; to sense with our hearts the passing of the seasons, untrammelled by the problems besetting our brains. The poem preaches to us the continuity of nature, whilst we, “like the mayfly, up and down one among a million”.
But then the poem moves on to weightier thoughts. “The kingcup will cease proffering his cup, and the foam will have blown from the beer”. It is in this demarcation between the atmosphere of May and June I think he shows true brilliance. Whilst written from an English/Irish climatic perspective, the timing of the evolution of spring will always remain in our northern blood. But it can be felt here, in the Algarve, when the days lengthen, the heat grows and the wildflowers wilt. There is such a subtle difference between how we feel about May and June; the poem seeks to illustrate it.
Then MacNeice delivers his punch-lines: “nor put too much on the sympathy of things, the dregs of drink, the dried cups of flowers”. The months pass; time moves on. The chilling line which follows haunts me now, as it did when I first read the poem, many years back, “the pathetic fallacy of the passing hours, when it is we that pass them – hours of stone”.
If ever there was a poem about mortality, comparing the shortness of the Mayfly’s life with the supposedly significant length of our own, this is it. MacNeice died young in tragic circumstances; a poet whose vision and wisdom was cut short in the prime of life. He worked for the BBC and doing one of the first outside broadcasts on, of all things, potholing; he chose to go with the group to measure sound levels underground. He caught pneumonia and died.
His words echo disconcertingly in the empty corridors of today.
The poem is a wakeup call to us all, to make the most of our short lives as does the Mayfly. It also makes us reflect most profoundly on the length and depth and worth of our own life, however long or short it may turn out to be.
As for the last couplet, it is, as all last lines should be, impossible to follow! It will have couples reading this article together, count their blessings that they have each other’s company through this ordeal. The Mayfly’s short life was not in vain!
Barometer of my moods today, mayfly,
Up and down one among a million, one
The same at best as the rest of the jigging mayflies,
One only day of May alive beneath the sun.
The yokels tilt their pewters and the foam
Flowers in the sun beside the jewelled water.
Daughter of the South, call the sunbeams home
To nest between your breasts. The kingcups
Ephemeral are gay gulps of laughter.
Gulp of yellow merriment; cackle of ripples;
Lips of the river that pout and whisper round the reeds.
The mayfly flirting and posturing over the water
Goes up and down in the lift so many times for fun.
‘When we are grown up we are sure to alter
Much for the better, to adopt solider creeds;
The kingcup will cease proffering his cup
And the foam will have blown from the beer and the heat no longer dance
And the lift lose fascination and the May
Change her tune to June – but the trouble with us mayflies
Is that we never have the chance to be grown up.’
They never have the chance, but what of time they have
They stretch out taut and thin and ringing clear;
So we, whose strand of life is not much more,
Let us too make our time elastic and
Inconsequently dance above the dazzling wave.
Nor put too much on the sympathy of things,
The dregs of drink, the dried cups of flowers,
The pathetic fallacy of the passing hours
When it is we who pass them – hours of stone,
Long rows of granite sphinxes looking on.
It is we who pass them, we the circus masters
Who make the mayflies dance, the lapwings lift their crests,
The show will soon shut down, its gay-rags gone,
But when this summer is over let us die together,
I want always to be near your breasts.
By Louis MacNeice © Faber & Faber