Life in a day: he took his girl to the ballet;
Being shortsighted himself could hardly see it –
The white skirts in the grey
Glade and the swell of the music
Lifting the white sails.
Calyx upon calyx, Canterbury bells in the breeze
The flowers on the left mirrored to the flowers on the right
And the naked arms above
The powdered faces moving
Like seaweed in a pool.
Now, he thought, we are floating – ageless, oarless –
Now there is no separation, from now on
You will be wearing white
Satin and a red sash
Under the waltzing trees.
But the music stopped, the dancers took their curtain,
The river had come to a lock – a shuffle of programmes –
And we cannot continue down
Stream unless we are ready
To enter the lock and drop.
So they were married – to be the more together –
And found that they were never again so much together,
Divided by the morning tea,
By the evening paper,
The children and the tradesmen’s bills.
Waking at times in the night she found assurance
Due to his regular breathing but wondered whether
It was really worth it and where
The river had flowed away
And where were the white flowers.
After the restrained tenderness of Thomas' 'A Marriage', it's interesting to come to a Louis MacNeice poem like ‘Les Sylphides’, which again deals with the duration of marriage in a short space. Although MacNeice plays with romantic images (“he took his girl to the ballet”) he quickly undermines what is to happen with a classic MacNeice touch, “Being short-sighted himself he could hardly see it”. Still the poem then turns this around and makes this short-sightedness act as a kind of impressionistic filter through which the ballet becomes something blurred but beautiful, and the imagination of the man fills in the gaps and invents his own ballet “under the waltzing trees”.
But the poem starts with the phase “life in a day” and the end of the romance begins with the phrase, “but the music stopped” and almost by implication, “so they were married”. Real life enters and love disappears in the complications of domestic life. I think it is a bit odd that MacNeice shifts the point of view in the last stanza from that of the man/husband to that of his wife. I’m not sure that that change of perspective is really necessary since it was he who had imagined the river and the flowers at the ballet. Maybe, MacNeice also wants to suggest that the “life in a day” applies equally to her, that his disappointment is hers also. But they cannot talk about this, locked as they are in the habit and routine of the separate emotional lives.
‘Les Sylphides’ is a powerful poem about disappointment. It has the sense of world-weariness that MacNeice was so good at. I think – and this is really why I picked the poem – the use of the third person strategy is very powerful here and not used very often in poetry, especially compared to fiction. They only other poet who I can think of who used it regularly was John Berryman in the Dreamsongs, and Weldon Kees in the poems based around the character, Robinson.
In an obvious sense the third person is a distancing device. But it is precisely because of this that I think it is excellent and astute for handling emotional intense material with a sense of (sometimes) ironic distance. This distance suggests the level of pain, disappointment and finally alienation that MacNeice is after. “Life in a day,” when viewed from the end of the poem is quite devastating. This life, this marriage can be summed up in one day in terms of the conceit of the poem itself. It’s as if after this, the promise of love slipped away in the routines and habits of a failed marriage - at least as explored between these two people as MacNeice frames it.
The poem also works quite well if shifted to the first person (though the move in perspective in the last stanza would have to be changed). That said, the “he”, “she” and “they” make the poem more universal - again through a kind of distancing and at the same time acting as a kind of masking device for the private self. It also gives MacNeice the freedom to move perspective as he does here in the last stanza, though I still wonder about the merits of this. He has established a firm point of view throughout the poem, so it seems strange to move it to another, in terms of the internal logic of the piece. Still, it is a beguiling poem of slow motion jadedness; how lives can slip away as we watch them unfolding before us.
Since reading the poem, I often see how poems I am trying to write might work in the third person. (Or sometime moving from second to third). In general I’ve found that it’s the most personal and self-revealing poems that can appear to open up when I do this and move from something that is maybe too personal to something that is perhaps a poem. Though, like the Kees and Berryman poems mentioned earlier, I’m sure the effect has many uses.