Friday, February 25, 2011

'Les Sylphides' by Louis MacNeice (1939)

Les Sylphides
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 their separate emotional lives. Still, it feels like a failure of perspective to me. It is he who imagined 'the waltzing' trees... 

‘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. The only other poets who I can think of who used it regularly were 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, as mentioned above. 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. As in the Kees and Berryman poems mentioned earlier, the key element here is that of of a form of displacement from something that is maybe too personal to something made more universal through the creation of a character (or alter ego) to express inner psychological drama.


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  2. This is another wonderful poem that will really stay in my mind. I should read more by him.

    The way it's described is so visual, and yet that Impressionistic effect you mention does create an atmosphere of romance and the excitement of dating.

    It will really hit a nerve with anybody in a relationship, and also strikes those of us who aren't by making us look at relationships in another way.

    Having said that, I do value that other type of love that consists of many years of everyday contact (says she, the dedicated singleton - but I do admire long relationships). So after a day or two of thought I did disagree with him for putting the higher value on one type of love. As a description of disappointment it's incredible though.

  3. nigga u talking gekyume shit