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A Poem of Departure: “The Suicide” By Louis MacNeice

Joshua Clayton

 

In 2009 or -10, not long after Carol Ann Duffy had taken up the mantle of UK poet laureate, I

received as a gift three books: her collections The World’s Wife and Feminine Gospels, and an

anthology she had edited under the title of Answering Back. Leaving aside what I may think

of Duffy’s poetry (I quite like a lot of it), this anthology turned out, at least in my careless

memory, to be a dull wet blanket of a book. Its premise was to have forty or so modern poets

choose a poem from the past and hammer out some kind of response by means of a poem of

their own. On the surface, this seems a fairly elegant (and marketable) way to put together a

short anthology, one that sets contemporary poets alongside the old masters. But, leaving

likewise aside what I think of most of the individual poems, it suffers from a couple of

conceptual impediments. One, poems whose origins are obvious tend to reek of genuine

feeling. Two, the book’s adversarial presentation—poets pitted against each other, living

rebuking dead, answering back, redressing the past—gives us a series of poets and poems

that take themselves far too seriously. They’re almost editorials. To my mind, the task of

responding to past poets should be far subtler and more mercurial than, for example, “Not

everybody’s / Childhood sucked. / There are some kiddies/ Not up-fucked.”

 

A couple of things from this book have lasted for me, however. One is a two-line response to

Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” that I memorised without trying: “I saw the best minds of my

generation/ Destroyed by DIY.” That’s a brilliant, succinct, affectionate, genuinely funny

expression of two poets apart both in terms of their socioeconomic contexts and in how they

see themselves. Another is one of the “answered” poems, Louis MacNeice’s “The Suicide.”

It’s a poem that flashes in my brain once every six or so months, compelling me to dig it out

to read. It’s also a poem about which I seem to notice something new every time. You can

read it unadorned here, if you prefer. But, in full:

 

And this, ladies and gentlemen, whom I am not in fact

Conducting, was his office all those minutes ago,

This man you never heard of. There are the bills

In his intray, the ash in the ashtray, the grey memoranda stacked

Against him, the serried ranks of the box-files, the packed

Jury of his unanswered correspondence

Nodding under the paperweight in the breeze

From the window by which he left; and here is the cracked

Receiver that never got mended and here is the jotter

With his last doodle which might be his own digestive tract

Ulcer and all or might be the flowery maze

through which he had wandered deliciously till he stumbled

Suddenly finally conscious of all he lacked

On a manhole under the hollyhocks. The pencil

Point had obviously broken, yet, when he left his room

By catdrop sleight-of-foot or simple vanishing act,

To those who knew him for all that mess in the street

This man with the shy smile has left behind

Something that was intact.

 

I can’t find anything to suggest that this poem was prompted by a specific real-world suicide,

that MacNiece had in mind somebody he had known or heard of when wrote it. When he

wrote the poem in 1961, he was working in the offices of the BBC, but, in my admittedly

sparse research, I haven’t read of any colleagues, near or distant, who died this way. In a

letter written at least 11 years before this poem was written, however, MacNeice does

acknowledge the passing of a friend who had died in this very way—although out of a hotel

and not an office:

 

I see that F. O. Matthiessen, whom I stayed with in Portsmouth, New

Hampshire, for a week after coming out of hospital, committed suicide the

other day in Boston by jumping out of a 12th floor window. I am v. sorry

about this as he was a most kindly man.

 

F. O. Matthiessen was a prominent critic and editor; the building from which he jumped, on

April 1st 1950, was the Hotel Manger in Boston. It’s fairly safe to say the man in this poem

was not meant to be Matthiessen, but I would also be surprised to hear that he was not

passing through MacNeice’s mind, every now and then, during its composition.

 

*

 

“The Suicide” is a strange breed of dramatic monologue: the opening line posits some sort of

ghoulish tour guide who happens to be showing off the leavings of somebody recently

deceased. But it’s clear that these “ladies and gentlemen” are being shown the office straight

after having seen the man die or found him dead, “[a]nd [that] this” is not the first stop on the

tour. They have either come in off the street or rushed in from a neighbouring office after

having heard the news. I can imagine a now former colleague inviting a group of people in

for no real purpose other than to stoke morbid curiosity.

 

I wouldn’t want to take the world of the poem too literally, however; it seems perfectly

reasonable to assume that the speaker is not a character, and that we readers are the “ladies

and gentlemen” being shown, in imagination, the immediate afterlife of a nonspecific suicide.

The odd third clause—“whom I am not in fact / Conducting”—can be taken as an indication

that this poem occurs on an essentially imaginary plane: if you place a forceful stress on the

final syllable of the first line, which is after all the first in an initially subtle (but ultimately

hard-hitting) rhyme scheme, the phrase in fact seems to make more of itself than usual and

becomes a curt reminder that we are, to paraphrase, not being conducted in the realm of

reality. This may not seem like a very compelling observation, but this is a poem remarkably

coy and delicate, and any layered texture like this feels worth unravelling.

 

Similarly, the phrase “you never heard of” plays between levels of fiction, imagination, and

fact. To the “ladies and gentlemen” poking their noses into the dead man’s office, the phrase

evokes a quiet man who was literally never ‘heard’ by those in his vicinity, and never ‘heard

of’ because he was not interesting enough to be talked about. To us readers, on the other

hand, it betrays a moment of self-consciousness, an acknowledgement of the abruptness with

which this poem has shoved us into the imagined world of its anonymous subject. It is almost

an apology, directed both towards the dead man—for the unseemliness of showing strangers

around his still-warm quarters—and towards the readers and spectators—for being made to

confront the facts of death surrounding somebody with whom we share no intimacy,

indeed no history of any kind.

 

As I’ve said, this poem features a subtle rhyme scheme. More accurately, it features a distinct

syllable to end eight out of nineteen lines. There is no apparent pattern to its appearance but,

every time it does appear, we are treated with a powerful, teeth-tapping sound to savour.

MacNeice doesn’t seem to have been recorded reading the poem, but there is a majestic

reading he gave of “Bagpipe Music,” a poem that has its own fun with terminal feet.

 

I don’t usually advocate for habitual end-stopping—i.e., taking a brief pause at the end of

every line when reading verse aloud, regardless of what syntax might suggest—and I keep to

that when reading this one; but I do like to be conscious of every act sound, giving them all a

bit of force and polish. It all starts with that first line. To continue from what I wrote above,

the tenor of the opening can be altered depending on where you lay your stress. It’s never

easy, on the page, to attend to all the subtleties of poetic rhythm, but here:

 

And this, ladies and gentlemen, whom I am not in fact

 

And this, ladies and gentlemen, whom I am not in fact

 

The former example relays that the important thing here is that “conducting” his audience or

addressees is not what the speaker is doing; the latter that he is, but the “conducting” is not

going on in the realm of facts. To my ear, moreover, the more natural way of reading the first

example is not simply to stress “not” but to push together “not in” so that it sounds like one

word (i.e., nottin). These distinctions are so tiny that I’m not even sure I can hear them every

time, but being on the lookout for potential ambiguities is for me a key aspect of reading

poetry (and, very often, prose), and they can have all sorts of effects on sense, syntax, and

meaning. Try playing around with these acts to see if you can discover different suggestions

or emphases behind them.

 

The hunt for Empsonian ambiguities can be very rewarding, but it would be wise not to make

too much of them or to use them as a crutch. Etymologies, by the same token, can unearth all

sorts of fascinating buried associations. But beware the etymological fallacy, and even what

you might call the anti-intentional fallacy—that is, declaring known or presumed authorial

intentions to be not important at all. There is also perhaps a risk of mistaking the

acknowledgement of ambiguity per se as a sufficient condition for interpretation. Better settle

(sometimes) on one, while acknowledging others, than simply line up several in a row.

On the other hand: meanings don’t always have to be chosen between; they can work in

concert. Take the description of the suicide’s fall: “he stumbled / Suddenly finally conscious

of all he lacked.” Free from directional punctuation (“he stumbled suddenly, finally

conscious,” perhaps), the double adverbs here indicate several things at once: that he

stumbled with suddenness; that the moment of stumbling induced, suddenly, a sense of

heightened self awareness; that, after years of not quite getting there, he at long last

understood his deficiencies; and that this was indeed his final moment of consciousness—he

is a one-man Mary Celeste, the particulars of his surroundings going dully along, unaffected

by his “vanishing act”—but his office was already filled with presences, was curiously,

anthropomorphically alive. The box-files are like an army in “serried ranks”; the ‘unanswered

correspondence’ is not simply a stack of letters but a silent “packed/ Jury” evoking the people

behind those letters; and they are still humanly active once he has gone, not simply flapping

or rustling but “Nodding under the paperweight in the breeze,” as if in solemn affirmation of

a death sentence. The “memoranda,” too, are not just a clump of office memos: they evoke a

lifetime of memories and personal promises—a memorandum can be a record of something

that just happened; it can also be a reminder to take some sort of action—which have not

been in his favour. The phrasing in “stacked against / Him” is awkward (how do you

physically “stack” pieces of paper “against” a person?), but it also of course invokes the

idiom, “The odds were stacked against him.” His memories, that is, record a life lived on the

losing side. This pile of grey documents is, all at once, a detail of boxed-in office life, a

personal reckoning, and a version of “life review”—the standard term for the near-death

phenomenon of seeing your life flash before your eyes.

 

“The cracked / Receiver that never got mended,” “the flowery maze,” the adverb deliciously,

the closing contrast between messiness and intactness: these are things on which my brain

snags, and I would like to have addressed them. But I will end up having not. I instead will

finish on the man’s “catdrop sleight-of-foot or simple vanishing act.” The latter phrase

describes the man’s sudden disappearance from his office, but it is also a wonderfully delicate

term for suicide, although one at odds with this particular method, which, after all, is

extremely violent. Falling from his window, the man is momently a magician, twirling the

cloak of his own death and bowing gracefully from life. Calling suicide a “vanishing act” is

euphemistic, as accounts of death tend to be, while the violent destruction of the body is

acknowledged in “all that mess in the street,” a phrase which too is euphemistic but which is

also, curiously, dysphemistic: it obscures the details but is, in tone, somewhat callous and

unpleasant. The body does not vanish in death (although it does vanish from the room), but

perhaps the mind, the self, and consciousness all do: there one second, gone the next. The

verb vanish can be transitive as well as intransitive, and it often suggests a disappearance

from sight. In this instance it suggests, to me, a disappearance of sight: in death, the suicide

has lost his faculties of seeing and perceiving as much as he has lost the things he might see

or perceive. In Saul Bellow’s novel More Die of Heartbreak, the narrator asks his uncle to

name his “‘worst-case scenario for death.’” “‘Well, from the very beginning there have been

pictures—inside and outside,” he said. ‘And for me the worst that can happen is that those

pictures will stop.’” This is a vague articulation of consciousness, of consciousness as

comprising an uninterrupted stream of visual and mental images. Death is anticipated as

blankness above all.

 

The grace and dexterity implied by a “catdrop sleight-of-foot” are also at odds with how

people actually fall from buildings: that is, with extraordinary velocity and shocking impact.

Notwithstanding the tenderness and compassion we feel for those who take their own lives,

suicide is harrowing and horrifying. It is often gruesome, and almost never graceful.

Literature, however, can slow down a fall of seconds, slow it to a stop, and grant the time and

opportunity to survey and to dress the scene, and to impart a touch of grace to the saddest act.

 

1: In case you’re not aware of the original poem, it is Phillip Larkin’s “This Be the Verse,” whose

first two lines go, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad. / They may not mean to, but they do.”

The response above is by Carol Rumens and, while I have been slightly unfair to it, I find that

John Osborne puts it well, writing about the response in a book on Larkin: “The inversion of

Larkin’s ‘fucked up’ is pleasing, but [… b]y the second stanza the poem has capitulated to the

very tweeness (“Most turn out nice”) Larkin’s scurrilous belly-laughs release us from.” Radical

Larkin: Seven Types of Technical Mastery (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), p. 170.

 

2: Louis MacNeice, “The Suicide,” in Carol Ann Duffy (ed.), Answering Back: Living Poets

Reply to the Poetry of the Past (London: Picador, 2008), p. 32.

 

3: Louis MacNeice, Selected Letters, ed. Jonathan Allison (London: Faber & Faber, 2010), p.528.

 

4: Saul Bellow, More Die of Heartbreak (London: Penguin, 2007)

 

 

 

 

Joshua Clayton holds an MPhil in English from the University of Bristol, and he currently lives in London. His poetry has recently appeared, or is forthcoming, in Cagibi, Antiphon, and Gigantic Sequins.