The Shortlist

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The Shortlist



by Louis MacNeice

Grey brick upon brick,
Declamatory bronze
On sombre pedestals –
O’Connell, Grattan, Moore –
And the brewery tugs and the swans
On the balustraded stream
And the bare bones of a fanlight
Over a hungry door
And the air soft on the cheek
And porter running from the taps
With a head of yellow cream
And Nelson on his pillar
Watching his world collapse.

This never was my town,
I was not born or bred
Nor schooled here and she will not
Have me alive or dead
But yet she holds my mind
With her seedy elegance,
With her gentle veils of rain
And all her ghosts that walk
And all that hide behind
Her Georgian facades –
The catcalls and the pain,
The glamour of her squalor,
The bravado of her talk.

The lights jig in the river
With a concertina movement
And the sun comes up in the morning
Like barley-sugar on the water
And the mist on the Wicklow hills
Is close, as close
As the peasantry were to the landlord,
As the Irish to the Anglo-Irish,
As the killer is close one moment
To the man he kills,
Or as the moment itself
Is close to the next moment.

She is not an Irish town
And she is not English,
Historic with guns and vermin
And the cold renown
Of a fragment of Church latin,
Of an oratorical phrase.
But oh the days are soft,
Soft enough to forget
The lesson better learnt,
The bullet on the wet
Streets, the crooked deal,
The steel behind the laugh,
The Four Courts burnt.

Fort of the Dane,
Garrison of the Saxon,
Augustan capital
Of a Gaelic nation,
Appropriating all
The alien brought,
You give me time for thought
And by a juggler’s trick
You poise the toppling hour –
O greyness run to flower,
Grey stone, grey water,
And brick upon grey brick.

From Collected Poems by Louis MacNeice, by kind permission of the Estate of Louis MacNeice and Faber and Faber Ltd

About the poem

Belfast-born MacNeice sees himself as an outsider but is drawn to Dublin for many reasons: its history, its people, its activity. It was never his town and though ‘she will not/ Have me alive or dead’ MacNeice admits that ‘she holds my mind’.

The opening stanza presents us with images that are fixed and solid. Grey brick and bronze statues represent aspects of the capital city. In choosing O’Connell, Grattan and Moore we have politics, poetry and music from the eighteenth and nineteenth century. The presence of Admiral Horatio Nelson on his pillar reminds us that Dublin was once the second city of the British Empire. But the first stanza also contains contrasting details: the dilapidated Georgian houses, the soft weather, the flow of porter. That the final word in stanza one is ‘collapse’ signals the end of an era.

Louis MacNeice

Born on 12 September 1907, in Belfast, Louis MacNeice grew up in Carrickfergus, the son of the rector of Holy Trinity, later bishop of Down, Connor, and Dromore. His father was strict and cast a shadow over MacNeice’s early years. In his poem ‘Autobiography’ MacNeice writes: ‘My father made the walls resound,/ He wore his collar the wrong way round.’

His parents were from the West of Ireland and his mother was frequently absent due to illness: ‘My mother wore a yellow dress; Gently, gently, gentleness . . . . When I was five the black dreams came; Nothing after was quite the same.’ Years later MacNeice wrote ‘my mother kept being ill and at last was ill all the time’.

When MacNeice was six, his mother was admitted to a nursing home suffering from depression and he never saw her again. She died when he was seven. But MacNeice’s rich boyhood imagination can be seen in this excerpt from an unfinished autobiography The Strings Are False [1965]: ‘There were five of us in the family—my father and my mother and my sister and my brother and I—but there were many more people in the house. The red soldiers, for instance, who by day were tiny, you could knock them over with a finger, but by night they were ten foot high, came marching straight for you, drumming, and not the least change on their faces. There were people too in the cracks of the ceiling, in the mottling of the marble mantelpieces, in the shadows of the oil-lamps and the folds of the serge curtains.’

Louis MacNiece

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