by Louis MacNeice
The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.
World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.
And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes—
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one’s hands—
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.
I was having trouble understanding the last line of Louis MacNeice’s “Snow.” I turned to the nearest human for help, which happened to be my husband at the kitchen counter eating a banana. After giving him a summary, I read “’There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.’”
I wasn’t expecting much of an answer, his interest in poetry being about the same as his interest in history of Morris dancing.
Not missing a beat, he said, “Sounds like that Shakespeare line—’There are more things in heaven and earth than something something.’”
The world is suddener, I thought. Expecting “Dunno,” I got instead a little gem. Not that MacNeice truly was echoing Shakespeare’s famous line from Hamlet—
There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy
but hearing those words from an unlikely source unfolded MacNeice’s poem for me, unexpectedly. The surprise of odd bedfellows is at the heart of this poem.
More about that later.
Let’s move away from my kitchen and return to the scene of the poem. It’s cozy, at first glance. The fire, the bay window, the sudden snow, the pop of color in the tangerine and vase of pink roses. This is a world that is rich, more of it than we think, gay, in the old sense of the word.
But from the first line, the quiet scene explodes with the strangeness of opposites. The randomly placed seeds in symmetrical sections of the tangerine. The crackling of fire, friendly and menacing at once. The central image, the snow on one side of the windowpane, the vase of roses on the other, illustrates the power of juxtaposing opposites. Seasonal opposites, in this case. Pink roses in summer would not be as lovely as they are highlighted against a white backdrop; the snow without the roses would be colorless.
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses. There is indeed, Horatio, more than meets the eye. All our senses— On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one’s hands—are needed to discern the phenomena of even such a simple scene. So what is that thing between the snow and the roses? I still don’t have much of an answer. Invisible electric charges pulling opposing forces together? Mystery? Beauty? Wonder?
I’m letting it go at that and encouraging you to send your own interpretation. Meanwhile, another poet has entered the sitting room. There he is, hovering behind the wingback chair, whispering in MacNeice’s ear lines from “Pied Beauty”–
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
Please welcome Gerard Manley Hopkins to the scene. MacNeice shares not only Hopkins’ delight in opposites and anomalies (albeit a far less earnest kind of delight), he shares his delight in language as well. Rhyme, assonance, consonance, words juxtaposed to create harmony and disharmony—MacNeice uses this rich grab bag of poetic devices to mirror the mysteries of the sitting room. Just a few examples—
Collateral and incompatible . . . the words have opposing meanings but together they roll off the tongue, almost a rhyme.
Against it/Fancy it . . . also opposites that sound similar.
Snow and roses. . . . the central nouns of the poem share an internal rhyme. And if you pronounce roses like Barbara Walters would, the words almost read like a panagram.
The poem is chock-full of more. Dig around. Read “Snow” out loud, not just once and maybe more than twice. It’s a gorgeous poem.
I left “Snow” in a Chicago suburban train station. After many long minutes of peace and quiet, I suddenly realized that the reason for the peace and quiet was that no train was coming. I had consulted an outdated schedule. Peace was followed by panic—my sister drove like mad to the next town— and I made the train with moments to spare. Only a month later, which is now, as I write this, do I realize how closely I lived out the very narrative of colliding opposites in the poem I left in the window.
Louis MacNeice (1907-1963) was born in Belfast, the youngest of three children of an Anglican minister and a schoolteacher. When he was six his mother, who suffered from clinical depression, was put in a nursing home; he never saw her again. Imagine that. (It was a sad life for her, too, of course—later she had uterine cancer, and then she died in 1917 of tuberculosis.) When his father remarried, MacNeice and his sister went off to boarding school in England. His brother, who had Down’s syndrome, was institutionalized.
He earned a scholarship to Marlborough College, then went to Oxford where he met W.H. Auden who became a lifelong friend and encouraged his interest in poetry. He began to publish his poems. He fell in love with the daughter of his Oxford don and they married. His father, by this time an Anglican bishop, disapproved of the marriage because Mary Ezra was Jewish; Ezra’s parents disapproved because they worried Down’s syndrome was hereditary. Neither sets of parents attended the wedding.
MacNeice got a lecturer job at University of Birmingham. He sent poems to T.S. Eliot to publish, and met W.B. Yeats among other luminaries of the age. In addition to publishing many collections of poetry and prose, including a travel guide to Iceland he wrote with Auden, MacNeice wrote a translation of The Agamemnon of Aeschylus, and wrote over 150 radio dramas for the BBC.
His romantic life seems to have always been unsteady. His wife Mary ran away with the young student who was living with them, leaving MacNeice with their young son. He and Mary divorced, amicably, in 1936.
He began an affair with painter Nancy Coldstream, then moved onto to another relationship with writer Eleanor Clark, (who later married Robert Penn Warren). A few months after his father died in 1942, he married cabaret singer Heidi Anderson. They had a daughter together, and separated in 1960. He was drinking more and more, which strained the marriage, as did his affairs.
He died young-ish, at age 55. He was gathering sound in Yorkshire for one of his radio plays and got caught in a storm . He didn’t change out of his wet clothes for a long time and contracted pneumonia, which killed him.