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Autumn Journal: the blending of the personal and the private
on 29 May 2001
MacNeice's Autumn Journal records the author's experiences and emotional reactions to events from August 1938 up until the New Year. It therefore includes such tumultuous events as the Munich crisis and the period immediately prior to Barcelona's fall to Franco, which MacNeice witnessed at first hand. As a journal, it has the feel of a personal letter rather than a polished didactic poem, which MacNeice explains in the preface, as being essential to preserve the 'honesty' of his immediate reaction to events, unqualified by hindsight. As the last major piece of poetry to be produced before the start of the Second World War it is in many ways the last word on the decade. Its contemplative, at times sentimental, approach fit the tone at the end of the thirties as artists looked back over the failures of a decade and an ideology, that had ultimately led to war.
The great achievement of MacNeice in Autumn Journal is the way in which he blends public events with his own personal emotions and experiences. It explores the way in which political and social developments inform ones private existence, and how ones personal beliefs influence the way in which one reacts to and interprets those public events. For example, a beautiful use of language contrasts the way politician's reputations and stocks "go up" with the literal way the Czechs "go down", with Chamberlain's agreement with Hitler. However, MacNeice refuses to moralise, and he records his honest initial reaction, which was to "Save my skin and damn my conscience", in the relief that a war had been averted.
Autumn Journal successfully incorporates a strongly autobiographical flavour, with poems about MacNeice's Irish heritage and his classical education's relevance in the modern world. The recent breakdown of his first marriage is also a strong presence, with section IV constituting one of the most moving tributes to a woman written this century. Again, part of its beauty and quality which makes it such an important statement of its age is the way in which this personal loss acts as an analogy for the passing of an era and way of life that the coming war was expected to sweep away.
Despite its undertones of approaching disaster, MacNeice's joy in everyday life and love of 'the moment' endows the poem with moments of optimism, most notably in the hope that he may transcend some of his own prejudices "with time and luck - to dance" with others. It is a moving testament to an age on the brink of war, which manages to take strength from everyday experiences and values that would be necessary in the coming darkness. Moreover, this is achieved in a sophisticated structure that is nevertheless highly entertaining and easily accessible to the general reader.