Clothes in Books: Louis MacNeice

The Clothes in Books blog is  featured in the Guardian books podcast this week, and is described by the books editor there as 'a delight'. The discussion covers fashion/lit issues, including Bret Easton Ellis, Waugh, Dickens and Mitford. 

The blog entries discussed in the podcast include those for Don’t Look Now, David Copperfield, Brideshead Revisited, Romance & Love in a Cold Climate, Cold Comfort Farm, and Rules of Civility.

Poem: Les Sylphides by Louis MacNeice

collected 1940

Life in a day: he took his girl to the ballet;
Being shortsighted himself could hardly see it--
The white skirts in the grey
and the swell of the music
Lifting the white sails.

Calyx upon calyx, canterbury bells in the breeze
The flowers on the left mirror 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 they were never again so much together,
Divided by the morning tea,
By the evening paper,
By children and tradesmen's bills.

Waking at times in the night she found assurance
In his regular breathing but wondered whether
It was really worth it and where
The river had flowed away
And where were the white flowers.

observations: Perfect description of the movement and staging of ballet, in so very few words – 'moving like seaweed' – and of the feeling that can come upon you while seeing great art. It doesn’t seem transient, but it is. The story of the marriage is too hopelessly sad: you have to tell yourself life doesn’t have to be like that. Reading it again I was astonished to find that it is the woman thinking about it in the last stanza, I had to double check that was right, as the poem has so very much been from the man’s point of view till then.

Apparently the early years of MacNeice’s own first marriage were very happy – too happy, according to critics, and to some extent himself, he had nothing to write about – but his wife left him in 1935, and the usual poet’s trail of affairs and another marriage followed, giving rise to better poetry. The price you pay, life in a day.

MacNeice was part of the Auden/Day Lewis/Spender circles of poets in the 1930s, and is probably over-shadowed by them and now the least-remembered, but he wrote some lovely poems. One of his most famous is Bagpipe Music – beginning
It’s no go the merrygoround, it’s no go the rickshaw,

all we want is a limousine and a ticket for the peepshow

and then going on to the very Clothes in Books line
Their knickers are made of crepe-de-chine, their shoes are made of python.
- one of those images we wish we could find and bring to you, it’s on our list of ones that got away.

Les Sylphides is the non-ballet-goers idea of a ballet: no real story, a lot of young women in long white skirts moving gracefully round the stage, just the one male dancer, a romantic reverie, to music by Chopin.

The picture is from a performance of Les Sylphides by the Ballet Russe touring Australia in the late 1930s.


  1. Moira - What an evocative description of the ballet! What a talent with words! Such a sad story of the end of a marriage, too. I've always admired the ability of skilled poets to create mood like that.

    1. I know - it is a magic ability isn't it. Achieved in a dfferent way from novel-writers, I'm sure someone could explain the difference.

  2. I'm behind on all my blg commenting. Just to say congratulations on the Guardian podcast!

  3. Daniel Milford-Cottam17 September 2013 at 09:04

    There are quite a few Clothes in Books moments in MacNeice. I love:

    Let the old Muse loosen her stays,
    Or give me a new Muse with stockings and suspenders,
    And a smile like a cat,
    With false eyelashes and fingernails of carmine,
    And dressed by Schiaparelli, with a pillbox hat."

    And in Autobiography:

    In my childhood trees were green
    And there was plenty to be seen,

    My father made the walls resound,
    He wore his collar the wrong way round,

    My mother wore a yellow dress,
    Gentle, gently, gentleness."

    1. Oh thank you, they're both lovely. Time to read more of his work I think.

  4. Ken Bruen wrote a book which I've read but can't remember.....Her Last Call To Louise MacNeice. I was never troubled enough to dig deeper and find out more though.

    1. So why was it called that? It is a good intriguing title. Bruen is someone I keep meaning to read more of...


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