Sunlight on the Garden – Louis MacNeice – Analysis

Sunlight on the Garden
The sunlight on the garden
Hardens and grows cold,
We cannot cage the minute
Within its nets of gold;
When all is told
We cannot beg for pardon.
Our freedom as free lances
Advances towards its end;
The earth compels, upon it
Sonnets and birds descend;
And soon, my friend,
We shall have no time for dances.
The sky was good for flying
Defying the church bells
And every evil iron
Siren and what it tells:
The earth compels,
We are dying, Egypt, dying
And not expecting pardon,
Hardened in heart anew,
But glad to have sat under
Thunder and rain with you,
And grateful too
For sunlight on the garden.
Louis MacNeice (1907 – 1963)

The title – The Sunlight on the Garden – this creates an image in the mind and as soon as you have read the poem an association develops. As the poem is familiar immediate thoughts come to mind. But independently, I do like the image of garden and sunlight and how the garden is brought into prominence by the highlight of the sun. And if we mull over these words and what they conjure in the mind we can think of a garden scene and whether there is an unforgettable event prominent in our own personal thoughts. It is the key image that flows through the poem with repetition of text in the first and last lines. The poem explores a somewhat emotional journey as one specific instance is considered over time.

S1 … sad grief, loss … and that there can be no return to an event that happened … where perhaps choice was involved … where actions could have been different … maybe inappropriate behaviour, a wish that he had done differently … behaviour that cannot now be pardoned … at the same time a golden moment that has held personal value over the years.

S2 … time takes us quickly to an end … the world produces sonnets and birds … the created world, the product of man … and the natural world, both have beauty associations … but more important no time for dances … no time to be close together … a distinct feeling that there is a lamentation on a relationship

S3 … written in 1936 … the situation across the channel a little dark … flying, different birds are now involved, – blue sky shadows of evil iron = warplanes, and sirens suggests warning of air raids … we are dying … becoming history … Egypt symbolises history … his grief marries into the sad foreboding of war and the fact that life is changing not for the better

S4 … we are hardened by life experience … no pardon needed, if that was possible and now an acceptance, a thankyou … the end of reflection on personal experience … for being with someone very special … even if there has been thunder and rain … for sunlight on the garden … a repetition of title and the first line of the first stanza … glad for the golden moment … not troubled … and life can resume with the removal of this mind-shadow perhaps

The poem addresses those critical events in life when we wish we had made different choices. Events that we still hold on too, and perhaps find hard to accept even after many years.

On Wikipedia – Louis MacNeice – Wikipedia

Details on structure and poetic technique from Wikipedia …

The Sunlight on the Garden is a poem of four stanzas, each of six lines. It is a highly formal poem, and has been much admired as an example of MacNeice’s poetic technique. All the lines are loose three-beat lines or trimeters, except for the fifth line of each stanza, which is a dimeter. The rhyme scheme is ABCBBA. The A rhyme in the first stanza (“garden/pardon”) returns in the final stanza, but with the words reversed (“pardon/garden”). In addition to end rhyme, MacNeice makes use of internal rhyme, rhyming the end of the first line with the beginning of the second line (“lances/Advances”) and the end of the third line with the beginning of the fourth line (“under/Thunder”). George MacBeth comments that the rhyme scheme “has the effect of dovetailing the lines together and producing a constant sense of echo emphasising the lingering, fading quality of the joys of life which the poem is talking about.”[8]

Drowning is not so pitiful – Emily Dickinson

Drowning is not so pitiful

Drowning is not so pitiful
As the attempt to rise.
Three times, ‘t is said, a sinking man
Comes up to face the skies,
And then declines forever
To that abhorred abode

Where hope and he part company,—
For he is grasped of God.
The Maker’s cordial visage,
However good to see,
Is shunned, we must admit it,
Like an adversity.

Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886)

This is all about accepting death when death is inevitable. It is part of human nature to fight for survival. So is our attempt to maintain life to the very end pitiful.

Dylan Thomas has a villanelle in the opposition direction as portrayed by the first lines of his well-known poem – ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’. He commands us to rage against impending death – ‘Old age should burn and rave at close of day’.

The question is when to be accepting of approaching death and view death not as an adversity but as a welcome friend. There is a time to be submissive and a time to burn and rave to squeeze the most out of life. Only at the very last is the former more appropriate – a matter of judgement.

The ED poem implies that death will be the meeting of the cordial visage of our creator. We are inclined to be negative despite the great goodness in God. But didn’t the bible say something along the lines that each hair on your head is of concern and not to be afraid. So do do not worry if you are having a bad hair!

I have taken a view in line with Emily Dickinson in my reply below to the Dylan villanelle, however I have taken a more gentle approach, rather than the pitiful reproach of Emily Dickinson –

Go Gentle and Enjoy Your Last Day

go gentle and enjoy your last day
focus not on the loss of your sight
give a smile as you pass quietly away

a wise man knows how to play
knows exactly what is indeed right
go gentle and enjoy your last day

a good man accepts the pathway
as he enters the door of the night
give a smile as you pass quietly away

a brave man shows strong display
knows it useless in giving a fight
go gentle and enjoy your last day

a grave man will rise up to say
‘the end is turning quite bright’
give a smile as you pass quietly away

so to all I earnestly pray
savour the disappearing light
go gentle and enjoy your last day
give a smile as you pass quietly away

Richard Scutter

… A link to Emily Dickinson on Wikipedia.


When my love swears – Sonnet 138 – Shakespeare

When my love swears that she is made of truth,
I do believe her, though I know she lies,
That she might think me some untutored youth,
Unlearnèd in the world’s false subtleties.
Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young,
Although she knows my days are past the best,
Simply I credit her false-speaking tongue:
On both sides thus is simple truth suppressed.
But wherefore says she not she is unjust?
And wherefore say not I that I am old?
Oh, love’s best habit is in seeming trust,
And age in love loves not to have years told.
Therefore I lie with her and she with me,
And in our faults by lies we flattered be.

William Shakespeare (Sonnet 138)

This sonnet is all about acceptance … acceptance of the imperfections of another that they too will accept the imperfections that exist in you.

In a way it is a love sonnet for love totally disregards the faults of others … well, perhaps not quite… may be a subtle approach is needed if correction is warranted … timing is important and at this moment there is total acceptance to the extent that both parties delight in a pretense – in imaging the untruth as true.

So perhaps love is a ‘trading of imperfections’ – though we can hardly call age an imperfection but a nice trade to be seen as young again and age to be ignored – And age in love loves not to have years told!