Six years ago I posted the following brief riff on Louis MacNeice as part of a much longer essay called “The Banality of Everything”. At the time I could remember portions of the MacNeice poem from my O-Level studies back in the ’60s, but I didn’t have the complete text.
Since then much more archival material has become available online, and I was able to find the entire poem. It’s not all that good, really — you can see the between-the-wars socialist zeitgeist poking up all through it; a dialectical materialist’s distaste for the materialism surrounding Christmas. Still, it makes for interesting reading now as a period piece. If the poet thought his time was a materialist one, he should have lived on another eighty years to see what 21st-century materialism is like.
And the teddy-bears-and-candles kitsch has grown even worse in the six years since I wrote this. It’s hard to see the exact shape of the endgame of all the increasing cultural rot we’re living through, but we know it won’t be pretty.
First, the excerpt from “The Banality of Everything”:
The cheapening and coarsening of public culture long predates the arrival of television, of course. Writers between the wars frequently bemoaned the commercialization and materialism of their times. In his 1938 poem “A Week to Christmas” (Part XX of a much longer poem, “Autumn Journal”) Louis MacNeice wrote disparagingly of “gimcracks in the shops”. Presumably he was thinking of a toy shop such as this one, on Wine Street in Bristol, photographed during the Christmas season of the same year:
If the poet were carried forward in time to the Christmas season of 2011 — which began not in December, but in October, and includes virtually no references to Christ — would he be astonished at the level of further gimcrackery to which Western culture has descended?
Would he realize that, culturally speaking, his own time was halcyon compared with our own?
Would he understand that the Socialist sentiments he shared with his fellow interwar poets bore a large share of the responsibility for the destruction of Western culture — which is now all but complete?
So here we are, closing out the Year of Our Lord 2011 with reindeer and snowmen and Santa Clauses and all the other gimcracks.
Here we are with heaps of teddy bears and candles whenever another gunmen kills eight or ten people in his former place of employment.
Here we are with tattoos, piercings, ghetto gear, texting, reality TV, “get over it”, and “whatever”.
It’s no wonder that Islam is making such inroads into the Western world. Our spiritual vacuum can scarcely be filled with stuffed animals and flowers.
But nature abhors that vacuum, so it will be filled with something.
The complete poem (part XX of “Autumn Journal” by Louis MacNeice) is below the jump:
A week to Christmas, cards of snow and holly,
Gimcracks in the shops,
Wishes and memories wrapped in tissue paper,
Trinkets, gadgets and lollipops
And as if through coloured glasses
We remember the childhood thrill
Waking in the morning to the rustling of paper,
The eiderdown heaped in a hill
Of wogs and dogs and bears and bricks and apples
And the feeling that Christmas Day
Was a coral island in time where we land and eat our lotus
But where we can never stay.
There was a star in the East, the magi in their turbans
Brought their luxury toys
In homage to a child born to capsize their values
And wreck their equipoise.
A smell of hay like peace in the dark stable —
Not peace however but a sword
To cut the Gordian knot of logical self-interest,
The fool-proof golden cord;
For Christ walked in where philosophers tread
But armed with more than folly,
Making the smooth place rough and knocking the heads
Of Church and State together.
In honour of whom we have taken over the pagan
Saturnalia for our annual treat
Letting the belly have its say, ignoring
The spirit while we eat.
And Conscience still goes crying through the desert
With sackcloth round his loins:
A week to Christmas — hark the herald angels
Beg for copper coins.