In his 1941 poem “London Rain,” Louis MacNeice writes “The world is what was given / The world is what we make.” In “London Rain” itself, MacNeice does not emphasize the latter sentiment, ultimately hinting at the difficulty of trying to “make” anything in his concluding description of his “wishes…come[ing] homeward / their gallopings in vain.” Yet for all the suggestions of impotence in “London Rain’s” final stanza, in MacNeice’s work as a whole—as in the work of his friend and contemporary W.H. Auden—the “made” world becomes a central topic. Both men draw heavily in their poetry on images of man and the man-made, emphasizing the extent to which the human permeates the world we know and suggesting both the role that humans play as the “makers of history” and the value of things that they make.
Discussing his long poem “Letter to Lord Byron,” W.H Auden comments that Byron is “the right [recipient for the poem], I think, because he was a townee … and disliked Wordsworth and all that kind of approach to nature, and I find that very sympathetic.” This interest in the urban world manifests itself throughout Auden’s poetry. In “Letter to Lord Byron,” for example, Auden describes “tramlines and slag heaps, pieces of machinery.” In “Stop all the clocks,” he lingers over an image of “aeroplanes [that] circle moaning overhead.” In “Dover,” he modernizes his picture of a Norman castle with the descriptor, “flood-lit at night,” and in “There is no Change of Place,” he describes how “metals run, / Burnished or rusty in the sun, / From town to town.” Filled with trains and factories, vacant lots and city streets, Auden’s poetry is grounded not in the more timeless pastoral landscapes of his Romantic and Georgian predecessors but rather in an industrialized world shaped and re-shaped by the works of man.
Auden did not write exclusively about urban landscapes, of course. Especially in his early poems, references to “gaitered gamekeeper[s]” and rolling foothills (“No Change of Place”) suggest the lingering influence of earlier poets like Thomas Hardy whose works draw heavily on rural settings. Yet even in his poems of the natural world, Auden frequently incorporates traces of the man-made, forming what he himself labels “human landscapes.” Auden most directly espouses this sentiment in “Letter to Lord Byron,” in which he states outright that “to me Art’s subject is the human clay, / And landscape but a background to a torso.” His oft-anthologized poem “In Praise of Limestone” offers a more subtle example of this tendency. In that work, Auden refers to the cracks between rocks as “gennels,” employing urban imagery of the narrow passageways between houses to evoke the natural fissures between stones. Similarly, he labels limestone rocks “solid statues,” reminding readers of the stone’s anthropogenic uses. He even anthropomorphizes the landscape itself, describing streams that “chuckle,” cliffs that “entertain,” and landscapes almost effeminate in their “rounded slopes / with their surface fragrance of thyme and, beneath, / a secret system of caves and conduits.” For Auden, who throughout the poem draws few distinct borders between the work’s characters and the landscapes that they inhabit, the limestone uplands that he so admires are “extension[s]” of their human occupants, important not so much in their own right as for their human characteristics and connections.
Like Auden’s poetry, the works of Louis MacNeice are characterized by a distinctly urban sensibility. MacNeice, who spent much of his adult life living in and near cities, fills his poems with the artificial. Rubber gloves and celluloid, suburban houses, traffic lights, and night clubs recur throughout his poems, reminding readers of the pervasiveness of the man-made. Indeed, even MacNeice’s more abstract descriptions serve this purpose, as when he draws on imagery in artifice in his...