Joseph Macleod, The Ecliptic (Chicago: Flood Editions, 2016)
As you probably know, The Ecliptic was written in 1928 and published by Faber in 1930. It is about 1500 lines long. This is the first time it has been republished, and Richard Owens is responsible for the edition. It has the status of modern classic (for me) and because of the curious poetic politics of the 1930s it had emerged, even by 1936, as a Neglected Modern Classic.
This is an exotic text. The first time I encountered it, in around 1983, I couldn’t get to grips with it. It stood, then, as a symbol of what was unknown, excessively distinctive and developed, about the discarded cultural past. This enabled it, of course, to function as an identification object for poets who were uneasily reaching out and finding themselves as part of the unknown present. The poem starts:
The silence of the snow-turf has rooted itself in the terrain:
Starved on the frozen stream wander the water-voles.
Earth is revoked. Withheld, the sky goes out in a purple
Skeleton toga, brooched with embalmed pyramidal buds.
But that stain is winter-rubbed, those branches the tits have rifled:
Now there is no new leaf turned by the zephyrs of green.
The wind is too stale to be young: the kiss of shrubs and sighing,
Clockwise working like the cogwheels of the stars,
Obediently come to life like Japanese flowers in water,
Missel-thrush to schedule mates, primroses rehearse,
Star-trained, without new endeavour of spring, wherein Procyon
Touched and thrust in a first frenzy of absolute joy
A star-toccata freely. She is no autonomous mistress,
Spring is caught in the law. Winter abides her king.
The subject, of Winter, is apparent; the scheme which this passage will fit into is less apparent. Time has allowed a closer approach to the poem. It follows the Ecliptic, that is the apparent course of the Sun which takes it through a series of constellations, identified by speculators in Alexandria with principles of fortune (the astrological “signs”), Aby Warburg wrote a famous paper (1912) which identified the 36 divisions of the “birth” year (the decans, each of ten days) with the emblematic figures in a cycle of fresco paintings (of 1469-70) in Ferrara. However, in 1928 Warburg had not yet come to England, there was no Warburg Institute in London, and an influence on Macleod seems out of the question. Examination of the 36 decans does not produce something which you can find again in The Ecliptic. Adrian Stokes, Macleod’s best friend, worked for many years on the Quattrocento - but was hardly doing this in 1928, so again an influence on The Ecliptic does not seem likely. In fact, after long searching we don’t know of any direct model for the poem. I may have to swallow my words if someone now comes up with one. I think rather that Macleod invented the subject and the themes of the poem. He is clear that it relates to the phases of an individual life - very different from the decans, ‘birth windows‘ which assign to a human, on the day of nativity, character which pursues them throughout life. The fact that, of close contemporaries of Macleod at Oxford, Aldous Huxley and Anthony Powell both wrote works drawing on Zodiac imagery (if we accept that the twelve books of A Dance to the Music of Time correspond to zodiac signs), points to something in the air. This something was not in fact a belief in astrology. More credibly, it was the influence of the ballets russes and an expectation that truths could be shown by the expressive motion of humans (or other creatures), arranged in formal schemes which drew on the fabulous imagery of past cultural styles. Thus, in the Leo section of The Ecliptic, the lion is a physical lion - but of course he is really a human, condemned to act like a lion in order to bring us certain truths. He has a distinctive way of moving:
Standeth he still and glowers
All four feet firm on sand,
Like waterspouts, like factory towers,
Flatness to flatness mounting, and
His tail brooming anger
Like coloured atmosphere before a storm.
Now he goes on intent,
Low as a king-snake glides,
Slow as a snake that hides,
Neck from shoulders bent,
Head like a lamp alert,
Then he stops on the scent
All four feet on the sand,
Growling and growling.
Then with a rush the storm breaks into battle.
Dust chokes his eyes and throat
Turning his leonine roar into a rattle;
He is tumbled about
Like a little boat,
Loins and back buffeted, he is thrown out.
His muffled breathing from the blanket he withdraws
Sits on his haunches like a cat:
Then rises and crouches,
Crouches and springs, he knows not what at,
With glaring fangs and cusping claws
Into the dust and the darkness
Prowling and prowling.
And then a battle royal is started
A lion and a thunderstorm:
The lion blind, the enemy dumb,
Vaguely shaped as electric-hearted
Fires sway in the northern scene.
Heat and daydust of summer landscape,
As brides in a bridebed lie and wonder,
Are ready to give themselves to thunder.
But the lion treads them to a morass,
A tawny force on a tawny mass,
Rolling on his adversary’s noise,
Invisible, intangible, infrangible.
Then he again recoils to rest:
- but does not utter - movement replaces words, or, to frame Macleod, the poet is writing a verbal description of the moments of a creature that itself cannot utter.
How do I know that the twelve sections are phases of one life? This is odd when the author wrote the poem at age 25. The answer is that the poem has a preface with short prose commentaries on each section by Macleod. ‘Each sign thus contributes to a single consciousness. […] this is not intended to be a typical, or a unique, but merely a single, consciousness’. The prose libretto was added, in fact, at Eliot’s request. I understand that the starting point was "Then we learned that the Poetry Collection at the University at Buffalo (where I'm writing from) has a heavily revised, heavily annotated manuscript copy of The Ecliptic which Macleod sent to Charles Abbott in the 1940s at Abbott's request." (Rich Owens, personal communication, 2008), but in fact the new text is stated to be collated from two different typescripts, both in the US. Macleod’s libretto is of limited use. Thus for ’Gemini’ it says:
Conscious of loss by order of authority, he identifies this with the loss of his first passion, and finds it expressive of eternal loss. This leads him to revolt against all control and authority, and so to destandardize himself at the cost of disintegrating himself.
The summary does not get us close to what is happening when we are in the middle of the poem. All the same, it is helpful to be sure that the symbols connect to the life of one individual rather than to some scheme, whether Spenglerian, Freudian, or otherwise, affecting the whole of our culture. But - in practice such acute insights into the life of one individual do inspire us to think about the organisation of culture. Besides, if “all control and authority” are being rejected, the institutions of society are in question. The idea of a self “disintegrating” was quite widespread during the 1920s, and leads us towards wider cultural phenomena of the time, rather than towards one room where one individual has drunk one glass of wine too many.
1930 was just a short while before the advent of a world economic crisis and of Fascism wiped out the audience for modernist work - a set of individuals, hardly millions in number, whose attention was firmly redirected towards other things. What is elusive about Ecliptic is partly that it is saying something about human destiny and about the flaws of our culture, but yet it has no foundation in organised knowledge - in statistics, sociology, or theories of psychology. What we are seeing is the creation of a mythical whole, not the illustration of tropes which we recognise and find comforting. In that era self-knowledge was not penetrated by schemas of organised and authorised knowledge. The Ecliptic is a wonderful poem but it belongs with a style of English poetry of the time, neglected by taste but intelligently gathered together by Sidney Bolt in his anthology Poetry of the 1920s. Common to many of these poets was the wish to write cultural criticism, to write poems reflecting that genre which had more or less been invented by Oswald Spengler, in 1918; and the wish to achieve detachment, to create freestanding forms which would embody ideas in the manner of a geometrical figure or a work of visual art. The dominant form of the time was the ballet, the ballet of Diaghilev. Sacheverell Sitwell is the only one of these poets who wrote a libretto for a Diaghilev ballet; his work offers perhaps the most vivid comparison to Macleod’s, and is today even more neglected than his. Macleod writes quasi-ballets or pictures of the seasons (like the Withheld, the sky goes out in a purple/ Skeleton toga, passage just quoted), but both are meant to be a visible language, incarnating Time, vitality, and decay. The unrecognisability of Ecliptic is inseparable from its radical originality: it opens onto an uncoded space rather than being a documentary or expounding a political programme.
I asked my spiritual adviser if it was OK to mention the Selected poems of Macleod which I edited (for Waterloo). The reply was that no, I couldn’t mention it, but I could mention the fact that I hadn’t mentioned it. There was a rumour about material being found in the Buffalo typescript that wasn’t in the published book - sections on the ‘transitions’ (solstices?), I believe - but Owens has chosen not to include these, probably because a rigorous approach to editing would take the author’s decision on what the extent of the text was as binding - like all other authorial decisions.
I just want to mention a sampler which Macleod claims to have used in the first section. This was stitched by a girl aged 12 in 1806. The girl was named Ann Annall and her name also means an annal, i.e. the cycle of a year. Anna, an old Roman goddess, Anna perenna, had associations with the year - and her name may mean “ring”. The ecliptic is also an annal, an annual ring. The sampler belonged to John Fothergill, who ran an inn near Oxford in the 1920s and wrote memoirs.
Swansea is now twinned with Ferrara and has a “Tower of the Ecliptic”, with reference to the Schifanoia frescoes. This was built in 1989.