Paper 1 Commentary on Louis MacNeice’s Entirely
Can we ever acquire or grasp anything in full? That is the question which Louis MacNeice explores in the poem ‘Entirely’ (1941). In each of three stanzas, the speaker imagines a form of entirety and opposes it with the real world. Through structure, imagery and other literary techniques, MacNeice puts forth the view that in word, feeling and knowledge, we cannot have anything in its entirety.
The structure of the poem unifies the three attempts to possess the ‘whole’, while suggesting increasing hope and ultimate failure. The word ‘entirely’ crops up in the title, as well as in the end of the first and last lines of each stanza. In the beginning of the stanza, the realization of entirety is suggested, as in `If we could get the hang of it entirely’. But in the end, the word ‘entirely’ is used negatively. ‘Rarely’, for instance, can we capture ‘Even a phrase entirely’. The repetition of the word draws a parallel between the three stanzas and reminds the reader of the persona’s message. This technique is complemented by the use of the conditional. Each stanza opens with ‘if’, which announces a conditional structure. ‘If we could find … We should not fear’. The passage to the present tense, however, presents a different picture — ‘as it is, the spears each year go through / Our flesh’ — showing that what came before was impossible to realise. One subtle feature in the poem is that as the poem progresses, there is more hope of getting this ‘entirety’ and more delay to the disenchantment. In the first stanza, the speaker advances the idea of getting ‘the hang of it entirely’, but acknowledges in the second line that ‘it would take too long’: the rest of the stanza continues to deny the first idea, as though one should quickly resign oneself to that. In the second stanza, the speaker spends four lines picturing love in its entirety before returning to reality, as if clinging to the former more tenaciously. In the last stanza, the consequences of the imaginary black and white world spill over to the seventh line. This is followed by ‘brute reality’, the word ‘brute’ shoving aside all his previous thoughts. Both reader and speaker feel a rising anticipation and disappointment.
Figurative language reveals the fragmented nature of words and thoughts. The utterances we pick up are described as ‘the splash of words in passing’. The onomatopoeic ‘splash’ indicates the small quantity and fleeting nature of these words. The song we hear comes in ‘falling twigs’. Just as twigs are small branches of a larger tree, so we retain only bits and pieces of a much larger musical statement. We also ‘try to eavesdrop on the great / Presences’. This could refer to great works of theatre or oration, from which we cannot ‘appropriate … even an entire phrase’. A contrast is made between the grandeur and respectability of the ‘Presences’ on the one hand, and the furtive act of eavesdropping on the other, giving access to mere fragments. Eavesdropping also implies that we are not entitled to the whole work, as though it were a private conversation about which one can only learn incompletely and surreptitiously. Finally, the succession of images, the first two of which are shown very briefly, reflects our fragmentary thought process. Even as we learn that we hop from splash to twig to Presence, we do just that.
Vivid imagery depicts the interruptions to our passions, in which nobody lives entirely. To find happiness ‘entirely / In somebody else’s arms’, i.e. in love, would be to fear neither ‘the spears of the spring nor the city’s / Yammering fire alarms’. The reference to thorny plants as ‘spears’ heightens the pain they cause and gives them a certain agency (spears are thrown and not merely trampled on) which is doubly irritating. Similarly, ‘yammering’ personifies the alarms and compares them to annoying talkers. The shift from the rather elevated description of love to ‘fire alarms’ forces us to notice the more sordid aspects of life, which displace the finer ones against our will. ‘Each year’, the spears `go through / Our flesh’. Somewhat hyperbolic, the image reveals how distracting the pain is. The alarms are even worse: the ‘almost hourly / Bell or siren banishes the blue / Eyes of love entirely’. The frequency with which these bells go off reinforces the idea that one constantly returns to pedestrian matters, between moments of intense passion. The letter ‘b’ is alliterated in ‘bell’, ‘banishes’ and ‘blue’. Its plosive sound suggests the forceful expulsion of ‘Love’.
The diction in the third stanza shows simplicity and certainty to be fiction. Most of the words in the first two lines are monosyllabic — ‘And if the world were black or white entirely / And all the charts were plain’ — and transparent, almost as plain as the charts referred to. Yet the next two lines contain fantastical imagery. We have ‘a mad weir of tigerish waters’, a conflation of fish and tigers. The image of fish freeing themselves from a trap, a frenzy of confused activity, and the unclear association with tigers, express great complexity. Our feelings are also ‘a prism of delight and pain’, as though split and turned into a continuous spectrum. As the speaker leaves these descriptions, he goes back to the blandness of ‘We might be surer where we wished to go / Or again … merely / Bored’. The placing of the images between two plain passages heightens the contrast between simplicity and complexity. As stated above, ‘brute reality’ kicks aside the former and leaves us with the disturbing thought that no ‘Road … is right entirely’.
In sum, MacNeice beautifully convinces the reader that there is no such thing as entirety in our lives. The figurative language shows us and even assumes the form of the fragments of our language, which we can never make complete. Poignant tactile and auditory imagery displaces our otherwise single-minded passions, like love, in favour of physical pain and fire alarms. The images in the final stanza reject the plain simplicity the speaker imagines. The structure of the poem and the repetition of the watchword ‘entirely’ unify the three stanzas and tell us not to aspire to the completeness that the real world precludes.