Steve Whitaker, Literary Editor

Poem Of The Week : Thalassa By Louis MacNeice (1907-1963)


Put out to sea, my broken comrades
Let the old seaweed crack, the surge
Burgeon, oblivious of the last
Embarkation of feckless men
Let every adverse force converge
Here we must needs embark again.

Run up the sail, my heartsick comrades,
Let each horizon tilt and lurch.
You know the worst, your wills are fickle
Your values blurred, your hearts impure
And your past lives a ruined church
But let your poison be your cure.

Put out to sea, ignoble comrades,
Whose records shall be noble yet
Butting through scarps of moving marble
The narwhal dares us to be free
By a high star our course is set
Our end is life. Put out to sea.

Photo by Karl Fredrickson on Unsplash
Photo by Karl Fredrickson on Unsplash
Supposedly Louis MacNeice’s final poem, there is a valedictory quality to ‘Thalassa’. Lacking the interpretative complexity of much of the poet’s earlier work, the poem bears an unmistakable tonal kinship with Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’: forthright, shot through with a sense of human weakness, MacNeice’s narrator encourages defiance in the ‘broken comrades’, for whom the journey will become an existential imperative.

Ploughing a determined furrow towards the unknown, the poet’s formal, rhyming sestets provide a robust structure for an odyssey. The narrator’s Lear-like invoking of burgeoning surges and ‘adverse forces’ is a brazen tempting of fate in a sea that hoves into view, like one more force to be overcome, in the concluding stanza.

The frailties that MacNeice describes in the second verse are manifold, emblematic of a wider acceptance of what it means to be human; calling the ‘impure’, the ‘ignoble’ and the ‘fickle’ to arms, the poet finds negative metaphorical vigour in virtue’s obverse – the ‘ruined church’ and ‘poison’ of experience are restored to nobility in the embattled struggle.

Freedom is conferred in the effort of will expended: the pristine image of the narwhal and the alabaster wave tops as the boat shears the water, is a beautiful conflation which underwrites in eloquent marbling, an equation between endurance, liberty and idealism.

‘Thalassa’ is taken from The New Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1950 and is published by the Oxford University Press (1972)