Sunday 25 September 2016

The Sunday poem: Brother Fire

Anthony Cronin's personal anthology

Anthony Cronin

Published 27/07/2015 | 02:30

Anthony Cronin. Photo by Tony Gavin
Anthony Cronin. Photo by Tony Gavin

Louis MacNeice fire-watched during the War, like other writers of his age (the "progressive" novelists and poets fictionalised in Evelyn Waugh's Put Out More Flags for example). Fire-watching was different from fire-fighting. It consisted of watching for flames, often perched on a roof-top in the small hours.

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Little difficulty about that you may say, with all of London burning. What may have been vastly more difficult was to acknowledge the poet's ''elemental joy" at these fires. It was Thanatos which Freud had reluctantly called into being and made part of his mythology rather late in the day to account for what has become known as the First World War and its destructiveness and death-dealing. Thanatos, the destructive principle, was opposed to Eros, the creative one. But, as in MacNeice's poem, the distinction was not always that easy to make. There is a joy in destructiveness too.

Brother Fire

When our brother Fire was having his dog's day

Jumping the London streets with millions of tin cans

Clanking at his tail, we heard some shadows say

'Give the dog a bone' - and so we gave him ours;

Night after night we watched him slaver and crunch away

The beams of human life, the tops of topless towers.

Which gluttony of his for us was Lenten fare

Who mother-naked, suckled with sparks, were chill

Though cotted in a grille of sizzling air

Striped like a convict - black, yellow and red;

Thus were we weaned to knowledge of the Will

That wills the natural world but wills us dead.

O delicate walker, babbler, dialectician Fire,

O enemy and image of ourselves,

Did we not on those mornings after the All Clear,

When you were looting shops in elemental joy

And singing as you swarmed up city block and spire,

Echo your thoughts in ours? 'Destroy! Destroy!'

Louis MacNeice

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