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Analysis of The Sunlight on the Garden, by Louis MacNeice

To fully understand a poem and its meaning, it is usually helpful to know something of its form. This poem has a definite form, but it is slightly flawed. The meter changes from line to line, which does help to break up what may have been monotonous, but it does not follow the rhyme scheme, and it is difficult in some lines to determine if the feet are iambic or trochaic. Since the English language tends to have a more melodic quality in iambic meter, the reader may begin with that assumption. Generally, the poem makes use of this, but does change occasionally, as in lines four and five of each stanza, which are trochaic. The first and last lines may sound awkward if forced into iambic, so it can be said that they too are exceptions. Lines two and fourteen are special exceptions, in that both 'church' and 'bells', along with 'grows' and 'cold', are accented. Additionally, lines two, eight, twelve and eighteen have odd numbers of syllables, which forces a reader to slur together words like 'toward' and 'we are'. Despite this wrenching of the poem, it maintains a fluid sound when read aloud.

The meaning of the poem is very subtle, but when clues are discovered, it becomes more apparent to the reader. Certain devices draw attention to words—benefitting the reader by causing a natural pause or emphasis. The first of these is in line two. 'Grows cold' slows down the pace of the line because of its awkward meter and difficulty in separating the s and c when speaking. Furthermore, the image of cold and hardened sunlight is difficult to grasp without the context of the rest of the work. The special emphasis suggests that they mean more than what they may seem to. Also, lines fourteen and fifteen use alliteration to draw attention and may have special meaning.

The third line begins to build a metaphor that carries on through the second and third stanzas, which is that of a cage or prison. One might imagine a cage, with steely bars, being cold, and this makes sense when combined with line two. Oddly, what is being referred to in the cage is time, perhaps the limited time when the sunlight strikes the garden. In the next line, another image of capture or restriction is introducedóthe nets of golden sunlightóattempting to capture 'the minute'. The last two lines of the stanza give a sense of hopelessness and despair.

The second stanza becomes even more abstract than the first, again an image of captivity in the first line with the word 'freedom'. The freedom, though, is advancing toward its end, which is slightly different from the caged image of the first stanza. In the first stanza, the reader is left with an impression of caged despair, but here, there is some freedom, even though it will soon end. The 'freedom' could be a metaphor for the sunlight, or perhaps the sunlight could be a metaphor for freedom. The distinction cannot be made, yet, whether the poem is describing actual scenes of a garden, or if the garden is a poetic device for something else.

In line nine, a personified earth compels the sunlight to bring sonnets and birdsóimages of beauty, but this is quickly lost in the next line, which also hints at whom the speaker is talking toóa friendóand they will have no more time for dances. Again the themes of despair and of things coming to an end.

The third stanza continues with abstraction, which tends to suggest that the poem is not about an actual garden, or even an actual beam of sunlight, but the overall tone may suggest something else. The first four lines are difficult to interpret, but seem to suggest that the speaker is now able to fly, or perhaps is attempting to relate to something that can fly. Perhaps it refers to the sunlight. Whatever it is that flies, it defies church bells and evil sirensóthe church bells suggesting piety and the sirens , perhaps, contrasting temptation. The last two lines offer no more insight into the meaning of the poem, except that the earth compels the speaker and the speaker's friend to die.

The last stanza begins with the despondent line 'And not expecting pardon', but continues with an unexpected enlightenment. This stanza finally offers the clue necessary to tie the previous stanzas together. With hardened heart, the speaker reflects on the past, and is glad to have spent time with the friend through thunder and rain. Indeed, the speaker is grateful for the moments of sunlight that fell on the garden.

The subtlety of the poem makes it rather resonating, but at the same time, makes it difficult to understand. Certain words, and their pivotal roles, change the meaning significantly. The word 'lances' in line seven could be referring to a bird, which fits with the images of the third stanza and the word 'free' preceding it. The next line, though, suggests that it is a lance such as a soldier would use, and the word 'advances' is often used in association with marching columns of soldiers, however, there are only tenuous interpretations of words that suggest a military theme. The word 'Siren' is also ambiguous. It could refer to the evil Siren's songs that led sailors to their deaths, or it could refer to alarm sirens.

Perhaps the most central, and perhaps the most ambiguous line, is eighteen. Not only does the line have eight syllables where the reader might expect seven, but the personification of Egypt suggests the ruler of that country. This could be an allusion to Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, where Marc Antony tells her that he is dying from his wounds. This interpretation supports the use of lances and sirens as military images. Also, the concepts of pardoning, freedom and confinement in a cage, when taken in this context, could all be militaristic conceptions.

Given the abstract nature of the poem, it is likely that it is referencing a speaker who is captured by the sight of sunlight on a garden because of his or her confinement. An image of a prisoner gazing despairingly out of a window and waxing poetic can come to mind under this pretext, but there is little in the poem to determine that.

When all is told, to borrow a line, it is difficult to register a precise moment or occurrence that the speaker refers to, however, it is clear that the speaker feels hopelessly confined, hardened of heart, yearns for freedom, has little time or is dying, and finds nothing of beauty except an old friendship and an occasional view of sunlight on a gardenóa few moments of joy in a terrible existence.

The Sunlight on the Garden

The sunlight on the garden 1 A
Hardens and grows cold, B
We cannot cage the minute C
Within its nets of gold, B
When all is told 5 B
We cannot beg for pardon. A
Our freedom as free lances D
Advances towards its end; E
The earth compels, upon it F
Sonnets and birds descend; 10 E
And soon, my friend, E
We shall have no time for dances. D
The sky was good for flying G
Defying the church bells H
And every evil iron 15 I
Siren and what it tells: H
The earth compels, H
We are dying, Egypt, dying G
And not expecting pardon, A
Hardened in heart anew, 20 K
But glad to have sat under L
Thunder and rain with you, K
And grateful too K
For sunlight on the garden. A

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