Stillness and temporality in the poetry of Louis MacNeice

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This essay brings into focus letters and poems by Louis MacNeice (1907-1963) that engage with the museum as a place of silence, stillness, and refuge. From memories of the British Museum formed in his youth to encounters with art institutions in Britain and the USA, it looks afresh at four poems reflecting on the intense immobility of the museum experience: “Museums” (1933), “The British Museum Reading Room” (1939), “Picture Galleries” (1940), and “The National Gallery” (1945). These poems are read here in literary critical terms in relation to the history and theory of ekphrasis, and museology. The aim in so doing is to pursue these references as a poetics of stillness and refuge in the face of upheaval, both personal and societal. The essay shows how MacNeice offered both a critique of the immobility such retreat engendered, and an appreciation of its space of refuge, indicating that the museum was for him a layered or deeply resonant trope. Themes to emerge include voices of silence in the museal space, idleness and temporality in the ekphrastic encounter, enargeia and, ultimately, inspiration and Pentecost. In his words from “Autumn Sequel, Canto VIII”, MacNeice put the issue succinctly: “So to the galleries: to escape mankind / By rediscovering it” (MacNeice 2007, 409, l. 77).
Original languageEnglish
Article number2288
JournalPolysemes - Journal of Societe Anglophone Image et Texte
Publication statusPublished - 30 Nov 2017


  • Museum
  • Word/image
  • Ekphrasis
  • Museum-mausoleum
  • Stillness
  • Temporality
  • Refuge
  • Wartime


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