Louis MacNeice’s Private Pain and Public Anxiety

The final poem in Louis MacNeice’s collection Plant and Phantom (1941) is the lyric, “Cradle Song”:

Sleep, my darling, sleep;
The pity of it all
Is all we compass if
We watch disaster fall.
Put off your twenty-odd
Encumbered years and creep
Into the only heaven,
The robbers’ cave of sleep.

The wild grass will whisper,
Lights of passing cars
Will streak across your dreams
And fumble at the stars;
Life will tap the window
Only too soon again,
Life will have her answer –
Do not ask her when.

When the winsome bubble
Shivers, when the bough
Breaks, will be the moment
But not here or now.
Sleep and, asleep, forget
The watchers on the wall
Awake all night who know
The pity of it all.

The poem had already appeared between hard covers, in Poems 1925–1940, published in the United States at the beginning of 1941. There, too, it was the final poem in the book; there, too, it was assigned a date of composition (“October, 1940”); and there it bore as a subtitle the dedication “For Eleanor”, which in Plant and Phantom is carried by the whole book (dedicated “To Eleanor Clark”). “Cradle Song” concentrates its autobiographical meaning in a repeated phrase – “The pity of it all” – that fuses the attentiveness of a lover with a broader and more melancholy kind of watchfulness.