Louis MacNeice (1907-1963) was an Irish poet and playwright, part of WH Auden’s circle, which also included Stephen Spender and Cecil Day-Lewis. He didn’t share the ideological commitments of the group’s other members and his poetry is more detached, favouring understatement over hyperbole, with strong rhythms rather than sharp images rendering it memorable. “The Wiper” was published in The London Magazine in May 1960 along with “Restaurant Car” and “Reflections” and as an effort of his later years shows a mastery of the form, combining mystic elements with references to modern life, in this instance a car journey, to give us a moving meditation on past and future.
First published in the May 1960 issue of The London Magazine (Volume 7, No. 5).
Through purblind night the wiper
Reaps a swathe of water
On the screen; we shudder on
And hardly hold the road,
All we can see a segment
Of blackly shining asphalt
With the wiper moving across it
Clearing, blurring, clearing.
But what to say of the road?
The monotony of its hardly
Visible camber, the mystery
Of its invisible margins,
Will these be always with us,
The night being broken only
By lights that pass or meet us
From others in moving boxes?
Boxes of glass and water,
Upholstered, equipped with dials
Professing to tell the distance
We have gone, the speed we are going,
But not a gauge nor needle
To tell us where we are going
Or when day will come, supposing
This road exists in daytime.
For now we cannot remember
Where we were when it was not
Night, when it was not raining,
Before this car moved forward
And the wiper backward and forward
Lighting so little before us
Of a road that, crouching forward,
We watch move always towards us,
Which through the tiny segment
Cleared and blurred by the wiper
Is sucked in under our wheels
To be spewed behind us and lost
While we, dazzled by darkness,
Haul the black future towards us
Peeling the skin from our hands;
And yet we hold the road.
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