Freewheeling down the escarpment past the unpassing horse
Blazoned in chalk the wind he causes in passing
Cools the sweat of his neck, making him one with the sky,
In the heat of the handlebars he grasps the summer
Being a boy and to-day a parenthesis
Between the horizon’s brackets; the main sentence
Is to be picked up later but these five minutes
Are all to-day and summer. The dragonfly
Rises without take-off, horizontal,
Underlining itself in a sliver of peacock light.
And glaring, glaring white
The horse on the down moves within his brackets,
The grass boils with grasshoppers, a pebble
Scutters from under the wheel and all this country
Is spattered white with boys riding their heat-wave,
Feet on a narrow plank and hair thrown back
And a surf of dust beneath them. Summer, summer —
They chase it with butterfly nets or strike it into the deep
In a little red ball or gulp it lathered with cream
Or drink it through closed eyelids; until the bell
Left-right-left gives his forgotten sentence
And reaching the valley the boy must pedal again
Left-right-left but meanwhile
For ten seconds more can move as the horse in the chalk
Moves unbeginningly calmly
Calmly regardless of tenses and final clauses
Calmly unendingly moves.
There’s an extensive prose literature of cycling, but not many good poems. This is one of the best: Louis MacNeice, writing just after World War 2. Quite a typical poem for the author, another of his ‘moment[s] cradled like a brandy glass’. Here the boy freewheeling down past the white horse experiences a time outside time, just as what is placed in parentheses in a sentence is separated from the sentence’s ongoing sense. The poem’s inventive play on brackets involves the encircling halves of the horizon, and the vast cursive sweeps which make up the Uffington white horse (as I think it must be). Maybe the handlebars are also bracket shapes which the rider is between.
As time stands still, the poem connects the freewheeling boy – who is of course moving without having to move – with other notions of being at once static and moving. The verbal Instamatic photo of the dragonfly is exactly right: they do hover before darting away so quickly that they seem to leave a retinal burn of their colour behind them. The white horse itself is a vast capturing of movement on something that is immemorially still, part of the landscape itself. Despite its appearance of motion, the horse is ‘unpassing’: it goes nowhere, but neither has it passed away over time. The poem opens and closes with ‘unpassing’ and ‘unending’-ness, the wordplay in the opening line introducing the theme of our mortal passing.
Time resumes – the poem hints that life is going to be all uphill pedaling after this moment when time was under control. A swinging church bell will toll the passing hour, the cyclist will have to resume his effort: we are all under sentence, and must come to the full stop.
The final section of the poem initially evokes other ways to grasp the summer: indulgent in describing such indulgences, but justified poetically, as the effect MacNeice wants requires a long, loping syntactic unit which itself hovers between the poetry of ‘meanwhile’, and that dealing with the resumption of normal time and effort.
The ending of the poem is beatific, a flurry of adverbs attached to that repeated verb ‘moves’ which the poem has neutralized. Paradoxically, freewheeling down Dragon Hill – all speed and danger – has led to a closing mantra of ‘calmly / Calmly … Calmly’. The fear implied earlier in the poem has been stilled, mortality is now ‘calmly’ accepted because of such moments of union with the unchanging, touching even us with unendingness, can be had – or be imagined in poems.
Cycling was good this last weekend. Having indulged myself, I must now go and mark some year one poetry essays. The photo is from my own collection, just someone's dad (whose?), but it had the right kind of ambience.