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Poem of the week: Critique of Judgement by Andrew McNeillie


McNeillie's impressionistic picture of a remote landscape explores the existence of evil and the human response to beauty

Critique of Judgement, this week's poem, is by Andrew McNeillie and can be found in his latest Carcanet collection, Winter Moorings. Tracing "a north-western trajectory from the Aran Islands to the Hebrides", the texts are sometimes given a specific location (Lafan, Port Sheánia), sometimes consciously de-located (On Not Sailing to St Kilda) and often situated simply in weather, seascape, time. In other words, McNeillie's poetic loci are more fluid and elusive than the archipelagic topologies they source. Nevertheless, they exhale the strong breath of "place".

The transformation that initiates this poem ("And suddenly the view …") might reflect a traveller's change of perspective, or a particular angle of light, diurnal or seasonal, which reveals a new aspect of the landscape. The artist imagined responsible for these effects is gendered by the pronoun "her" – a neat displacement of the stereotype of feminised earth. Her pastels "blunt" edges and contrasts but find fresh, if shadowy, colours. When the speaker, in a nicely wry descent into colloquialism, declares, "Things for which god knows I'm a soft touch", it's as if he had himself been charged by the "soft touch" of the landscape colourist – who, as we'll see, turns out to be that old chameleon, Dame Nature.

Unexpected plurals in this stanza brighten Nature's familiar Darwinian bloodiness, "red in tooth and claw", as Tennyson expressed it nine years in advance of Darwin. The gauze/claws rhyme helps the effect; "gauze", being associated with bandages, brings the killing-fields closer to the human body. Evidence of the poet's Yeatsian quarrel with himself, the teeth and claws acknowledged by the intellect and the "visionary appearance" which is irrational but salving are set candidly side by side. The triumph of the visionary, some would say, indicates that there's a higher or deeper truth that transcends insoluble human logic. The poet's lower-case "god" suggests full concession to the secular: it's the aesthetic sense that generates visions felt as eternal truth. However, the epiphany is no less potent. McNeillie's conclusion recalls the insight Keats declaimed, via a startling chiasmus, at the close of the Ode on a Grecian Urn: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty …". McNeillie, too, employs an effective rhetorical device (oxymoron) when his last line indicts "pure reason's incoherence". There's also a Wordsworthian attitude to memory operating in the last stanza. The scene is promised to the "inward eye" of the poet's imagination, albeit to be recollected in extremis rather than in tranquillity.

The phrase "pure reason" and the title, Critique of Judgement, allude of course to Kant. But the poem is a poem, not an argument. It admits, without reconciling, the existence of evil and the validity of the human response to beauty.

I don't know where Critique of Judgement is set but it describes a view of mountains and hills that feels familiar. I've seen it in several parts of the British Isles and Ireland. I can almost see it now, from my kitchen window. At the moment, the hills are hidden in wintry, wet March murk. But when the sun breaks through later, I shall be able to look out, and see this poem.

Critique of Judgement

And suddenly the view looks as though
An artist had been busy with her pastels,
Blunting the mountains and the hills
With mist of cloud and blue-green shadow:

Things for which god knows I'm a soft touch
No matter I can see through the gauze
To Nature red in teeth and claws
And hardship far beyond her crayon's reach.

This is what I call visionary appearance
To save me from the worst when I most need it
As when at any hour of day or night
I wake before pure reason's incoherence.

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