Time and tide : a study of the poetry of George MacDonald
Parsons, Margaret R.
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George MacDonald is known now chiefly for his fantasies and fairy tales. His poetry has been largely ignored of recent years, in part because of his mainly devotional subject-matter, but even more because of his prolix and undistinguished style. Though he was a skilful translator, and, when emotionally aroused, handled his native Scots vernacular with simplicity and grace, poems of this kind are in the minority in the MacDonald canon. Another major objection to his poetry is that it is too uniformly optimistic to carry real conviction. But though his faith in God was in fact deep and lasting, a study of his life shows that he did indeed suffer from depression, stemming largely from his own experience of repeated illness and multiple bereavements. Believing, however, that the poet must be a channel for the voice of God, and feeling it wrong to disseminate strongly negative emotions, he expressed such emotions infrequently and obliquely. His deepest feelings surfaced through the medium of extraordinarily vivid dreams, which show an affinity with archetypal opium dreams: understandably, in view of his medical history. In poems of oneiric origin his melancholy and morbidity find expression, all the more effective for being more obscure than is usual with MacDonald. Death, whether of the soul or the body, was his main topic, followed by Time, the two being for him virtually synonymous. Poems on these subjects, especially those in the vernacular, express a complex nature in effective literary form. Like his best prose, they belong to the genre of allegorical fantasy. The twelve poems chosen for analysis are effective representations of his subconscious, derived from dreams, and conveyed through fantasy. In contrast to the bulk of his work, these poems express his unresolved spiritual perplexities. With the aid of many prose analogues to augment an awareness of MacDonald's rich levels of connotation, the reader may become much more aware that at least this part of his poetry has been neglected unjustly.