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Archibald Macleish Essay, Research Paper

Still he stands

Watching the vortex widen and involve

in swirling dissolution the whole earth

and circle through the skies till swaying time

collapses, crumpling into dark the skies

-from the poem Einstein


Archibald MacLeish was always a loner. Although he married he was always wondering about man s relationship to the world. He wondered why people could not see that they were wasting the little time we have on this earth. He tried to show in his poems the reality of the emotions that words cannot describe. (Falk 27) Often he would include in his poems laws of nature and physics which gave him a unique style.

(Falk 24)


Archibald MacLeish was born in Glencoe, Illinois to an average middle class family. His father, Andrew MacLeish, was a businessman. His mother, Martha Hillard MacLeish, was a homemaker. His parents soon realized they had a very gifted son so they sent him to the Hotchkiss School. This school catered to his many different interests. Of all the things MacLeish excelled at he was the best at writing. Archibald graduated at the top of his class and was accepted to Yale University. While at Yale MacLeish studied law, but continued his writing and in his off time the university published a book of his works.

After Yale, MacLeish decided to focus on his poetry and his new wife and children. During this time off he wrote his first collaboration called Tower of Ivory Then in 1917 he went to France to serve in the war as a private. He rose from private to captain in just one year of service. Upon his return to the United States MacLeish began teaching at Harvard. While there he taught International Law and Constitutional Law which improved his grammar skills greatly. MacLeish was accepted by the Massachusetts bar in 1920. He began practicing law in Boston and continued to do that for three years. MacLeish then returned to France to focus on his writing. While in France MacLeish spent much time outdoors so he wrote about what he saw and what he thought of it. During his time in France, MacLeish wrote the poems The Happy Marriage , The Pot of Earth , and the controversial poem about religion called Nobodaddy. (Moritz 143)

MacLeish returned to America in 1928 and that same year he wrote The Hamlet of A. MacLeish. This book was a tribute to Shakespeare , but his work reflected that of his fellow poet ,T.S. Eliot. After writing that collaboration MacLeish took a two month trip to Mexico where he followed the trail of Cortes. With that experience MacLeish wrote the epic poem Conquistador for which he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for. He was also awarded the John Reed Memorial Award for poetry by Poetry magazine. (Falk 67)

MacLeish then made a career move into a different area of literature when he became the editor for Fortune magazine(Falk 91). At this time in his life MacLeish felt that society was heading in the wrong direction because of how much people depended on each other. He saw this as a blow to people s identity and their independence. MacLeish was a believer , like Thoreau, in self-government. He saw government as only a temporary necessity because of unruly people. MacLeish thought that a perfect society would have no need for a ruling body. In protest of this trend MacLeish became severely independent. He showed his fear for society in the poem Panic , which was written at the height if the stock market crisis(Magill 229).

In 1939 Archibald MacLeish became the librarian of Congress. This new field of work put an enormous amount of stress on him. More stress was on MacLeish because so many thought of him as a radical because of his views on government. People thought MacLeish was not responsible enough to hold an important job. In response to this he wrote the book The Irresponsibles which said ,in a sense, that people should mind their own business and worry about their own lives. MacLeish did so well at this job he was appointed assistant secretary of state in 1944.MacLeish held this position until his retirement ,after which he continued writing poetry until his death(Falk 94).


Archibald MacLiesh was such a diverse writer because of his many different occupations. He also had a large following because of the many different subjects he wrote on. His topics ranged from the beauty of nature to the wrongdoings of the government. He learned to use grammar well from doing briefs for his law studies and his law firm. Early in his career he tried to emulate all of the best poets and write like them(Moritz 153). MacLeish believed three poets brought on the revolutionary movement in poetry, these three were William Butler Yeats, Ezra Pound, and T.S. Eliot. MacLeish believed their poetry to be a revolt against the neurotic nineteenth-century idea of poetry. (MacLeish 165).

MacLeish lived through two World Wars, serving in the first, and the Great Depression. The wars only effected his poetry a little while he wrote about the Depression quite a lot. The poem Panic expresses the many diverse problems that the Depression gave way to. This poem has a very pessimistic mood to it that was probably brought on by the immense suffering his fellow Americans were going through(Magill 232).

The poetry MacLeish wrote while in France for the second time was very optimistic, but it still poses many questions that show that he was always wondering about the universe around him. The poem Streets in the Moon is a happy poem about the moon, but he still wonders why it is there. MacLeish thought the poetry of his era was very poor so he wrote a book as a sort of apology for all of his peers bad writing. This book of poetry was called Poetry and Opinion. Often MacLeish wrote about the social issues of the time such as when, at the height of the red scare,” he wrote a poem called The Trojan Horse . This poem was supposed to be symbolic of the foolish way the Americans were acting. MacLiesh would use symbolism to get across a point he wanted to make ,usually about society(Magill 225).

MacLeish s poetic style changed as he got older. His writing became more loose and less grammatically correct. He also became much more optimistic in his writing. His poetry became more spiritual and natural often focusing on heaven or some related item. MacLeish wrote his interpretation of the book of Job called J.B.; A play in verse. His main focus was always the people and the problems they faced. Poets said he was more of an activist than a poet, but they could not deny his incredible talent for poetry(Falk 173).

ARS POETICA by Archibald MacLeish

A poem should be palpable and mute

As a globed fruit,


As old medallions to the thumb,

Silent as the sleeve worn stone

Of casement ledges where the moss

has grown-

A poem should be wordless

As the flight of birds.

A poem should be motionless in time

As the moon climbs,

Leaving, as the moon releases

Twig by twig the night entangled trees,

Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,

Memory by memory the mind-

A poem should be motionless in time

As the moon climbs.

A poem should be equal to:

Not true.

For all the history of grief

An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

For love

The leaning grasses and two lights

above the sea-

A poem should not mean

But be.


The poem Ars Poetica is a lyric poem that uses perfect rhyme and an AABB rhyme scheme. MacLeish uses much figurative language, especially similes, and he uses iambic biameter throughout the poem. MacLeish uses a lot of symbolism to get his message across such as; A poem should be wordless as the flight of birds. (MacLeish 49) A bird flying is not wordless, but MacLeish uses that as saying that there are no words to describe the most beautiful things and a poem should be that way also. Critics say that this poem makes the point that a poem should be an intimation rather than a full statement. (Falk 41). It is also said that this poem is one of the chief doctrines of Imagism, which was a literary movement from 1910 to 1920. Imagism is supposed to create a single sharp image that evokes an emotional response. MacLeish creates the image of autumn and the night and then compares it to the beauty of the written word (MorItz.145).

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