Sunlight on the Garden

Louis MacNeice

‘Sunlight on the Garden’ by Louis MacNeice is a poem about change, death, and accepting that life eventually ends.

Louis MacNeice

Nationality: Ireland

Louis MacNeice was a well-regarded member of the Auden-Spender-Day Lewis group, although not the most famous.

He collaborated with Auden on Letters from Iceland.

Key Poem Information

Central Message: Life eventually comes to an end.

Themes: Aging, Death, Love

Speaker: Louis MacNeice

Emotions Evoked: Compassion, Confusion, Sadness

Poetic Form: Sestet

Time Period: 20th Century

This highly personal and deeply sad poem contains the poet's acknowledgement that change, particularly growing old, is unavoidable.

The poem describes the changes that are going on in the poet’s life through natural images and examples of figurative language.

This poem was written in late 1936 and was first published as ‘Song’ in The Listener Magazine in January of the following year. It was later included in MacNeice’s third collection, The Earth Compells, published in 1938. It is one of the best-known poems that MacNeice composed in his career. 

Sunlight on the Garden by Louis MacNeice 


Context

According to those who knew the poet, Louis MacNeice wrote the piece for his first wife, Mary, after their divorce in late 1936. It’s deeply sad but also quite beautiful. MacNeice was likely inspired by his new flat at 4a Keats Grove (which had a garden) when he wrote this short poem. 

Summary 

‘Sunlight on the Garden’ by Louis MacNeice is a moving poem about change. 

In the first part of this poem, the speaker begins by describing the waning sunlight on the garden. This change is used as a symbol for the more important changes that are occurring in the poet’s life. He alludes to accepting his own mortality and appreciating the happy times he had, even though they’re now in the past. 

You can read the full poem here.

Structure and Form 

‘Sunlight on the Garden’ by Louis MacNeice is a twenty-four-line poem. It is divided into four stanzas of six lines each, known as sestets. The poet uses a formal structure in this text, something that is common in his work. All the lines use variations of trimeter except for the fifth line of each stanza. Throughout, the poet uses the rhyme scheme of ABCBBA. This interesting rhyme scheme can be related to the content of the text. As the poem progresses, readers can feel the poet making a circle of sorts, setting upon feelings of gratitude he didn’t have at first. 

There are also examples of internal rhyme in this piece, like “lances /Advances” between lines one and two of stanza two. 

Literary Devices 

In this piece, MacNeice uses a few different literary devices. These include: 

  • Anaphora: the repetition of the same word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “We” which starts two lines of stanza one. 
  • Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sounds at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “cannot cage” in line three of stanza one and “freedom” and “free” in the first line of stanza two. 
  • Personification: can be seen when the poet describes caging the minute with “its nets of gold.” 
  • Allusion: the poet references the universal experience of aging and the acceptance of mortality in this text. 


Detailed Analysis 

Stanza One 

The sunlight on the garden
Hardens and grows cold,
We cannot cage the minute
Within its nets of gold;
When all is told
We cannot beg for pardon.

In the first stanza of this poem, the speaker begins by describing the lessening sunlight in a garden. What was once warm and bright is now cold and darkening. The poet had recently gone through a divorce from his wife, Mary. He was likely drawing on experiences from his personal life as inspiration. So, the darkening of the light is likely a symbol of the changes he’s been going through. His life is not lighter without his wife; in fact, it seems far darker. 

As the poem progresses, the symbol of light to dark and warmth to cold also comes to symbolize aging and the passage of time.

The poet uses several different literary techniques in the stanza, including a metaphor. He does so by personifying time and describing how he might like to stop its progression by capturing the minute in a net of gold (the gold being a representative of the warmth of the sun and the happier times in his life). 

Stanza Two

Our freedom as free lances

(…)

We shall have no time for dances.

The speaker knows that not only has one important relationship in his life come to a close, but he also senses that his life is steadily ending or advancing toward its end. The freedom that he once felt when he thought about the future and his relationship has been destroyed.

He relates was feeling to the world around him well, also alluding to literary works of the past, sonnets, that often focus on themes of love and death. 

The final line of this stanza reads, “we shall have no time for dances.” He directed this line toward his “friend,” perhaps a person with whom he was close during this, or maybe his now ex-wife. He knows that soon all of their lives will come to a close, and the happy times they once experienced symbolize their “time for dances” ending.

Stanza Three 

The sky was good for flying

(…)

We are dying, Egypt, dying

Previously, it felt easy to defy time and the “church bells” (which are rung for a funeral). But now that death feels so much closer, it’s no longer easy to muster the strength, happiness, and energy, to defy death and ignore one’s own mortality. He hears the bells and the other symbols in his life, and he knows that they’re all telling him one thing: “We are dying.” 

Stanza Four 

And not expecting pardon,

(…)

For sunlight on the garden.

The poem comes full circle in its final stanza, bringing the reader back to images of the garden in the sunlight from the first stanza. When the speaker previously expressed distress or sadness over the passing of time and the changes they’ve experienced, now they look at their life with acceptance. They’re grateful for the time they got to spend with “you” and for the “Thunder and rain” too (or the less happy times).  

FAQs 

What is the message of ‘Sunlight on the Garden?’ 

The message of this poem is that although everyone is eventually forced to contend with their mortality, it is important to express gratitude for the happy times one has had. This is something that’s symbolized through the sunlight on the garden.

What is the theme of ‘Sunlight on the Garden?’

The theme of ‘Sunlight on the Garden’ is change. The changes are manifold in this poem, from light to dark and warm to cold, as well as changes in the poet’s personal life and his recognition of his mortality. 

What is ‘Sunlight on the Garden’ about?

‘Sunlight on the Garden’ is about the changes that one endures throughout life and how as death draws closer, it becomes harder to ignore one’s own mortality. 

What is the importance of ‘Sunlight on the Garden?’

‘Sunlight on the Garden’ is one of Louse MacNeice’s most-commonly read poems. It was published in his third collection and written soon after his divorce from his wife, Mary.


Similar Poetry 

Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other Louis MacNeice poems. For example: 

  • Prayer Before Birth– a poem that was written during World War Two that describes its horrors
  • Snow’ – a seemingly straightforward winter poem that is, in the end, far more complex. 
  • Meeting Point’ – is an interesting poem that speaks on the life cycles of relationships. 

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About
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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