‘Meeting point’, by Louis MacNeice

Time was away and somewhere else,
There were two glasses and two chairs
And two people with the one pulse
(Somebody stopped the moving stairs)
Time was away and somewhere else.

And they were neither up nor down;
The stream’s music did not stop
Flowing through heather, limpid brown,
Although they sat in a coffee shop
And they were neither up nor down.

The bell was silent in the air
Holding its inverted poise –
Between the clang and clang a flower,
A brazen calyx of no noise:
The bell was silent in the air.

The camels crossed the miles of sand
That stretched around the cups and plates;
The desert was their own, they planned
To portion out the stars and dates:
The camels crossed the miles of sand.

Time was away and somewhere else.
The waiter did not come, the clock
Forgot them and the radio waltz
Came out like water from a rock:
Time was away and somewhere else.

Her fingers flicked away the ash
That bloomed again in tropic trees:
Not caring if the markets crash
When they had forests such as these,
Her fingers flicked away the ash.

God or whatever means the Good
Be praised that time can stop like this,
That what the heart has understood
Can verify in the body’s peace
God or whatever means the Good.

Time was away and she was here
And life no longer what it was,
The bell was silent in the air
And all the room one glow because
Time was away and she was here.

MacNeice’s poem Meeting point is a magisterial expression of the extraordinary way in which time can seem to be suspended during intense moments of human connection. It describes the very ordinary scene of two lovers sitting together in a café and ‘having a moment’ – a ‘moment’ that transports them out of time and place.  The poet also manages to inject a subtle but sustained tension throughout the piece – a vague, nagging threat in the background of this blissful moment – which adds an extra dimension to the whole thing.

The crux issue of Meeting point seems to me to be Time. Each stanza is contained within a repeated refrain – the first line of each is later revisited as the final line of each. This structure, and the use of sing-song rhyming, adds to the effect of Time being suspended or controllable. “Time was away and somewhere else”, begins the speaker. I love this refrain and the way it sounds like the start of a nursery rhyme. The speaker purposefully begins by describing solid things (as if to say ‘I can tell you what was there for sure even if I can’t explain where Time went’): “There were two glasses and two chairs/ And two people with the one pulse”. This is the safe territory of inanimate objects – easy to quantify and pin down. And the couple are in love – they share a pulse. He adds “Somebody stopped the moving stairs”. This image of the escalator having been stopped adds perfectly to the general effect of the endless loop of Time pausing for these two people.

The line ‘And they were neither up nor down’ is of course straight out of the nursery rhyme, The grand old Duke of York. The use of this phrase is incredibly clever. Through it, MacNeice delivers a sense that these two lovers are in a sort of limbo – a world of childish wonder and naivety – waiting for the clock to recommence its ticking – waiting for reality to set in. The idea of their surroundings being very banal and ordinary is accentuated by the “limpid brown” music “flowing through heather”. Here is one of many displacements in the poem – suddenly we are out among the heather “Although they sat in a coffee shop”.

“The bell was silent in the air”; I love this line, which opens the third stanza. For me, this silent bell is a solemn timekeeper – we are waiting for it to toll again and release these two people from the spell of their moment of intense connection. I think this bell could also be read as withholding judgment on them. There is a great sense of tension (“Holding its inverted poise”). Also, “between the clang and clang” is “a flower,/ A brazen calyx of no noise“. This, I think, is making reference to Keats’ “spirit ditties of no tone” in Ode on a Grecian Urn, which is another poem about the nature of Time (“Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/ Are sweeter”, wrote Keats). I think that MacNeice is suggesting here that this moment is the most precious this couple will ever have – nothing has happened yet – it is perhaps their first meeting – they are the untainted, fictitious, painted characters on the Urn. They will never grow old – their love will never fade – because they exist within this poem. MacNeice has immortalised their Meeting point forever.

Moving into the fourth verse, we are immediately transported again into a place far distant from the coffee shop, this time to a place more exotic – the desert: “The camels crossed the miles of sand”. There being miles of sand between the “cups and plates” gives us an idea of just how far Time is stretching out within this moment. Sand is always connected with the notion of Time (hourglasses etc.) but this desert is “their own” and they “planned/ To portion out the stars and dates”. The couple, within their eternal moment, make plans about their future together – their stars and dates.

As happens in all moments of bliss, the awareness of mortality has disappeared in this moment, and this is communicated through the refrain “Her fingers flicked away the ash”. This is such a carefree action – flicking away the idea of death. This is what Keats was saying in Urn and what I think is generally accepted to be true of poetry – it is an attempt to slow time down, to pause it even, give us relief from its endless, inevitable passing, and also relieve us of our awareness of death.

The final stanza is a marvel. I just love the way MacNeice brings all these elements to such a neat conclusion. “Time was away and she was here”; this refrain gets to the real reason for all this bliss and stopping of time – she was here. This is all that matters, ultimately, which is why this as our final line as well. The bell is still “hanging in the air” but it no longer matters to the speaker; he has seemingly arrived at the realisation that this moment is eternal and that, regardless of what follows –  whatever pain and trials the future may hold for the couple – they will always exist in this one bright, glowing moment of pure connection that can never fade:

“All the room one glow because/ Time was away and she was here”.

Louis MacNeice

Louis MacNeice