The poem, “The Cyclist”, by Louis MacNiece is a set about an insightful analogy on life. The poem is full of vivid imagery and beauty that conjures up delightful memories, and an overriding feeling of freedom. Through the poem MacNiece reminds us that we must truly treasure the brief but special moments of our childhood and life. MacNiece, through the poem, expresses “life” as a single sentence. His analogy is that life is a sentence, “the main sentence” represents our mechanical everyday ‘work’ life but between “the main sentence”, between the “horizon’s brackets” there lies our free time and leisure.
However these brackets are only “five minutes” of our life, these moments are scarce, just as this boy’s summer will pass so quickly by. So, from this we feel that the poet is telling us, life is short, grasp the sweet golden moments while you can, live in the “brackets”. The image of “the unpassing horse” further supports his message of savouring life. This image is used all throughout the poem as a comparison of being frozen in time, frozen in the “brackets” and ‘working’ life.
The description “Blazoned in chalk” suggest that the poet is talking about a large existing carving in Sussex, South England on the chalk downs. Perhaps a memory of his childhood summer vacations. The run on lines in the poem create a lazy mood to the poem. We feel the smooth languidness of the lines as we read the poem and almost feel the heat. This mood promotes the theme of “freedom” expressed in the poem. The very first word “Freewheeling” conjures up a sense of ‘carefree’ enjoyment.
The delightful description “the wind he causes in passing/ Cools the sweat of his neck, making him one with the sky” expresses the absolute freedom and bliss of summer. The description of being “one with the sky” is very sublime; it demonstrates the openness and endless opportunities of being in the “brackets”. The imaginary world of childhood is put forth in the idea of grasping “summer” in the handlebars of the boy’s bicycle. We almost feel that we are in the imaginary world, the perfect world to this child.
Similarly, we also come across a delightful idea of catching summer with butterfly nets in the third stanza. This imagery further promotes the idea of freedom in the poem. The boy is described as a “parenthesis”, this further suggests that he is not in the “real world”; he is not part of the main sentence – not for now anyway. The line “Is to be picked up later but these five minutes” suggests that these “five minutes” lived “between the brackets” are scares and need to be savoured. The enchanting imagery of the dragonfly is the poet’s representation of how effortless summer is.
The vivid imagery of a dragonfly, effortlessly taking off, “horizontal” is a metaphor for the ‘work-free atmosphere” of summer, and the pleasure this is. The next line “Underlining itself in a silver peacock light” seems to be referring back to the sentence of life, that the “parenthesis” between the brackets is underscored, suggesting that it is looked forward to. The second stanza if full of intense imagery that sets adds much colouring to poem. He commences it with a reference to the “unpassing horse”, he describes it as being “glaring, glaring white” conveying the attractiveness.
This along with the personification of the horse carving: “moves within his brackets” suggests that as the horse is also at the downs, it is moving, and enjoying the summer too, perhaps also expressing a desire to obtain the horse, obtain the complete freedom of summer vacations. The heat of summer in emphasised through the description of the grasshoppers. The word “boils” is used very cleverly, as it conveys both the bubbling, bursting movement of the tiny grasshoppers as well as the heat of the day.
The description of the pebble is also very clever, it moves from the focus of one small object and then expands, using the numbers of small pebbles on the dirt road as a representation of the number of boys riding in the downs. The words “heat-wave” and “surf” are used to suggest that the dirt track is like dry water, as the hot air ripples over the ground, waves of dust are created. This in our minds also creates an image of the beach on hot summers days, and the refreshing feeling of the wind on our sweaty face as our “hair is thrown back”.
The issue of nostalgia is also present in the poem. Through the use of imagery the poet presents this idea in the third stanza. The boys “chase” summer, they long for it to last. The description of the “little red ball” is a reference to a cricket ball, this instantly suggests the poet is English as cricket is a popular sport in England. The idea of trapping summer is also suggested in the description of the cricket ball; the idea that you can strike it into the “deep”, and hold it forever. The next two references speak of the pleasure of “soaking” in summer.
The idea of being “lathered” in cricket creams in summer is an extremely insightful one, suggesting the stickiness of the cricket creams onto the boys’ body due to the intense heat and perspiration. We are again brought to the idea of freedom though the idea of drinking summer “through closed eyelids”. We can just imagine the image of a boy lying in downs with his eyes closed and just soaking in the summer rays. This description is approached by three unpunctuated run on lines, this allows the sentences to drag and promote this free, lazy feeling.
The first interruption of the “lazy” mood of the poem is at the semi-colon in the third stanza. The first image of our mechanical work lives is given by the word “bell”, this is most probably representing a school bell sounding the start of school. The “Left-right-left” symbolises the orderly restrictiveness of school and schoolwork, restrictions that are not faced during the summer. The idea of being absolutely lost in summer is conveyed by the words “his forgotten sentence”, representing the idea of forgetting completely about the worries and pressures of school life, forgetting the “main sentence”.
“Reaching the valley” represents reaching the end of something, in this case the end of the summer vacation. The words ‘the boy must pedal again” is a metaphor of the need for the boy to work again, to live back in the “main sentence”. Yet, even with this restrictive need, the idea of nostalgia is present as “for ten seconds more” the boy can move “as the horse in the chalk”, meaning for a little time longer the boys mind is still free and ingrossed in summer, just as the horse in the chalk moves forever within the brackets “unbeginningly” and “unendingly” regardless of the “tenses and final clauses” of the main sentence.
Thus the poet is expresses the idea of continually wishing for summer, even when it has gone. The poem “The Cyclist” exposes many ideas. It is a perceptive representation of our lives, and especially the carefree nature of childhood. Even at the end of the poem, the poet expresses his childish aspiration of living forever between the horizon’s “brackets” just as the chalk horse is. However, through the poem he does also show the reality – that we cannot live our lives like the chalk horse, for the chalk horse is forever between the brackets as it is only an image, a dream, so we must savour what “five minutes” of freedom we have.