The Taxis

Louis Macneice

The Taxis

In the first taxi he was alone tra-la,
No extras on the clock. He tipped ninepence
But the cabby, while he thanked him, looked askance
As though to suggest someone had bummed a ride.

In the second taxi he was alone tra-la
But the clock showed sixpence extra; he tipped according
And the cabby from out his muffler said: ‘Make sure
You have left nothing behind tra-la between you’.

In the third taxi he was alone tra-la
But the tip-up seats were down
and there was an extra
Charge of one-and-sixpence and an odd
Scent that reminded him of a trip to Cannes.

As for the fourth taxi, he was alone
Tra-la when he hailed it but the cabby looked
Through him and said: ‘I can’t tra-la well take
So many people, not to speak of the dog.’


from The Collected Poems of Louis MacNeice, edited by E.R. Dodds
London: Faber & Faber, 1966.

Paul Muldoon writes:

Though this is the centenary of his birth in 1907, Louis MacNeice has not had anything like the readership in the United States that he’s enjoyed in Britain and Ireland. Even then he’s often been seen as a mere Irishman in Britain, a Britisher in Ireland. “The Taxis” is from his final volume, The Burning Perch, published only a few weeks after his death in 1963. It’s a poem which falls into the category MacNeice himself described as ‘thumbnail nightmare’ and, while it may be traced back partly to the ‘crazy’ poems of Yeats, it’s a poem that has also been deeply influential on successive generations of Northern Irish poets.

4 Thoughts.

  1. The dog is the last line is an interesting dog, so interesting in fact that it was my spring term JP last year. I believe it comes from, among a number of places, most specifically “The Individualist Speaks,” the text of which reads:

    We with our Fair pitched among the feathery clover
    Are always cowardly and never sober,
    Drunk with steam-organs, thigh-rub and cream-soda
    —We cannot remember enemies in this valley.

    As chestnut candles turn to conkers, so we
    Knock our brains together extravagantly
    Instead of planting them to make more trees
    —Who have not as yet sampled God’s malice.

    But to us urchins playing with paint and filth
    A prophet scanning the road on the hither hills
    Might utter the old warning of the old sin
    —Avenging youth threatening an old war.

    Crawling down like lava or termites
    Nothing seduces, nothing dissolves, nothing affrights
    You who scale off masks and smash the purple lights
    —But I will escape, with my dog, on the far side of the Fair.

    Not only does the dog serve a rhetorical similarity, but biographical notes as well as MacNeiece’s accomodation of Irish mythology all point to this nebulous dog, a creature at the fulcrum of his conflation of class politics and pseudo-historical regime change in Irish myth. That “The Taxis” tracks the declension of the individual (as the narrator becomes more ghost than the spectres of his own past) seems indeed a pointed nightmare for the individualist. I suggest Peter McDonald’s argument of re-centering, or centering for the first time, a number of these later poems in the context of the immram as good follow-up reading.

  2. It’s helpful to think of another definition of “taxis” beyond “cab”: the philological use of “taxis” to connote “order or arrangement of words” (OED, sense 4). The tra-la is such an strange refrain in part because it refrains from recurring regularly and begins moving out of order. Suddenly the cabbies are, from what we can tell, saying it in the middle of their sentences; and the jingle starts to come “tra-la between” words rather than waiting until the ends of lines. Plus the “tra” already buried in “extra”.

    What intrigues me most on this reading (of a poem that I’ve read a few times, including in class with Prof. Muldoon to give the full citation) is the third stanza. Am I right to hear every line in stanza 3 as possessing (softly) the same end rhyme? The recollection of “Cannes” may be the most particular moment in a poem full of absences, but as we slide between sense and nonsense I think it is hard to grasp this moment with any hope that the noun could answer our extra questions. But “extra” is also a film term, and I’d wager that Cannes reminds most of us of cinema rather than any “odd/ scent.” Do we know when in 1961 MacNeice wrote this poem? Do we know if he ever went to Cannes or perhaps reported on the festival for the BBC? (that’s just a guess, i’m not being coy) Did he happen to see Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad, possibly in contention at Cannes in 1961 (it won at the Venice Film Festival that year), which is a film that’s all about ghostly recurrences. In any case, I find it a poem with intriguing cinematic touches – down to the comic dog in the last line. What place does the cute have in the uncanny?

  3. I agree. The tra-la threw me off. There is something so evocatively London about the diction in the poem, too. All that judgment — looking askance, the choosy cabbie. It is a dreamscape, “thumbnail nightmare,” so I wonder if that’s why the tra-la is there. Language, like the blurry image the poem projects, disintegrates in the dream world? Cannot signify? But it’s a recurring dream, so I have to ask, where is the dreamer afraid to go? Who is it that he doesn’t trust to get him there?

  4. What an eerie poem! It’s that tra-la that gets me. At first, it’s a merry afterthought, promising a song; but as things move along its lyrical extraneousness seems to have something to do with the extra passengers that our speaker can’t see, but the cabbies can (passengers from his past? from some less lonely, alternate life that he doesn’t get to live?). Is “tra-la” a place-holder for something in particular, I wonder, and if so, for what? Is our speaker singing to himself? And why the particular vaudeville jauntiness of it? It makes me think of a Shakespeare song, slipping evasively, conveniently in and out of nonsense; and more recently, of the tra-la’s and other song fragments in Geoffrey Hill’s THE TRIUMPH OF LOVE, or indeed some poems of Mr. Muldoon himself.

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