exceptions to the rule
black and white

the smell of soap


Soap Suds
- by Louis MacNeice -

This brand of soap has the same smell as once in the big
House he visited when he was eight: the walls of the bathroom open
To reveal a lawn where a great yellow ball rolls back through a hoop
To rest at the head of a mallet held in the hands of a child.

And these were the joys of that house: a tower with a telescope;
Two great faded globes, one of the earth, one of the stars;
A stuffed black dog in the hall; a walled garden with bees;
A rabbit warren; a rockery; a vine under glass; the sea.

To which he has now returned.  The day of course is fine
And a grown-up voice cries Play!  The mallet slowly swings,
Then Crack, a great gong booms from the dog-dark hall and the ball
Skims forward through the hoop and then through the next and then

Through hoops where no hoops were and each dissolves in turn
And the grass has grown head-high and an angry voice cries Play!
But the ball is lost and the mallet slipped long since from the hands
Under the running tap that are not the hands of a child.


A prominent feature of what I would call a "good poem" is its power to invoke false memories; an image flashes in my mind and I am transposed into the language and moment of the poem.  Louis MacNeice has always been a favorite poet for this kind of imagery.  In "Soap Suds" he describes poignantly a moment of involuntary memory.  We can envision the narrator's hands beneath the faucet, covered in soap, as he stares absently down into the past.

This soap is a door to the past.  There is no mention of its fragrance, but a listing of all the treasures the big house of his childhood contained.  We can see and almost smell the lawn, a rock wall, dirt and leaves and flowers and honeycombs; the warm fecal smell of small animals, the ocean air.  Our hands trace lines in the dust on a yellowed globe.  These were not features of my childhood but at the poems closing, I grieve the loss of them nonetheless.  I am left with my imaginary hands covered in suds, unable to fully grasp or let go of the experience.

From reading the many perfume-related forums, articles, and reviews, it seems that soapy-smelling fragrances are not well-loved among perfume collectors.  A frequent critique is "a soapy drydown" which tends to describe the base of the fragrance as shallow, synthetic, or bland.  On the other hand, many fragrances are formulated to capitalize on this very sensation - the cleanliness of soap.  Perhaps there is some attempt as well to recapture a moment of innocence before more human smells overtake daily life.   For most of us, the day begins with soap and water, and in these moments we are closer to the tall grass and the voices of our childhoods.  We fill our days with diversions, with extensions of childhood games. 

Puregrace On a day when nothing else will do, when a headache threatens to smash all possible optimism, I frequently reach for the only perfume in my collection that smells of nothing but soap: Philosophy Pure Grace.  My husband once sprayed over me in bed while I slept so that I would wake to a moment of uncomplicated happiness.  It worked, and I remember it well.  Now, every time I wear Pure Grace I am reminded that fragrance has subtle power; for a few moments, it can change the world.

A few of the hundreds of fragrances with a soapy/clean scent:
Caron - Eaux de Caron Fraiche
Clean - Lather, Shower Fresh, Warm Cotton
Creed - Original Vetiver
Demeter - Laundromat, Pure Soap, Daphne, and others
Estee Lauder - White Linen
Gendarme - Carriere, Gendarme, and others
Guerlain - Aqua Allegoria Anisia Bella
L'Occitane - Eau des 4 Reines (rose)
Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier - Eau du Gantier
Miller et Bertaux - Spiritus/Land #2 (ginger)
Paco Rabanne - Pour Homme
Philosophy - Amazing Grace, Pure Grace:

"pure grace is the clean smell of soap and water, the memory of fresh air woven into a set of crisp, white cotton sheets, a cold deep breath on a snowy winter night, the best summer morning you have ever known, the one white t-shirt that feels better than all the rest." (philosophy.com)

Thierry Mugler - Cologne
Many more discussed on Basenotes.net in this and other threads.

Poem: "Soap Suds" by Louis MacNeice. From The Faber Book of Modern Verse. Fourth Edition edited by M. Roberts & P. Porter. Faber and Faber, 1936/1982. p. 282.
Read more Louis MacNeice poems here: (Warning - this site uses pop-up ads) http://www.poemhunter.com/louis-macneice/poems/

Image: "Bubbles" by PTW via Eikonographia.com; Image of Pure Grace via philosophy.com

Posts prior to 2015 first appeared on my previous website, memory & desire (memoryanddesire.net).


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Hello Lauren! And here, I thought I had this theater all to myself, mostly. I'm very happy to be back and am looking forward to a more varied and productive October, creatively speaking. I'm so happy to see you here again. Thank you so much for your post.


Hi Nancy, thank you for visiting and for taking the time to leave your thoughtful and kind comments. I'm delighted that the poem struck a chord for you. You might also enjoy some of MacNeice's other poems if you aren't already familiar with them. "Prayer Before Birth" and "Sunlight on the Garden" are two of the most moving poems I have ever read. You can listen to MacNeice reading the former at http://www.poetryarchive.org/poetryarchive/singlePoem.do?poemId=1560


Yay! I'm not thrilled with soapy scents but I do like this poem very much and am thrilled that you're back.


I just wanted to let you know how moving I found the poem. Thank you so much for posting it. And, thank you so much for your blog. It's clear that you put a lot of effort and care into it. It's a pleasure to read. Thank you.

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