(1907 - 1963)
Famous poets and poems
Academy of American Poets
From “Autumn Journal”
Sleep, my body, sleep, my ghost,
Sleep, my parents and grand-parents,
And all those I have loved most:
One man’s coffin is another’s cradle.
Sleep, my past and all my sins,
In distant snow or dried roses
Under the moon for night’s cocoon will open
When day begins.
Sleep, my fathers, in your graves
On upland bogland under heather;
What the wind scatters the wind saves,
A sapling springs in a new country.
Time is a country, the present moment
A spotlight roving round the scene;
We need not chase the spotlight,
The future is the bride of what has been.
Sleep, my fancies and my wishes,
Sleep a little and wake strong,
The same but different and take my blessing —
And sleep, my various and conflicting
Selves I have so long endured,
Sleep in Asclepius’ temple
And wake cured.
And you with whom I shared an idyll
Five years long,
Sleep beyond the Atlantic
And wake to a glitter of dew and to bird-song.
And you whose eyes are blue, whose ways are foam,
Sleep quiet and smiling
And do not hanker
For a perfection which can never come.
And you whose minutes patter
To crowd the social hours,
Curl up easy in a placid corner
And let your thoughts close in like flowers.
And you, who work for Christ, and you, as eager
For a better life, humanist, atheist,
And you, devoted to a cause, and you, to a family,
Sleep and may your beliefs and zeal persist.
Sleep quietly, Marx and Freud,
The figure-heads of our transition.
Cagney, Lombard, Bing and Garbo,
Sleep in your world of celluloid.
Sleep now also, monk and satyr,
Cease your wrangling for a night.
Sleep, my brain, and sleep, my senses,
Sleep, my hunger and my spite.
Sleep, recruits to the evil army,
Who, for so long misunderstood,
Took to the gun to kill your sorrow;
Sleep and be damned and wake up good.
Sleep serene, avoid the backward
Glance; go forward, dreams, and do not halt
(Behind you in the desert stands a token
Of doubt — a pillar of salt).
Sleep, the past, and wake, the future,
And walk out promptly through the open door;
But you, my coward doubts, may go on sleeping,
You need not wake again — not any more.
The New Year comes with bombs, it is too late
To dose the dead with honourable intentions:
If you have honour to spare, employ it on the living;
The dead are dead as Nineteen-Thirty-Eight.
Sleep to the noise of running water
To-morrow to be crossed, however deep;
This is no river of the dead or Lethe,
To-night we sleep
On the banks of Rubicon — the die is cast;
There will be time to audit
The accounts later, there will be sunlight later
And the equation will come out at last.
Dorme, corpo meu, dorme, meu fantasma,
Dormi, meus pais e meus avós
E todos aqueles a quem mais amei:
O caixão de um é o berço de outro.
Dormi, meu passado e meus pecados,
Em neve longínqua ou rosas secas
Sob a lua, pois o casulo da noite há-de abrir
Ao romper do dia.
Dormi antepassados, em vossas campas
Sob a urze de planaltos pantanosos;
O que o vento espalha o vento guarda,
Um rebento brota numa terra nova.
O tempo é um país, e o presente
Um projector rodeando a cena;
Não é preciso andar atrás do projector,
O futuro é a noiva do que foi.
Dormi, meus desejos e minhas fantasias,
Dormi um pouco e acordai fortes,
Os mesmos mas diferentes: tomai a minha bênção -
Um canto de embalar.
Dormi, formas de mim, várias e opostas,
Que tanto tempo suportei,
Dormi no templo de Esculápio
E acordai curadas.
E tu, com quem partilhei um idílio
De cinco anos,
Dorme para lá do Atlântico
E acorda ao brilhar do orvalho e ao cantar dos pássaros.
E tu, de olhos azuis e modos de espuma,
Dorme tranquilo e sorridente,
E não corras atrás
Da perfeição que nunca alcançarás.
E tu, cujos minutos tagarelas
Povoam as horas sociais,
Aconchega-te, plácido, a um canto
E deixa os pensamentos fecharem-se como flores.
E tu que trabalhas para Cristo e tu, ávido
De uma vida melhor, humanista, ateu,
E tu, dedicado a uma causa, e tu, a uma família,
Dormi, e que perdurem vosso zelo e convicções.
Dormi tranquilos, Marx e Freud,
Figuras de proa da nossa transição.
Cagney, Lombard, Bing e Garbo,
Dormi no mundo de celulóide que é o vosso.
Dormi também agora, monge e sátiro
Cessai por uma noite a vossa briga.
Dormi, cérebro meu e meus sentidos.
Dormi, minha fome e meu rancor.
Dormi, recrutas do exército do mal.
Que, tanto tempo incompreendidos,
Pegaram em armas para matar a dor;
Dormi, o diabo vos leve e acordai bons.
Dormi serenamente e evitai o olhar
Para trás; em frente, sonhos, não pareis
(Nas vossas costas, no deserto, está o sinal
Da dúvida - um pilar de sal).
Dorme, passado. e acorda, futuro,
E sai prontamente pela porta aberta:
Mas vós, minhas dúvidas cobardes, podeis continuar a dormir,
Não precisais de acordar - nunca mais.
O Ano Novo vem com bombas, e é tarde de mais
Para adulterar os mortos com intenções honradas:
Se alguma honra resta, usem-na nos vivos,
Os mortos estão tão mortos como Mil Novecentos e Trinta e Oito.
Dormi ao som da água a correr
Que amanhã se atravessa, mesmo funda,
Este não é o Letes, o rio dos mortos,
Esta noite dormimos
Nas margens do Rubicão - a sorte está lançada;
Depois haverá tempo para a
Contabilidade, depois haverá sol,
E por fim dará certa a equação.
|Tradução de João Ferreira Duarte, em "LEITURAS, poemas do inglês", Relógio de Água, 1993. ISBN 972-708-204-1|
Prayer before Birth
not yet born; O hear me.
Oração para antes de nascer
Ainda não nasci; oh, escutai-me.
Tradução de Jorge de Sena
room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Rows of books around me
sunlight on the garden
The sunlight on the
The TLS n.º 5411, December 15, 2006
The year 2007 marks the centenary of the birth, not only of W. H. Auden, but
also of Louis MacNeice, the Ulsterman whose work was often bracketed with
Auden's in the 1930s. Faber and Faber publish a new
Collected Poems later this month.
The TLS published "Departure
Platform" in 1938; MacNeice later revised and shortened the poem.
love, it is high time to travel,
The brass bell clangs escape
And Summer in a porter's cap will punch our tickets
And launch us where the shining lines unravel.
We have been there before though we have not seen it--
The land that was always ours
Whose stones are our bones', whose rivers our blood's kindred,
We have never toured that country, only been it.
The distance opens like a mouth to meet us
Wantonly tongue to tongue
Consummating our dreams by night, defeating
The daily thoughts which day by day defeat us.
Divined but never known -- the evasive universal;
But fumbling after the scent
Dissolved in the running water of time, we fool our fancy
To catch intact what is always in dispersal.
And on this quest in company with many
We hoard our hopes a year
To blow in a fortnight--a dandelion puffball
Telling the past time and the spent penny.
So pack like the others, be sure you look your best for
This year's unlikely chance;
Whether it is France or Wales or the Canary Islands
The place -- who knows -- is a person to be well-dressed for.
Unlikely; and, were that so, I should be jealous
Unless that god of the place
Could fuse his person with mine for your enjoyment--
But whether he could there is nobody can tell us.
But on the off chance pack -- your summer frocks and sandals
And a pair of gloves for towns
And one small bottle of scent -- Chanel or Coty --
And your jazz earrings twisted like Christmas candles.
It leaves at three-fifteen -- with lifting pistons --
The zero hour;
Opposite in corner seats we hope for nearness
And dearness in what is wrongly called the distance.
LOUIS MACNEICE (1938)
July 3, 2012
Although Louis MacNeice (1907–63) was “constantly in the pub”, according to Ian Hamilton, he was “never really the pub” – or, he might have added, the club either. Well known for not sharing the ideological commitments of his contemporaries, W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender and Cecil Day-Lewis, he seems to have been an outsider from the start. When his mother died in 1914 his father, an unconventional Bishop of the Anglo-Irish church who favoured Home Rule and often spoke out against Protestant bigotry, sent him to school in England – Marlborough and Merton College, Oxford – where he lost his Irish accent, dropped his first name, Frederick, and turned his back on his father’s faith. He and his room-mate Anthony Blunt visited Spain in 1936, but not only did MacNeice refuse to join the Communist Party, he was also, in Blunt’s opinion, too “irredeemably heterosexual” to be one of the boys. If he was always to one side of the English Establishment, however, he has come to be regarded, with Patrick Kavanagh, as one of the two finest mid-century Irish poets. Michael Longley described MacNeice’s eager embrace of “the drunkenness of things being various” as a reaction against the darkness of his puritanical upbringing: Elaine Feinstein admires his “ear for the dance of syllables”.
As a classicist, MacNeice would have known that the Greeks thought of the past as stretching out before them while the future waited behind their backs. In “Departure Platform”, the summer holidays are seen not as the pursuit of the unknown but as a chance to reconnect with the self. As we sit in corner seats, waiting for the train to pull out, “we hope for nearness / And dearness”: finally the moment, perhaps, as well as in it.
The sudden world
Anthony Thwaite welcomes a new Collected Poems to mark Louis MacNeice's centenary year
Saturday January 20, 2007
by Louis MacNeice, edited by Peter McDonald
836pp, Faber, £30
In the centenary year of the births of WH Auden and Louis MacNeice, celebrations are scheduled for both. In many ways Auden might seem the stronger candidate; but there are signs, some of them coming from Ireland and its jealous feuds, that MacNeice is going to have just as much attention.
MacNeice was about as English as education in Sherborne, Marlborough and Oxford could make him. But he was born in Carrickfergus near Belfast, his father a clergyman in the Church of Ireland, later to become a bishop; and there is plenty of evidence, in the poems and elsewhere, that he felt himself to be a kind of troubled Irishman. His voice carried, behind its disdainful Oxford nasality, a sort of strangled Ulster utterance.
In his lifetime, he was sometimes treated as just one leg of Roy Campbell's composite caricature creature "MacSpaunday", along with his fellow "30s" poets - Spender, Auden, Day Lewis. But since his unexpected death in his mid-50s in September 1963 (he was the first of the four to die), there has been little doubt that the star of his reputation has been rising. This new and very handsome Collected Poems is one sign.
MacNeice's rise wasn't as rapid and dazzling as one might suppose. An undergraduate review of his early appearances in the anthology Oxford Poetry feminised him as Louise MacNeice and considered his poems to be inferior to those of Wyndham Ketton-Cremer. His first book, Blind Fireworks, was published by Gollancz in 1929 while he was still an undergraduate; but 834 of its 1,000 copies were remaindered. And when it came to TS Eliot publishing Poems (1935) at Faber, the New Statesman's reviewer relegated the book to the end of his roundup and commented: "A somewhat tardy arrival in the Auden group ... The mixture as before."
But the ordinary reader soon discovered him as one of the most arresting and accessible of modern poets, with such memorable opening lines: "I meet you in an evil time. / The evil bells / Put out of our heads, I think, the thought of everything else" ("An Eclogue for Christmas"); "The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was / Spawning snow and pink roses against it / Soundlessly collateral and incompatible: / World is suddener than we fancy it" ("Snow").
He earned his living as a university lecturer in classics (Birmingham, then London). The second world war found him in the United States - not an escaper or refugee, but an invited guest-lecturer in English at Cornell, because by 1939 he was indeed a famous poet, prolific, sought after for poems and opinions. He came back to England in 1941 and joined the BBC, where he spent more than 20 years in the legendary radio features department as writer/producer. It was there, much later, that we were colleagues (1958-62), and for about half that time we shared an office. They were years when as a poet he was extremely active, writing the contents of what many people consider to be his best two books, Solstices (1961) and The Burning Perch (1963), published just after his death. One of my last memories of him is of sitting in a sepulchral drinking club in the yawning hours between three and 5.30, when the pubs were closed: Louis had lent me the typescript of the latter book and asked me to suggest titles. I suggested "Funeral Games" (the last two words of his poem "Sports Page"), but he said it was too gloomy, would kill the book dead. In a note for the Poetry Book Society Bulletin, printed in an appendix to this new Collected Poems, MacNeice commented: "I am not happy about the title but could not think of anything better."
MacNeice's literary executor, ER Dodds (classics professor when MacNeice taught at Birmingham), made an excellent job in many ways of editing a first Collected Poems in 1966. He scrupulously followed what he took to be the poet's wishes. This meant omitting a lot of poems which Peter McDonald (a youngish Northern Irish poet and lecturer at Oxford) has now brought back and brought together, in a principled and structured way. The result is that you read MacNeice's mature books as books, followed by appendices containing published work discarded by the poet at different stages.
There are some difficulties in finding one's way about. Suppose you have a vague memory of a favourite MacNeice anthology poem about the fading of love and settling into married routine - something about ballet - oh yes, "Les Sylphides" ... And now you remember the first line: "Life in a day: he took his girl to the ballet". You will find the first line in Dodds's index of first lines but not the title in his index of titles. You won't find either in McDonald's comparable indexes - unless you chance upon the overall title of the short sequence from which the poem comes, "Novelettes", written in 1939-40.
There is, given the scheme of things, inevitable repetition. For example, "Prognosis" ("Goodbye, Winter, / The days are getting longer") appears twice: in the main body of the book, as the first poem in MacNeice's 1941 book Plant and Phantom, and then in Appendix 3, as the first poem in The Last Ditch, the short book which Yeats's sisters published from their Cuala Press in 1940, the ingredients of which have never since been brought together in their entirety. But, such niggles apart, this is a truly impressive and necessary book.
Anthony Thwaite's Collected Poems is due from Enitharmon Press later this year
January 20, 2007
The conscience of the 'low dishonest Thirties', Louis MacNeice’s star has since waned. On the centenary of his birth, Elaine Feinstein celebrates the genius in his Collected Poems
by Louis MacNeice
Edited by Peter McDonald Faber, £30; 400pp
LOUIS MacNEICE excelled easily. Athletic, mercurial and handsome, he took a double first in classics without appearing to sacrifice any other Oxford amusements. He wrote Letters from Iceland with W. H. Auden, and was soon a key figure of the Thirties generation. At the BBC he helped to invent radio drama. Yet in 2007, the centenary year of his birth, he is less prized than he should be.
So, what kind of a poet was he? MacNeice was the son of a Protestant rector in Belfast and his mother died when he was only 7. He was sent to school in England — first Sherborne and then Marlborough — and his allegiance to the country of his birth was thereafter a complex one. He hated the violence that then seemed inseparable from the Irish cause, and disliked the hens and goats and greyhounds and above all:
“Your drums and your dolled-up Virgins and your ignorant dead.”
He was altogether unsentimental about Gaelic tradition, and the mysticism of Yeats. (He once risked asking that great poet if he had seen the ghosts from which his wife claimed to receive messages.) MacNeice’s originality lies in his ear for the dance of syllables, his impudent internal rhymes, the way he controls the alternation of long lines and short.
He does not write what was then called free verse, nor is he exactly a Modernist. Early on, he found a lyrical logic somewhere between nursery rhymes and the jazz that he loved.
His Bagpipe Music uses the skirling rhythms of a Lewis pipe band to write a seemingly improvised elegy for all traditional culture.
It’s no go the Yogi-Man, it’s no go Blavatsky,
All we want is a bank balance and a bit of skirt in a taxi.
The tone of Thirties poetry is more or less always disillusioned, but MacNeice had few illusions to shed. He repudiated his father’s severe Christianity early and had no religious scruple in marrying into a Jewish family. His wife was an elegant and pretty girl, and “the best dancer in Oxford”, but it was a match that much displeased his father.
He refused to join the Communist Party alongside Stephen Spender and C. Day Lewis, and distrusted Naomi Mitchison’s enthusiasm for Russian socialism — after her visit of two weeks:
I hasten to explain
That having once been to the
University of Oxford
You can never really again
Believe anything that anyone says . . .
In his autobiography, The Strings are False, MacNeice reports with amusement the rebuke of an American friend: “You never seem to make a positive choice; you just let things happen to you.” In his relations with women there is some truth in that; but politically he was steadfast in his love for human courage and dignity, and he was always committed to a defence of those oppressed in the name of ideology. He was acutely aware of the dangers posed by Hitler.
Autumn Journal, a sequence of stanzas of varying lengths, was written at the time of the Munich crisis. It is a tour de force that effortlessly mingles the world of public drama and his own private anxieties. It opens on a train returning to London , with the narrator confessing his unhappiness; his wife has left him for another man and he cannot rid himself of her memory. He looks around the faces of those tanned from holidays, and others going about their daily work, knowing that Hitler’s voice is in everyone’s ears.
London itself is a solid presence in Autumn Journal. MacNeice relishes the smell of French bread in Charlotte Street, the rustle of leaves in Regent’s Park and the barrows of oranges and apples in Camden Town. Soberly, he observes trees cut down on Primrose Hill in preparation for anti- aircraft guns. The poem ends with the accommodation made with Hitler: “And here we are — just as before — safe in our skins.”
He despises that illusion, remembering his visit to Spain and people there for whom life meant something more than simply staying alive, and whose matter-of- fact courage shamed those
who play for safety,
A safety only in name.
When “the low, dishonest decade” came to an end with the invasion of Poland, MacNeice did not join Auden in America, though he had enjoyed an earlier visit there. He remained in London throughout the war. In 1941 he wrote a poem, in the voice of an unborn child, which is probably his most quoted.
I am not yet born, console me.
I fear that the human race may
with tall walls wall me,
with strong drugs dope me,
with wise lies lure me,
on black racks rack me, in
blood-baths roll me.
It ends with words that startle the more because rhyme is a powerful weapon in the hands of a poet who can choose where to place it:
Let them not make me a stone
and let them not spill me.
Otherwise kill me.
MacNeice died too young, but a new generation of Irish poets such as Michael Longley and Paul Muldoon now acknowledge him as a major influence. And real poetry has a trick of lasting that writers of prose might envy.
THE SUNLIGHT ON THE GARDEN
from COLLECTED POEMS by Louis MacNeice
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.
Our freedom as free lances
Advances towards its end;
The earth compels, upon it
Sonnets and birds descend;
And soon, my friend,
We shall have no time for dances.
The sky was good for flying
Defying the church bells
And every evil iron
Siren and what it tells:
The earth compels,
We are dying, Egypt, dying
And not expecting pardon,
Hardened in heart anew,
But glad to have sat under
Thunder and rain with you,
And grateful too
For sunlight on the garden.
FABER £30 £27 (P&P FREE) 08700 798 897
How much of a poet's work is enough to be going on with? Two-and-a-half inches thick, Christopher Ricks's monumental edition of Tennyson might be a masterpiece of scholarship but it does not tempt the general reader. And who knows the 1848 lines of Wordsworth's "Ecclesiastical Sonnets''? Published to mark Louis MacNeice's centenary, this new Collected Poems is a substantial book, though far from complete; just as well because, as good as some of the poetry is, it is not of the same order as Wordsworth's or Tennyson's.
MacNeice tinkered with his poetry throughout his life and, preparing a first Collected Poems in the 1940s, he grouped poems other than chronologically. Does an editor opt for a historical record or follow the poet's wishes? Peter McDonald, an academic and a poet himself, makes a persuasive case for the former while also respecting MacNeice's revisions; in doing so, he balances scholarly precision with reader-friendliness. It is a fine job. Individual collections are restored, beginning with MacNeice's first mature volume, Poems (1935). His debut, Blind Fireworks (1929), and uncollected poems, are located in appendices. For many poets, slim volumes are merely instalments of the terminal book, but it is illuminating to encounter poems in their first context.
MacNeice is known as a writer of the historical moment. He is - along with Auden, Spender and Day Lewis - still considered a poet of the 1930s, that "dishonest decade'' when war was just over the horizon. Despite this, he never quite belonged. The son of an Irish clergyman, MacNeice was always a little to one side, poetically and socially. Jon Stallworthy's 1995 biography depicts a distant parent and husband who formed romantic attachments with alarming ease; a man haunted by the death of his mother.
MacNeice liked his drink, but never took things as far as his friend, Dylan Thomas. If he had, he might not have been so prolific. "I am writing a new kind of poem,'' he says in a letter of 1939; "there are going to be 50 of them.'' The previous year, he had published four books and, even in 1963, the year of his death, he completed his last three works. He wrote in every genre, producing radio scripts during his time at the BBC. "My trouble all my life,'' he told his second wife, "has been over-production.''At his busiest, MacNeice published a new volume of poems every year or two.
In 1934, having twice had the manuscript of his second book rejected by T S Eliot, the poetry editor at Faber, MacNeice obliged the older poet by producing what was required: the longish poems which begin the book. The first, "An Eclogue for Christmas'', came complete with a strenuous modernity and a whiff of The Waste Land; "I who was Harlequin in the childhood of the century.'' Other lines in Poems smack of Auden, whose poetry had been taken on by the same firm five years earlier: "Thousands of posters asserting a monopoly of the good, the beautiful, the true". But there are also poems in which MacNeice is unmistakably his own man: the mysterious, painterly "Snow" and the suburban snapshot of "Sunday Morning":
Down the road someone is practising scales,
The notes like little fishes vanish with a wink of tails.
Man's heart expands to tinker with his car
For this is Sunday morning, Fate's great bazaar''
Thereafter, MacNeice managed with missionary zeal to incorporate into his writing the textures of the workday world. (Had anyone before him managed to use the word "pelmet'' in a poem?) Those pelmets appear on the first page of Autumn Journal (1939), MacNeice's finest long poem. It is a detailed account of the latter half of 1938; episodes in London, Barcelona, and at the Oxford by-election powerfully capturing the atmosphere of looming war. But it also locked MacNeice into the period, and the label of "Thirties poet" has stuck, unfairly, ever since.
Two years on, Plant and Phantom shows early signs of staleness. Good poems are still in evidence, "Meeting Point'' being the best known, but elsewhere the writing is on automatic pilot or MacNeice is casting around for material; "Death of an Actress'', for example, begins "I see from the paper that Florrie Forde is dead'' and closes "she stood/ For an older England, for children toddling/Hand in hand while the day was bright.'' Shockingly, given how superannuated this voice sounds, MacNeice was only 33 when the book appeared.
Auden (in the selection he made of MacNeice's verse soon after his death), Peter McDonald, and even the blurb for this Collected Poems acknowledge the dip in quality. Auden chose nothing either from the unpromisingly named Ten Burnt Offerings (1952) or Autumn Sequel (1954). His introduction is quietly damning: "I would not call the poems from this period bad - like everything he wrote, they are beautifully carpentered.'' The poetry is lifeless, and the pathos of a writer blatantly revisiting an earlier success is uncomfortable.
How aware was MacNeice of his creative decline? Keenly, it seems. Poems such as "Elegy for Minor Poets'' ruefully acknowledge literary reputation, while the face in a train's darkened window seems "So lonely in the moving night". In later books, he drops metaphor to confront the situation head on - "Do I prefer to forget it? This middle stretch/Of life is bad for poets" - though, embarrassingly, he is as likely to blame bad notices on the fact that his friends no longer write reviews "which have consequently fallen into the hands of younger and as yet less successful writers (who also, I think, tend to be jealous of me...)".
Without those years of literary disappointments, of domestic difficulties, of office life at the BBC, MacNeice might never have become the fine poet he was in his final years. Each of the three volumes published in his last seven years was better than the previous one. He did not seem to be trying so hard, as if recognising that his strengths as a writer were not best expressed in the long poem but that he was, after all, a lyric poet; a sprinter not a marathon runner. "I have become progressively more humble in the face of my material,'' he wrote in an introduction to Solstices (1961), "and therefore less ready to slap poster paint all over it''. Once again, MacNeice's ability to turn the quotidian into verse pays dividends, so a subject as unpromising as windscreen wipers yields an unnerving night-time journey towards death. By the end of "The Wiper'', the speaker is contemplating his hands, a gesture repeated at the end of the superb "Soap Suds'', in which a man experiences a Proustian surge of memory on smelling a bar of soap. "Soap suds" is the opening poem of his last volume, The Burning Perch. It was published 10 days after his death, the day after he would have turned 56. The sentimental claim that a writer's best work was still ahead of him was, in MacNeice's case, quite possibly true. The witty, grave poems of that final book - "Round the Corner'', "The Suicide'', "The Taxis'', "After the Crash'', "Charon'' and "Star-gazer'' - are worth a bet for posterity.
Louis MacNeice's reputation has risen steadily in recent years. Poignantly, MacNeice's grave in Carrowdore churchyard was, in the decade of his death, a gathering place for three young poets, Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley and Derek Mahon. W H Auden might be the greater poet, but MacNeice seems to inspire the greater affection. Is that in spite of his flaws, or because of them?
The TLS n.º 5430 April 27, 2007
Will and Choice
Edited by Peter McDonald
400 pp. Faber £ 30.
978 0 571 21574 4
The best-known photographs of Louis MacNeice hardly capture his personality. They suggest someone poised, urbane, even debonair, perhaps a bit haughty. Hat at a careful angle, cigarette in hand, the effect is entirely composed; even the late pictures, where the face is a little puffy, the hair receding, give off an air of self-possession. Yet an altogether different character looks out at us from the poems: reactive, social, undecided, searching for intimacy — above all, pressed. Obsessed by time, and our helplessness in the face of it, the poems convey urgency, even desperation, rather than composure. The clock face, the church bell, the rhythm of the train which drums out the tempo and keeps us moving inexorably towards our end — MacNeice was torn between a desire to embrace the onward rush (captured in the long, tumbling line of his early poems, the speed ratcheted up by internal rhyme) and the need to throw up little incendiary devices in its path. Some of his most celebrated lyrics conjure freeze-frame moments of .stillness and fulfilment: “The Brandy Glass”, “Meeting Point”, or “The Sunlight on the Garden”:
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.
Our freedom as free lances
Advances towards its and;
The earth compels, upon it
Sonnets and birds descend;
And soon, my friend,
We shall have no time for dances.
The sky was good for flying
Defying the church bells
And every evil iron
Siren and what it tells:
The earth compels,
We are dying, Egypt, dying…
So many of the elements of this poem are characteristic of MacNeice — the focus on a passing moment of natural beauty: the intricate verbal pattern, a cage of internal rhyme and modulated rhythm; the relaxed parenthetic personal address (my friend, my dears, my darling); the literary allusion (Antony to Cleopatra); most of all, the sense of impending catastrophe and the urge to “cherish existence” in the face of it.
The intensity and compression of lyrics like this have gained MacNeice an increasingly high reputation since his early death in 1963. Born in Belfast in 1907 to a comfortably-off, middle-class family (his father was a liberal Protestant Rector), he is now regarded as one of the two finest mid-century Irish poets (along with Patrick Kavanagh), inheritors of the great gap left when Yeats died in 1939. Like Yeats, however, MacNeice lived outside Ireland for most of his life. Schooled from the age of ten in England, he was a contemporary of John Betjeman and roorned with Anthony Blunt; at Oxford, he was friends with W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood and the rest of the so-called “Thirties” generation. His poems are now generally hailed as a central development of twentieth-century English verse.
“The Sunlight on the Garden” was published in the 1938 volume, The Earth Compels, and it is one of the great pleasures of reading Peter McDonald’s edition of the Collected Poems, published in the centenary year of MacNeice’s birth, that we can now encounter such poems in their original setting. When MacNeice’s friend, the Classicist E. R. Dodds, edited the work soon after MacNeice’s death in 1966, he kept to the broad principles of the writer’s own Collected Poems of 1949, grouping the poems chronologically, but losing the shape of the published volumes. In Dodds’s edition, readers could see (for example) that “The British Museum Reading Room”, with its reference to “the guttural sorrow of the refugees”, was written in July 1939, and could appreciate the ways in which so much of MacNeice’s work responds immediately to the moment. But they missed out on the way that MacNeice had placed the poem among others. Given his declared interest in dialogue and the dialectical — one of his favourite verse forms was the eclogue — this was particularly unfortunate. Perhaps most damagingly, Dodds followed the poet’s lead of 1949 by separating the shorter lyrics from the longer poems.
Barring some of MacNeice’s later revisions to individual poems and his decision to drop a few pieces. McDonald has restored the original volumes. The lyric intensity of “The Sunlight on the Garden” thus appears alongside, and not in opposition to, more extended dramatic pieces such as “Eclogue from Iceland” and “Eclogue Between the Motherless”:
A. What did you do for the holiday?
B. I went home.
What did you do?
A. O, I went home for the holiday.
Had a good time?
B. Not bad as far as it went.
What about you?
A. O quite a good lime on the whole —
There is no doubt that these discursive, conversational poems speak less easily to the contemporary poetic temperament, and indeed to the current popular appetite in poetry. The mixture of everyday cliché and rhetorical flourish may now seem awkward, yet for MacNeice compression and the demotic expansiveness of the long poems were equally apt responses; they would be fused to brilliant effect in Autumn Journal and in the later verse plays. Indeed, this Eclogue explicitly echoes the Shakespearean allusion of “The Sunlight in the Garden” when one of the motherless clumsily announces of the woman he is to marry that “She is dying / Dying”.
McDonald’s arrangement gives us more MacNeice, with more fidelity to the way he appeared to his contemporaries. He includes the whole of the early volume Blind Fireworks, which MacNeice published with Victor Gollancz when he was only twenty-two (later selecting only twelve of the poems for republication), but as an appendix. We first meet MacNeice, then, not as the rather opulent, decadent Oxford undergraduate of 1929 (a poet who fits those suave and studied photographs rather well), but as the revolutionary author of Poems (1935). We begin with “Eclogue for Christmas”, with its first line, “I meet you in an evil time”. This is a poem which spits out its disdain for a bourgeois class “pivoting on the parquet”, and the world of the country gentry alike, who “cannot change, they will die in their shoes / From angry circumstance and moral self-abuse”. In the public imagination the volume may have established MacNeice as one element (with Spender, Auden and Day Lewis) of the left-wing poetic amalgam “MacSpaunday”. But in fact, to the extent that the group existed at all, MacNeice was always on the edge of it. This had partly to do with contingencies. MacNeice not only came from the provinces; he went back to them. In 1930, soon after leaving Oxford, he moved with his wife and child to the suburbs of Birmingham, where he worked as a lecturer in Classics at the university. Unlike his fellow left-wing poets, who tended towards London, MacNeice found himself living in an industrial city through the worst years of the Depression. But his tangential relationship to “the Auden Generation” also had to do with personality. Poems (1935) may share with Auden’s collection Look, Stranger! (1936) a real impatience wit mass-cultural conformity and political half-measures. But MacNeice was both more ill at ease with the revolutionary solutions to the rule of the “little sardine men” and more anarchic. While Auden exhorts his reader to look down on “this island” and judge it from on high, MacNeice is less keen to pass sentence on the culture and certainty less confident that poetry could change it.
Nonetheless Poems (1935) set the seal on MacNeice’s reputation as a “Thirties poet”, a reputation which was only strengthened by the two books he brought out in 1937, the two-act play Out of the Picture (produced with. music by Benjamin Britten), and Letters from Iceland, which included the wonderfully over-the-top ‘Auden and MacNeice: Their Last Will and Testament”. By now his wife had left him and he was living in London with his son and the boy’s nurse and teaching at Bedford College. And he was writing furiously. In addition to The Earth Compels and two prose travelogues, in 1938 he published a large critical book on modern poetry, and then in the last months of the year, he wrote Autumn Journal. Composed during the Munjch Crisis, this long poem sets the collapse of his marriage, the ups and downs of his subsequent relationships, and an intensely honest description of his own aspirations, snobberies, doubts and failures, alongside the collapse of the political hopes and ideals of his generation.
Like the First World War, and the war in Spain, so the coming European war was bound to see all principle squandered in “panic and self-deception”. MacNeice watched as the trees on Primorose Hill were cut down for gun emplacements (“Each tree falling like a closing fan”) and feared as much for the destruction of mental freedoms as for physical attack:
And we who have been brought up to think
of “Gallant Belgium”
As so much blague
Are now preparing again to essay good
For the sake of Prague;
And we must, we suppose, become
And must, in order to beat
The enemy. model ourselves on the enemy,
A howling radio for our paraclete.
With conscription looming, and the British propaganda machine gearing up to match the mobilization in Germany, MacNeice grieved for subtlety, variety and complexity — all to be lost in the one-mindedness of war:
And the individual, powerless, has to exert the
Powers of will and choice
And choose between enormous evils, either
Of which depends on somebody else’s
For MacNeice the game was already up; the return of wax was itself the defeat. Besides, the poetry of the battle between democracy and fascism had already been written, in the 1930s; that war had already been fought and lost in Spain. In the face of such proleptic disaster the poem asks what really matters, “what is there of value / Lasting from day to day?’. It was a question that MacNeice had tried to answer explicitly in earlier poems (“I give you the incidental things which pass / Outward through space exactly as each was”) and would attack again in later work:
And what is life apart from lives
And where, apart from fuel, the value.
Autumn Journal does occasionally get bogged down in fruitless philosophizing about “life as collective creation”, and so on, but in its finest passages, through its attentive catalogue of the everyday, it enacts the irreplaceable nature of ordinariness. Colloquial address brushes up against satire and even disdain without quite falling into them. Imagine the difference in tone had the Eliot of The Waste Land painted this scene, typist and all:
The curate buys his ounce of shag,
The typist tints her nails with coral,
The housewife with her shopping bag
Watches the cleaver catch the naked
New Zealand sheep between the legs –
What price now New Zealand?
The cocker spaniel sits and begs
With eyes like a waif on the movies.
The suburban milieu is not disparaged here, but accepted as the place where modern life is lived. Though he could be caustic, MacNeice’s reportage and light verse are driven less by a need to reveal our shortcomings than by a democratic and humane impulse to record, and to do so generously, without condescension. His famous comment, in the preface to Autumn Journal, that “poetry in my opinion must be honest before anything else and I refuse to be ‘objective’ or clear-cut at the cost of honesty”, suggests not only that he liked to change his mind about things, but that what he enjoyed above all was change, or as he put it rather better, “things being various”.
The view that “only change prevails” suggests a sensibility which chimes with ours —though arguably MacNeice was schooled to scepticism and mutability through being surrounded by too much confessionalism, and too much idealism, rather than too little. But it was also a sensibility which dovetailed with the deglamorized mood of what was to become, in Britain, the people’s war.
The Munich crisis was over in a month, but MacNeice’ s disenchantment remained. A year later the same feelings of helplessness and disillusion were played out against the backdrop of an Irish landscape. In his lyric series “The Coming of War”, MacNeice recorded the experience of hearing the news of the German advance into Poland while on holiday in the west:
O the crossbones of Galway
The hollow grey houses,
The rubbish and sewage,
The grass-grown pier,
And the dredger grumbling
All night in the harbour:
The war came down on us here.
Salmon in the Corrib
And the water combed out
Over the weir
And a hundred swans
Dreaming on the harbour:
The war came down on us here.
MacNeice later discarded more than half of the poems in “The Coming of War”, and it is to Peter McDonald’s credit that he has included the whole of the 1940 Cuala Press volume The List Ditch as an appendix (even though this means that some poems published later in Plant and Phantom appear twice). The Last Ditch was written while MacNeice was researching his book on Yeats, and it marks an important stage in his development as a poet. “As soon as I heard on the wireless of the outbreak of war,” he wrote in his autobiography, The Strings are False, “Galway became unreal. And Yeats and his poetry became unreal also.” But so too did the literature of social conscience. As he put it in his study of Yeats, “war spares neither the poetry of Xanadu nor the poetry of pylons” —neither the poetry of rubbish and sewage nor the poetry of dreaming swans. “Tormented by the ethical problems of the war”, MacNeice nonetheless said of Ireland in September 1939 that it was able to “poise the toppling hour”, to give him “time for thought” in a world where thought was being everywhere sacrificed to the demands of total mobilization. Neutral Ireland, and later the neutral United States, seemed to offer the chance for him to seek clarification of his duties and his commitments — to his relationship with the American writer Eleanor Clark, to social realism, to aesthetics, and to the war itself, to which he returned in December 1940.
Over the next four years, while working at the BBC, MacNeice would complete two new Faber collections, Plant and Phantom (1941) and Springboard (1944), his book on Yeats and The Strings are False, as well as scores of radio features and plays such as Cristopher Columbus and He had a Date. All of these were in different ways attempts to solve the ethical problems of war, but through – rather than in spite of – aesthetics. Writing to Dodds from Ireland in September 1939, MacNeice had rejected propaganda work: “These must be plenty of people to propaganda, so I have no feeling of guilt in refusing to mortify my mind”. On his return to Britain, however, he was rejected by the navy on grounds of ill health (he had suffered a near-fatal attack of peritonitis while in the United States), and it was propaganda work which claimed him. Most of MacNeice’s wartime output (over seventy programmes) were new features exploring the background to major events. He had a sympathetic and imaginative superior in Laurence Gilliam, who also worked with Dylan Thomas, Elisabeth Lutyens and Benjamin Britten. None the less., MOI directives had to be followed. These might include instructions to highlight stories from Nazi-occupied Europe, and accounts of German barbarity, for example, to represent voices from around the British Isles, to feature Irishmen serving with the British Forces, to praise British democracy, the freedom of the press, religious freedom, or the relationship with the Dominions.
If this felt like mortification of his mind, it was poetry’s task to hold on to the counterweight of principle. What has been called MacNeice’s “sceptical vision” had an ethical intent, in the sense that he believed it the duty of poetry to witness events faithfully, without tragic posturing or rhetorical bombast. It is true that there is also a mystical side to the wartime poetry. The invocation of the destructive powers unleashed through the blitz in “The Trolls” or “Brother Fire” (“O delicate walker, babbler, dialectician Fire, / O enemy and image of ourselves”) can sound at moments like passages from Eliot’s “Little Gidding” or the highly wrought images of destruction in Dylan Thomas’s Deaths and Entrances. All three poets responded to life, and deaths, in London during the blitz through poetry which measures human time against its enemies. But while both Eliot and Thomas (to varying degrees) proffer consolation through the redemptive power of organized religion on the one hand, pantheistic faith on the other, MacNeice’s wartime poetry, despite the tincture of mysticism, remains resolutely secular, focused on and rooted in the human,. For MacNeice it is still earth, not any other power, which compels, and death which makes life valuable; God is “whatever means, the good”. Throughout his writing life MacNeice stuck to traditional forms, preferring the classical and baroque “cage” of rhyme to free verse forms. But in spite of the fact that he never experimented with the styles we think of as quintessentially “modern”, as for exampie Eliot did, MacNeice was in many ways the more modern writer. His world was the one that most people ended up living in after the war, urban, secular, and without redemption save what we create for ourselves.
It may be that poems such as “Ten, Burnt Offerings” and “Autumn Sequel” will yet have their moment, but for now, following the tremendous creativity of the war years, the long discursive poems of the 1950s seem les; successful. Sometimes verbose, they lack the documentary, visual vividness of Autumn Journal. What they reveal is MacNeice determinedly building from classical poetry and mythology, English literature, and personal and political history a system of reference fit for the new Elizabethan age. No doubt he felt be needed the architectonics of the long poem to shape his personal mythology. But it was in the ghostly and surreal late lyric poems that his own everyman found final expression:
He was not Tom or Dick or Harry,
Let alone God, he was merely fifty,
No one and nowhere else, a walking
Question, but no more cheap than any
Question or quest is cheap.
May 13, 2007
COLLECTED POEMS by Louis MacNeice
Faber £30 pp836
The Northern Irish poet Louis MacNeice (1907-63) was WH Auden’s contemporary and the joint author of Letters from Iceland, as well as a member of the four-headed “Macspaunday” of left-inclined 1930s poets invented by their reactionary rival Roy Campbell. While the reputations of Stephen Spender and Cecil Day Lewis are undergoing a quiet reassessment, MacNeice’s never really lapsed after his death, and it has continued to grow steadily.
The enthusiasm of recent Northern Irish poets, including Derek Mahon, Michael Longley, Paul Muldoon and the editor of this centenary Collected Poems, Peter McDonald, has helped to secure MacNeice’s position as a leading poet in his own right. Utterly different from Auden, though never likely to escape comparison, MacNeice was ardently heterosexual rather than gay, a liberal sceptic rather than an ideologue, a classically inspired humanist rather than a Christian, as well as a scholar and one of the best-loved poets of his century. Much of this is apparent in the throat-catchingly beautiful version of Horace’s Odes 1.4 from the 1938 collection The Earth Compels: “Night and the fabled dead are near // And the narrow house of nothing past whose lintel / You will find no wine like this. No boy to admire / Like Lycidas who today makes all young men a furnace / And whom tomorrow girls will find a fire.” MacNeice’s remarkable and idiosyncratic ear is inescapably at work here, as also in Autumn Journal (1939), his great long poem, which recreates the period of the Munich Agreement.
MacNeice was not ordinary, but he loved and preserved the pleasures of the ordinary world – female company, popular song and music hall, the day of a rugby match, the lights in Piccadilly Circus. His delight in momentary phenomena, such as the view from the train or the fall of light in a street, was matched by an equally powerful pessimism, since while he might seize the day he could not hold it: “I loved my love with a platform ticket, / A jazz song, / A handbag, a pair of stockings of Paris Sand – / I loved her long. / I loved her between the lines and against the clock, / Not until death / But till life did us part I loved her with paper money / And with whisky on the breath.”
It is often felt that in the postwar years MacNeice’s poetry stagnated, as middle age coincided with valuable but distracting work for the BBC Third Programme as playwright and producer, as well as too much drink and an untidy personal life. The suggestion is that MacNeice plays the same chords to decreasing effect. McDonald’s clear, scrupulous new edition of the Collected Poems suggests that this was never quite the case. The poet who could write the eerie, paradoxical The North Sea (1948), for example, was undertaking rather more than rehearsals. Yet it is true that the last three books, Visitations (1957), Solstices (1961) and the posthumous The Burning Perch (1963), show a gradual renewal of urgency and force, in which the proverbial and the enigmatic mingle to tantalising effect. It takes a poet of rare substance to produce something at once as unadorned and tonally rich as Apple Blossom: “For the last blossom is the first blossom / And the first blossom is the best blossom / And when from Eden we take our way / The Morning after is the first day.”
Song-form and riddle are close at hand, offering varieties of the “dark saying” that interested MacNeice the critic, as well as allowing him to scrutinise the banal truisms of incurious conversation. Childhood, always a significant element in his work, comes to the fore as the mirror of mortality. So, in Sports Pages, the Marlborough pupil’s half-nostalgia for “Courts and fields of the Ever Young” takes on an inescapable and mysterious justness: “And the names we read seem more than names, / Potions or amulets, till we remember / The lines of print are always sidelines / And all our games funeral games.” If a demonstration were needed of the world-making power of a classical education, MacNeice provides it, most affectingly in Thalassa, the last poem here, his wry but heroic recasting of Ulysses’s speech to his old crewmen, in line of descent from Dante and Tennyson: “Put out to sea, ignoble comrades, / Whose record shall be noble yet; / Butting through scarps of moving marble / The narwhal dares us to be free; / By a high star our course is set, / Our end is Life. Put out to sea.” This is a wonderful book.
July 14, 2010
Jonathan Allison, editor
LETTERS OF LOUIS MACNEICE
768pp. Faber. £35.
978 0 571 22441 8
The Greeks thought of the past as stretching out before them while the future waited behind their backs. As a sometime lecturer in Classics and translator of Aeschylus, Louis MacNeice would have needed no reminding of this, but the experience, in April 1939, of sitting down in New York on board the departing Queen Mary to write Eleanor Clark the longest letter of his life might nevertheless have seemed uncomfortably Greek in its symbolism. He had met Clark a few weeks before and fallen badly in love with her, but was returning to Britain amid much uncertainty. He had lectured at Birmingham University and Bedford College through the 1930s, but correctly sensed his future did not lie in the academy. Behind him lay an unsuccessful first marriage, and waiting for him in London a complex relationship with Nancy Coldstream, the “married friend” of his letters to Clark. His friends W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood had crossed the Atlantic in the other direction in January 1939, but MacNeice sensed the coming conflict would be “his” war, and was reluctant to miss out on history.
It was not the first time MacNeice had envisioned the United States as an escape route. In a letter to his sister written in 1911 but not reproduced in Jonathan Allison’s splendid and masterfully edited Letters of Louis MacNeice, he outlined a plan to “run away on a raft” and disguise himself “in my Indian suit” among the natives of North America. For all his desire to escape, it was someone else’s disappearance that most strongly coloured MacNeice’s early years. In 1913, when he was six, his mother Lily had a hysterectomy and was moved to a Dublin nursing home: MacNeice never saw her again, and she died the following December. She features in only two letters here, each written during a painful wrangle in 1929 with his prospective mother-in-law, who had demanded medical evidence that Down’s syndrome (from which MacNeice’s older brother suffered) was not hereditary. Explaining the situation to John Hilton, he comments “I have worked out that I am really a mistake (i.e. my birth ought to have been forbidden)”. This morbid identification was summarized by his sister Elizabeth in 1974: “I believe that [Louis] had an irrational idea, perhaps only partly conscious, that his birth had caused his mother’s illness and death”. “Come back early or never come”, MacNeice would write of his childhood in “Autobiography”, though as the poem reminds us, creatively it remained very much there, albeit in dark and unsettling form.
The rectory at Carrickfergus, where MacNeice’s father was the incumbent, lent itself all too well to the mood of inspissated gloom in which, to quote “Autobiography” again, “The dark was talking to the dead”. But away from home too MacNeice did not lack for damply over-sized, unwelcoming spaces. Between 1917 and 1926 he boarded first at Sherborne and then at Marlborough, where he roomed with Anthony Blunt. Reading his early letters conjures not just MacNeice’s account of these years in his unfinished memoir, The Strings Are False, but Stephen Dedalus’s Clongowes days in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and the picture each book paints of forbidding authority and its challenge to an unformed young mind. Riddles are a recurrent theme. He participates in a debate on “whether Keats deserves to be called a poet” (no was the answer, by a margin of sixteen to two), decides the music of the spheres is caused by saints’ halos “turning round like gramophone records”, and sends his sister “much love and contempt”. The intimate connection between these childhood years, with their absent mother and chilly school dorms, and the death-haunted poems of his last years, has long been apparent, but to have the young MacNeice’s testimony, and in such detail, cuts unmistakably to the heart of the trauma.
Boarding school sees the question of nationality begin to obtrude. In a much-cited passage from The Strings Are False, MacNeice parades his disdain for Orangemen and their Twelfth of July marches to a teacher at Sherborne, only for a second, Irish teacher to enter the room and ask what he was saying. He is left feeling “guilty and cheap”. Loss of face also features in a letter of 1918, which describes another teacher’s verdict on England forever sending “silly people to take care of Ireland”: “He said it was just the same as if a new headmaster came to the Prep., and somebody flung a pellet at him and it hit his eye and he rubbed his eye and didn’t say ‘who flung that pellet?’ then”. Anglo–Irish tensions were more than familiar from home, where MacNeice’s father had risked Unionist ostracism by refusing to sign the Ulster covenant of 1912 and would later refuse permission for the Union Jack to fly over Edward Carson’s grave. In 1922 his stepmother omits to write “England” on the envelope and her letter goes to Marlborough Street College in Dublin instead, reminding us of the long, difficult history of finding MacNeice’s correct address in the larger poetic scheme of things. The Irish mote in MacNeice’s eye at public school in England was as nothing to the beam that blocked, for many years, his acceptance as anything other than a satellite of W. H. Auden, but even as he shuttled between Carrickfergus and boarding school in the 1920s the story of MacNeice’s critical naturalization as an Irishman was still a long way down the road.
Engrossing though these early letters are with their constant grumbles about fountain-pen nibs and fondness for kittens, Egyptology and the word “anent”, the sheer proportion of this volume they occupy is worth remarking. The Selected Letters of Philip Larkin and The Letters of Ted Hughes assign, respectively, thirty and ten pages to the first twenty years of their subjects’ lives, while the almost 1,800 pages of T. S. Eliot’s published letters to date also allow a mere ten pages for his youth and teens. However memorably rendered, the headmasters, prefects and rugby captains of MacNeice’s school years cannot help merging into a composite entity, as one chafes for the more engrossing dramatis personae awaiting us in Oxford. Yet when Oxford finally arrives, it is not without surprises. The great friendship of this period, the reader might decide, was not with Auden but Blunt. Though later judged “irredeemably heterosexual” by Blunt, MacNeice shows a rare camp side to Blunt, which reappears in the in-jokes of “Hetty to Nancy” in Letters to Iceland. Any fantasies Blunt might have entertained of MacNeice’s amenability to his advances (as conjectured in an editorial footnote) will have suffered a reverse with MacNeice’s marriage in 1930, but here too we confront a blank: the courtship was hasty enough, but the first letter between the couple to feature here postdates their break-up in 1935. Is MacNeice the letter-writer the full MacNeice, and, if not, where is he hiding?
The absence of key correspondents who might have been expected to feature more strongly, Auden for one, gives the 1930s years a breathless, jittery feel, as MacNeice abruptly goes from the prentice rhymer of his debut collection Blind Fireworks to publishing fifteen books between 1935 and 1941. For all his busyness in the literary marketplace, MacNeice cannot be described as much of a hustler, in the sense of cultivating critics and contemporaries. In 1939 he turns down a chance to feature in a television programme on America because of the “petty generalisations” he sensed the producers required, and, as he reports to Clark, recommends Stephen Spender instead. The touch of archness here is amusing (a note alerts us to the rivalry between MacNeice and Spender at the time, and in May 1941 MacNeice condemns Spender as “deplorably soft”), but it is hardly less amusing to find Allison quoting John Sutherland on Spender, as recently as 2004, as “England’s leading young poet” of the time. Some period orthodoxies die hard.
And then, in 1939, comes Eleanor Clark. The letters to Clark form the emotional core of this volume, and dominate the thirty-nine months between the love-struck missive from the Queen Mary and the short note, in July 1942, informing Clark of his impending marriage to Hedli Anderson. His quarrels with Clark are a peculiar mix of passion and something like editorializing, in the vein of the more discursive passages in Autumn Journal. As a member of the Partisan Review set, Clark loathed Stalinists with sufficient vehemence for MacNeice (a most unlikely Marxist apologist) to spring to their defence. He badgers her about her physical reserve, even as, back in London, he is conducting several overlapping liaisons. Will he return to the States? Will she come to London? “Tossed by circumstances” as he is (Clark’s accusing words), nothing is certain; in May 1939 he even proposes they go to the South of France. The path not taken beckons most tantalizingly in a letter of May 14, 1940, which ambles its way to the most oblique and not entirely grammatical of marriage proposals (note the missing “for us”): “I might get to a position where it would be not only practically more convenient but psychologically more satisfactory to get married to each other”. A week later the prospect has receded (“Your letter wasn’t quite what I expected & I am really angry with you”), if not definitively, then far enough for the urgency of MacNeice’s wish to remain in the US to begin to fizzle out. MacNeice had many occasions to rebuke Clark for political obtuseness, but the accusation she has levelled at him in the offending letter (partially reproduced in a note) is nevertheless shocking: “You have, darling, an awful lack of curiosity about the world”. If only, once, he could have turned back in the street to “read something at a newsstand”, “I would fall really in love with you”. MacNeice has been accused of many things, but a lack of attention to the newspapers has rarely if ever been among them.
The simultaneity of his involvement with Clark and the build-up to and outbreak of war is a powerful factor in the strength of MacNeice’s feelings – and the strength of his arguments with her. Philip Larkin’s non-committal attitude in his letters to the Second World War has done nothing to deter those who would make a collaborator-in-waiting of him, but MacNeice’s initial response to the war too was less than clear-cut. While deploring Auden and Isherwood’s pacifism, he presents his preference for Chamberlain over Hitler as a “choice of evils” rather than an identification with the state of Britain. For all MacNeice’s resolve not to miss out on the war in Britain, his reaction to the spectacle of the London Blitz in a poem such as “Brother Fire” is deeply ambivalent (“Did we not on those mornings after the All Clear, / . . . Echo your thoughts in ours? ‘Destroy! Destroy!’)”. The ambivalence takes comic form too, as when in 1941 he gives a lecture to a group, as he believes, of Central European refugees, referring repeatedly to “our country” and “In this country”, only to discover “they were all British”.
But mostly it is the possibility of casual death that occupies his thoughts: writing to Frederick Dupee in 1941, he recounts with fascinated detachment walking home to breakfast “through blazing streets (tinkling with falling glass) to find all the windows in my own street blown in & my own house full of soot & broken glass & plaster”. Talk persists of him helping Clark to set up as a writer in London, and of a month-long trip to the US in 1941, but what began as a maddening ocean of separation all too perceptibly settles into first a pretext and ultimately a convenience, and after his marriage to Hedli the correspondence stops. MacNeice’s steeliness about moving on can be seen in a chatty long letter to his first wife Mary Beazley, after their separation, in which he brushes aside her concerns for his state of mind (“you must really quit worrying about me or thinking I am sad because I AIN’T”). What he calls his “functioning vitality” is always ready to hand to sweep him along to the next relationship, and if there was inner turmoil about his break-up with Clark (or other, future relationships), it does not find an outlet here.
MacNeice is one of the great poets of instantaneity, of the present moment “And then the minute after”, as he puts it in “River in Spate”, but it is wrong to see in him a celebrant of sensuous immediacy alone, sheltering his humane scepticism and emotional self-reliance from the encroaching ideologies of the 1930s and after. If the poetry of his middle years represents a fatal sag at the centre of the Collected Poems, the tussles with abstraction that get the better of the stale poems of the 1940s and 50s had never been wholly alien to his work. He may have been the least tempted of 30s poets to exchange the honest confusions of liberalism for the certainties of the Party line, but few poets delighted as much as MacNeice in the rough and tumble of New Verse questionnaires on the engaged poet, soul-searching on the individual and society, and all the other period furniture of debate which he does so well to come through with his readability intact. Out of the crucible of this conflict comes Autumn Journal, but out of it too, with hardly less intensity, come the letters to Clark. MacNeice typically finds an antipathetic stimulus – bad politics, impatience with the short lyric poem, journalese – and sparks himself into life against it. A letter to T. S. Eliot of April 7, 1944, in which he declares the unlikelihood of his writing any short poems in the near future reads like a wilful tryst with the muse of abstraction that would preside over the next decade of his work, but in 1932 he writes in almost exactly the same terms to John Hinton (“I don’t think I shall write many more short poems – one has to be rather childish for that”). It failed to stop him in 1932, and the dry middle years failed to stop the breakthrough to his late lyrical triumphs. Seeing these statements of disillusion in context, as the dramatic feints they are, is an important corrective to the distorting patterns and false teleologies we might otherwise impose.
The outraged response that greeted Larkin’s letters showed the danger of partial and tendentious readings, but the vagaries of what does or does not survive of a correspondence can also colour the view of posterity. Auden rarely kept letters, and his correspondence with MacNeice is represented here by a solitary letter (and one, later letter from Auden to MacNeice). Nor are there any letters to Spender, Day-Lewis (so much for MacSpaunday) or Isherwood. His letters to Eliot are businesslike throughout – the one surprise, though not in a letter to Eliot himself, coming when he reports (to Clark) encountering Eliot “blind drunk” in a Tube station, “rocking on his heels & staring at me vacantly”. The absence of group gossip among the four points of the MacSpaunday compass hampers our sense of MacNeice’s dealings with his Oxford peers, but his dealings with other literary contemporaries too appear to have involved him more in time at the pub counter than at his writing desk. The death of Dylan Thomas affected MacNeice greatly, but Thomas does not feature among his correspondents here; nor does William Empson (“a filthy fellow”, in a 1934 letter to John Hilton), despite their years as colleagues at the BBC. Larkin puts in an appearance in 1958, as a fellow editor (with Bonamy Dobrée) of a PEN anthology: Larkin took a poor view of MacNeice’s work ethic, and complained to Kingsley Amis that he became “lazier and duller witted” as time went on (“and me more acutely critical and increasing in integrity”). Equally unrevealing, at the death, are the affectionate but terse letters to his third wife Mary Wimbush (“You are to be happy”).
MacNeice’s early death is not the only source of might-have-beens in this volume. Like Coleridge, that lifelong genius of the prospectus, MacNeice was a seasoned hatcher of schemes as transient as the mayfly of his celebrated early poem. In 1961 he talks John Freeman of the New Statesman into sponsoring a jaunt to Ireland to cover an Ireland–England rugby game: the commission foundered, Allison reports in a footnote, when “his driver in Ireland ran out of petrol” (MacNeice did eventually file an article on the following year’s Ireland–England game, in February 1962). A longer-lived but equally doomed project was The Character of Ireland, which MacNeice planned to edit with W. R. Rodgers, and whose principle raison d’être, the longer it dragged on with no obvious end (or beginning) in sight, was to facilitate boozy editorial get-togethers in Oxford, or benders in Ireland with Dominic Behan.
Sometimes the project does get completed but fails to match the chat surrounding it in the letters. MacNeice travelled to India in 1947, attending the midnight session of the Constituent Assembly at which independence was declared, but the unengaged “Letter to India” that resulted (in Holes in the Sky) falls far short of the vivid and marvellous letters he sends his wife, as when he interviews an eccentric industrialist who is also head of the Indian Cow Protection League (“the cow is like your mother, only more so; she goes on giving you milk”). Several long-haul trips followed in the next decade, to Ceylon, Ghana and South Africa and back to the US, but we quickly reach a point where “the hotels are all the same”, as he put it in the late poem “Solitary Travel”, and not just the hotels but the rugger-talking cronies and cultural attachés.
The pace of both MacNeice’s drinking and romantic entanglements picked up considerably in his last years, coinciding with domestic unhappiness and upheaval (Hedli asked him to move out in 1957), but also his luminous last two books. Solstices (1961) and The Burning Perch (1963) may seem death-shadowed collections, for all their vitality (“all our games” are “funeral games”, he writes in “Sports Page”), but this is to risk another false teleology: these are not the poems of a man who felt his end was nigh. Had MacNeice died in the late 1950s, the arc of his creative life would have been seen to peak a decade and a half before – then fall away; but as it is, in yet another blank, the comet-blaze of his last books is not accompanied, in his letters, by anything like the revelations of these to Clark. The poet had recovered, but the letter-writer had not. His final months find him enjoying Francis Bacon and Beyond the Fringe, before the BBC field trip to a Yorkshire cave in August 1963 which brought on his fatal bout of pneumonia. The very last letter, written from his deathbed, expresses a “great desire to be in on the oyster festival at Clarinbridge” in Galway. Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley were twenty-four at the time and Derek Mahon, who was to elegize MacNeice unforgettably in “In Carrowdore Churchyard”, just twenty-two. It is a wrench to think of the letters MacNeice might have lived to exchange with this brilliant later generation of Northern Irish poets.
As editor, Jonathan Allison has in general struck a happy balance between the skimpy apparatus of, say, Elizabeth Bishop’s One Art and the creeping ivy of over-annotation that sometimes threatened to choke the first volume of Beckett’s letters. If Eleanor Clark’s first husband, Jan Frankel, is incorrectly shorn of the e in his surname at one point, elsewhere Achill Island, where MacNeice honeymooned with his first wife, is compensatingly rendered as “Achille”. A description of Walter Starkie that decks him out in no fewer than nine honorifics (“CMG, CBE, MA . . .”) is either a piquant dig at this largely forgotten figure, or excess of scholarly zeal. If the text of the letters speaks from the “drunkenness of things being various”, the editorial small print stays conscientiously sober throughout, but without spoiling the party.
There is hardly a great writer in his or her letters who does not have a repertoire of styles and registers from which to choose, depending on the correspondent and the occasion. MacNeice was no exception, but the question of where the real MacNeice lurks in all this persists. A recurrent complaint among MacNeice critics is that his delight in cliché, pub talk and transience is a mask for aloofness, the “essential absence in his make-up” that Ian Hamilton diagnosed, reviewing Jon Stallworthy’s biography in 1995. In 1955 he concedes to Hedli, the person to whom he gave most, “I don’t suppose I ‘give’ much”. Another moment of painful recognition occurs in a letter to Clark of 1941 in which he jibs at a description of him in Time magazine as possessing a “flaccid” heart. MacNeice comments: “It ain’t true but I know what they mean. If I survive this mess, it (heart) will be what it wouldn’t have been otherwise – but, all the same, what it was to have been from the start”. As self-analysis, this is more than a little opaque. Emotional flaccidity is the price to be paid for his uncertainty over Clark, and something he could have avoided, either by acting more decisively or by not getting involved in the first place; and yet it is also his predestined condition, Clark or no Clark. The brief note in which he breaks the news of his marriage conjures an Olympian height: “What I said before about you & me perhaps is what really applies: we met on top of a mountain & should leave it at that”. For all his newspaper-reading, pub-going, and hymning of the ordinary life, a significant part of MacNeice remained in residence on that mountain top, and it was on its difficult heights that he was able to reveal himself more fully and humanly than ever before or afterwards.
David Wheatley’s collections of poems include Mocker, 2006, and Lament for Ali Farka Touré, 2008. His work features in Identity Parade: New British and Irish poets, published earlier this year.