In response to news of Poland’s invasion and the arrival of war, W. H. Auden condemned the thirties as ‘a low dishonest decade.’ Auden was born 100 years ago this year and is rightly lauded as a great poet; but so too was his friend Louis MacNeice, whose own centenary is being marked by the publication of a much-needed new Collected Poems, edited by the Northern Irish poet and academic Peter McDonald. Auden’s arrival in the United States in 1939 prompted him to reconsider his commitment to political issues, and he went on to revise and suppress those of his past works that had hinted at his involvement in left-wing, near-Marxist politics. MacNeice, meanwhile, found himself in Ireland at the outbreak of the war. He had also been in America earlier that year and he returned there, working as a guest-lecturer at Cornell and worrying over where his future lay. Rather than dramatically renouncing his past and staying in America, though, MacNeice went back to Britain at the end of 1940, having thought deeply about the value of poetry.
Often thought of as a ‘thirties poet’ who, along with Auden, Stephen Spender and C. Day-Lewis, was caricatured by Roy Campbell as ‘MacSpaunday’, MacNeice was actually a late arrival on the decade’s literary scene and something of an outsider. Born in Belfast and brought up in nearby Carrickfergus, his father was a home-ruler clergyman and later bishop in the Church of Ireland. After the early death of his mother, MacNeice was educated in England, at Marlborough and Oxford, where he took a First in Classics. His debut collection, Blind Fireworks, was published in 1929 when he was still at university, but it sank without trace. And he had to wait until 1935 before his second volume, Poems, was published. By that time, the other three legs of MacSpaunday had several collections in print and were publicly embroiled in the politics of the day.
Striking an authentically disillusioned tone throughout—rather than the illusioned-disillusionment of the faux-revolutionary—MacNeice’s volume probes its images and tests its assumptions with scrupulous honesty. ‘Snow’ registers the shock of snow starting to fall, revealing an unbridgeable gap between itself and the roses sitting in front of the window:
The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.
But this is not just a philosophical epiphany. It extends the volume’s earlier warning in ‘To a Communist,’ taking up and ironically reconfiguring the image of snow as not just a dangerous obscurer of the world’s complications, but also as a disquietingly distinct part of its plurality:
Your thoughts make shape like snow; in one night only
The gawky earth grows breasts,
Snow’s unity engrosses
Particular pettiness of stones and grasses.
But before you proclaim the millennium, my dear,
Consult the barometer –
This poise is perfect but maintained
For one day only.
Throughout the second half of the thirties MacNeice published a large quantity of work, ranging from Letters from Iceland (1937), the wonderfully high-spirited unorthodox travel book written in collaboration with Auden, to Autumn Journal (1939), a series of poems of the moment in which the slow fall of Spain to fascism and the shameful 1938 Munich settlement are viewed through the filter of everyday life—the political and the personal, the living and the literary resolutely intermingled. There is a refusal to put to one side philosophical truths for the sake of ideological dreams; but space is also found for other, more intimate truths, such as the joy in the pain felt at love’s passing:
September has come, it is hers
Whose vitality leaps in the autumn,
Whose nature prefers
Trees without leaves and a fire in the fire-place;
So I give her this month and the next
Though the whole of my year should be hers
who has rendered already
So many of its days intolerable or perplexed
But so many more so happy;
Who has left a scent on my life and left my walls
Dancing over and over with her shadow,
Whose hair is twined in all my waterfalls
And all of London littered with remembered
Part of MacNeice’s wariness of opinion petrifying into violent conviction stemmed from his relationship with Ireland. On reading the memoirs of W. B. Yeats’s muse, the revolutionary Maud Gonne, in another section of Autumn Journal, he notes how ‘a single purpose can be founded on/ A jumble of opposites’ and ironically envies the ‘intransigence’ of his ‘Countrymen who shoot to kill and never/ See the victim’s face become their own/ Or find his motive sabotage their motives.’ Yet it was to Yeats, a central presence in his poetry, that MacNeice turned as war came, in his sympathetic 1941 study, The Poetry of W. B. Yeats. MacNeice saw that ‘if the war made nonsense of Yeats’s poetry and of all works that are called “escapist”, it also made nonsense of the poetry that professes to be “realist”.’ According to MacNeice, the thirties had put too much emphasis on utility in life and art, neglecting the question of value. Food may be ‘useful for life,’ he mused, ‘but what is life useful for? To both the question of pleasure and the question of value the utilitarian has no answer. The faith in the value of living is a mystical faith. The pleasure in bathing or dancing, in colour or shape, is a mystical experience. If non-utilitarian activity is abnormal, then all men are abnormal.’ MacNeice’s poetry during the war, when he started to work as a writer and radio producer for the BBC, incorporates a related visionary aspect. Underpinned by a mystical faith in the value of living, MacNeice can strike a note of defiance in the face of the bombing of London, as in ‘Brother Fire’:
When our brother Fire was having his dog’s day
Jumping the London streets with millions of tin cans Clanking at his tail, we heard some shadow say ‘Give the dog a bone’ – and so we gave him ours; Night after night we watched him slaver and crunch away The beams of human life, the top of topless towers […]
Did we not on those mornings after the All Clear,
When you were looting shops in elemental joy
And singing as you swarmed up city block and spire,
Echo your thoughts in ours? ‘Destroy! Destroy!’
One of the great achievements of Peter McDonald’s new edition is that it allows the reader to see more clearly the strength of MacNeice’s poetry through the thirties and the war. MacNeice revised his work, albeit lightly, throughout his life, and in preparing a collected edition in 1949 he dismantled the order and shape of the original collections. In particular, he disastrously separated out the longer poems into separate sections. The editor of the 1966 posthumous Collected Poems, MacNeice’s mentor and friend, the classical scholar E. R. Dodds, respected the poet’s earlier editorial decisions, turning the edition into a book of two halves: the reordered and revised poems for the 1949 Collected, followed by a compilation of the later volumes, all in their original arrangements. As Peter McDonald points out, this was not in MacNeice’s best literary interests, and McDonald’s edition has pursued a more reader-friendly compromise. He places the poetry in groupings that correspond closely to the individual collections published, while respecting MacNeice’s revisions and omissions of individual poems. The omissions appear in an appendix, together with the immature first volume Blind Fireworks and various other previously uncollected pieces, so that the impact and artistry, the verve and integrity of his poetry from 1935 to 1945 is once again apparent.
No edition, however, can hide the creative decline MacNeice suffered after the war, when the demands placed on him at the BBC and the hard drinking culture he found there seem to have taken their toll. The long poems in Ten Burnt Offerings (1952) and Autumn Sequel (1954)—the uncomfortable unequal of its precursor—are dispiriting. The craft and facility are still present, but almost now a liability; the verse is slick yet stale, searching for something meaningful to say. As MacNeice himself put it: ‘Do I prefer to forget it? This middle stretch/ Of life is bad for poets.’
But without these years of despair we might never have had MacNeice’s extraordinary late renaissance. Turning his back on the long poem, he published three volumes of lyrics in seven years, each better than the last, culminating in The Burning Perch—surely one of the twentieth century’s most powerful collections. It was published in 1963, ten days after his death at the age of 56. In many ways MacNeice had seemed to be making a new start: he had found love, wrestled himself free from the BBC, moved out of London and was at the height of his creative powers. Yet the spectre of death prophetically hangs over these concentrated, technically innovative poems. They are, as MacNeice puts it, ‘two-way affairs,’ ‘the grim elements mixed with others’, such as in the haunting, love-filled final ‘Coda’:
Maybe we knew each other better
When the night was young and unrepeated
And the moon stood still over Jericho.
So much for the past; in the present
There are moments caught between heart-beats
When maybe we know each other better.
But what is that clinking in the darkness?
Maybe we shall know each other better
When the tunnels meet beneath the mountain.
Tom Walker is a DPhil student in English literature at Lincoln College, Oxford, writing a thesis on twentieth-century Irish poetry.