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Louis MacNeice: “His Own Unchanging Self”

An Interview with Jon Stallworthy

Interview By: Sunil Iyengar

Jon Stallworthy’s blood quickened after a poetry reading he gave earlier this year, not because he admired his own recitative powers, but because of something an audience member told him. This man, who turned out to be Stephen Spender’s nephew, had found a sheaf of letters in his late mother’s attic. His mother was Nancy Spender, Stephen’s sister-in-law, and it seems that she had maintained correspondence with her former lover, Louis MacNeice, long after their relationship had cooled. As MacNeice’s literary executor and official biographer, Stallworthy had known of the possible existence of some letters, but after the breakup of Nancy Spender’s first marriage, those had gone missing.

[private]The letters her son found were different. They had been written between her two marriages, at the start of World War II. During this period, MacNeice was in America, chasing Eleanor Clark, a short-story writer to whom he wrote some of his most revealing correspondence, and getting reacquainted with his former wife Mary. The few dozen letters to Nancy Spender are “very entertaining and interesting about America,” Stallworthy says in a recent phone interview. They portray “his sense of what was happening at the outbreak of the war and how Americans were viewing the war,” he adds. “Even more so in the second half of the correspondence.”

And what of Nancy’s letters to Louis? Her side of the exchange is missing only “because MacNeice kept nothing. Auden’s letters he would have put in the bin immediately. But the letters to her give you a very good sense of what she was saying to him, and they are very warm, humorous and thoroughly nice letters.”

Around the time of Stallworthy’s discovery, he learned that more MacNeice letters, written to Mary Wimbush-the actress with whom he spent his final years-also were available. Ultimately, both collections were purchased by MacNeice’s alma mater, Oxford University, with the result that Stallworthy plans to edit them “for a little publication from the Bodleian Library.”

Stallworthy, who is Acting President of Wolfson College at Oxford, praises MacNeice’s epistolary style. “MacNeice was a very, very good letter-writer . . . much better to women than to men.” A typical MacNeice letter to a male editor might run: “‘Dear Grigson, I’m sending you four poems. I hope you like them, Yours ever, Louis.’ To ladies, he has a little more to say.” [Editor's Note: see an extract of a MacNeice letter to Eleanor Clark, in Sunil Iyengar' s "MacNeice's Muse of Detachment," also in this issue.]

This fertile correspondence is being sifted by Jonathan Allison, an English professor at the University of Kentucky, for a volume of selected letters likely to be published in 2008. (It will not contain the Bodleian acquisitions.) Allison hit a snag when he sent the initial manuscript to Faber & Faber, MacNeice’s publisher. “He made a selection of 200,000 words, and they said, ‘You’re going to have half that,'” Stallworthy recalls. “They had originally commissioned, I think, 60,000. So they’re giving him a lot more.”

The resurgence of scholarly interest in MacNeice dovetails with his centenary year. Indeed, the past two decades have seen “quite a body of respectable academic work on MacNeice.” The Selected Literary Criticism of Louis MacNeice and the Selected Prose of Louis MacNeice were issued by Oxford University Press (OUP) in 1987 and 1990, respectively. Michael Longley edited MacNeice’s Selected Poems (1988). But the central event in MacNeice’s posthumous life was Stallworthy’s 1995 biography, which, he allows, “played perhaps a small part” in bringing the poet to a broader public.

The second most distinguished event will be imminent publication in the United States of a new Collected Poems. The book will replace a 1968 edition by MacNeice’s friend, E.R. Dodds, who originally commissioned Stallworthy’s biography. (Stallworthy balked at the first offer because he was then busily employed with OUP’s Clarendon Press. For a while it was thought the assignment would go to Michael and Edna Longley, the literary critic.) The poems have been edited by Peter MacDonald-“a good poet himself, [who] clearly owes something to MacNeice,” Stallworthy comments-and they were issued in Britain earlier this year. Derek Mahon, writing for the Literary Review in May, hailed MacDonald’s edition as “more expansive and easier to negotiate” than Dodds’. Unlike the 1968 text, the poems appear in order of publication, and ample Appendices reproduce previously uncollected works.

Stallworthy is himself a poet, one who has published more than half a dozen books of verse (The Anzac Sonata; New and Selected Poems, 1986), a biography of Wilfred Owen, volumes of literary criticism (Yeats), editions of other poets (Owen’s and Henry Reed’s) and an impressive array of anthologies (Great Poets of World War I: Poetry from the Great War, 2002). He muses on MacNeice’s singularity.

“The Irish poets love MacNeice; they revere Yeats, but they don’t like him . . . That is sort of interesting in a way, because the Irish for a long time said, ‘He’s a British poet, so we don’t need to bother with him,’ and the British said, ‘Well, he’s an Irish poet so we don’t need to bother with him.’ And now they see that he really did straddle the Irish Channel.

“[MacNeice] was very pleased, actually, to discover that his blood came from both the Protestant Irish and also the Roman Catholic Irish . . . He thought of Ireland as a single country, and he liked to address himself, as he thought, to Irish themes. [Yet] he did of course reach beyond that, much as Yeats did, and Heaney does . . . MacNeice does seem to me probably, with Heaney, the leading Irish poet after Yeats.”

Stallworthy even finds traces of MacNeice’s influence in a quintessentially English poet, Philip Larkin. “Larkin had a great regard for MacNeice,” Stallworthy says, noting that the younger poet once worked as a librarian in Belfast. “All those poets since, who were influenced by Larkin-they may be getting MacNeice . . . at second hand.” (Larkin’s 1973 Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse allotted one of its largest shares of poems-eight entries-to MacNeice. Larkin picked “Wolves,” “Snow,” “The Sunlight on the Garden,” “Bagpipe Music”, Section VII of Autumn Journal, “Dublin,” “The Taxis,” and “Tree Party.”)

Critical neglect of MacNeice in the mid-1900s may have had something to do with Stallworthy’s relative unfamiliarity with his subject when he started to write a biography. “There were all sorts of suggestions before I wrote about MacNeice that I could write about this poet or that poet-most notably, Sassoon. I flirted with that idea for quite some time, but he’s just not a good enough poet. I didn’t want to spend my life writing about Sassoon.” Then Stallworthy read, for the first time, the 1968 Collected Poems of MacNeice. He thought, “Yes, yes, this is a real poet I don’t mind giving [what turned out to be] eight years of my life to.

“First of all, I had worked on Yeats, who manifestly is the greater poet. I don’t have any doubt about that. If I had it in me to have written Yeats’ Collected Poems, I would rather have written that. [But] I would be glad to have written MacNeice’s.

“He was a highly intelligent man . . . I’m not sure whether you could say he was the same as an Auden, but he certainly was miles ahead” of other poets with whom he is frequently grouped, Stallworthy asserts. “He is seen out here [in Britain] as certainly second to Auden. Auden’s shares are very, very high, and so they should be. But MacNeice is now running at his elbow, if not his shoulder, whereas I think some of the others . . . have pretty much vanished.”

Beyond the poems themselves, Stallworthy came to admire his subject “more and more. I found him a very congenial companion,” someone who “never deviated, never changed.” Although “a somewhat shy man,” MacNeice possessed “a sure . . . sense of himself, his own unchanging self.

“For example, he was always left of center-[although he] refused to join the Communist Party-[and he] was always strongly in favor of the oppressed workers. He never changed.” Auden became a High Church Christian. Spender and C. Day Lewis moved to the political right, and all three were accorded lavish honors and academic seats. “MacNeice had no interest in that at all,” Stallworthy claims, speaking of public tributes. “He was given and rather ruefully accepted, but never spoke of it, a rather lower level of award: the CBE, the Companion of the British Empire.” The gesture was “nicely ironic, because as an Irishman he wasn’t altogether in favor of the British Empire.”

Asked about MacNeice’s relationship with Auden, Stallworthy replies: “I don’t think he was over-influenced by Auden-I think he greatly revered, respected, and was devoted to Auden-but he was a man with a sure sense of his own voice, his own self. He didn’t really fall under Auden’s spell, ever,” as many of their contemporaries did.

“Auden lived so much longer,” Stallworthy reflects. “It’s a curious thing, I think-if you are Rimbaud or Wilfred Owen, you can die early and be rediscovered, but for the rest, there’s nothing to help quite like longevity. Poor Mr. Hardy never got the Nobel Prize, but he remained very much in the public eye.”

MacNeice’s loyal trustee pauses, then concedes: “Auden could have died at 40, and he still would have been a great poet. I have no doubt about that.”[/private]

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- who has written 16 posts on Contemporary Poetry Review.

Sunil Iyengar, a poet, writer and editor in Washington, D.C., is a board member of the American Poetry & Literacy Project. His essays and reviews have appeared in Verse, The American Scholar, New York Times, Washington Post and San Francisco Chronicle.

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