Contemporary Poetry Review

As Reviewed By:
Sunil Iyengar

MacNeice's Muse of Detachment

Louis MacNeice by Jon Stallworthy. W.W. Norton, 1995.


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          “If you want a formula for is that I am a peasant who has gate-crashed culture.” - Louis MacNeice to Eleanor Clark, 1940 


While an undergraduate at Merton College in Oxford, Louis MacNeice (1907-1963) suffered a minor trauma that recalls the opening of Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall:

A gang of hearties, assuming (wrongly) that he was homosexual, raided his rooms, debagged him, and burnt some of his prettiest ties, including one depicting small parrots among jungle flowers. He was ‘a little sad’ about the ties, but not altogether displeased to be martyred in the cause of aesthetic principle. 

The incident commands a mere half-paragraph in Jon Stallworthy’s stalwart 1995 biography, but it haunts a reader’s memory after the book is finished. For decades, MacNeice’s proper orientation has been misunderstood by literary historians, and if they have not torched his effects, they certainly have manhandled him on occasion. 

            Debarred from the legal team of Auden, Spender, and Day Lewis, his credentials seldom get reviewed on their own merits, and if they do, he is approved as the writer of a few anthology faves (“Bagpipe Music,” “The Sunlight on the Garden”) or he is viewed predominantly as an influence on a generation of Northern Irish poets. Stallworthy’s book unearths a mountain of facts, reminiscences, photographs, and correspondence to prove why the man whom The Times eulogized as a “poet’s poet” earned that vantage while shunning the cliquishness the phrase implies. 

            “I am damned if I am going to swallow Marx or Trotsky or anyone else lock stock & barrel unless it squares with my experience, or perhaps I should say, my feelings of internal reality,” MacNeice wrote to Eleanor Clark, an American short story writer with whom he became infatuated around the time of Auden’s first meeting with Chester Kallman. (MacNeice was witness to that historic event, and to Auden’s noble sham wedding with Thomas Mann’s niece, Erica, a few years earlier.) Indeed, his refusal to bow before Communism, or any other spiritual or social program during the turbulent 1930s, makes him the odd man out in Auden, Inc. 

            Not that MacNeice was a stranger to being a stranger. In the same letter, which Stallworthy quotes in full, MacNeice traces this condition to its source:

If in one’s childhood one has had to act as interpreter for an idiot brother whom none of the adults could understand [MacNeice’s elder brother, Willie, had Down’s Syndrome], if one has been kept awake half the night every night by a father moaning about his life [John MacNeice, a Church of Ireland rector outside Belfast, had lost his wife when Louis was seven], if one has got so that one winces in advance on behalf of one’s family’s reactions in any possible situation, the important effect is not the (admittedly heavy) effect on one’s nerves but the terrifying, precocious development of insight . . . . 

By the time I was 12 I could sit in a classroom of little boys at my school & foresee pretty accurately what reactions each of them would have to anything one said or did; even when the foresight wasn’t accurate the point was that I was imagining to myself inside each of those boys, a thing which I guess they weren’t doing in their turn. Well, later I closed down on that, darling, because of the strain & because, in order to make myself, I couldn’t keep on feeling on behalf of other people. And so I got the detachment or aloofness or whatever it should be called . . . .           

Here, MacNeice is defending himself from the charge of indifference to other people—what Clark had glibly called his “inhumanity”—but in another sense, the letter is helpful for what it reveals about his capacity to flit in and out of imagined modes of existence. His “detachment or aloofness” allows him to identify with his subjects more completely than many more socially motivated poets. This capacity, a strain of Keats’s negative capability, makes him one of the few exemplary lyric poets of the last century. His emphasis on plurality and “the drunkenness of things being various,” while it strikes one as a secular brand of Hopkins’s praise for “dappled things,” registers life’s strangeness with uncommon clarity. As Stallworthy notes, MacNeice was a Martian poet before anyone had ever heard of Craig Raine, though in this respect, Edith Sitwell may have been an early influence. 

             Stallworthy brings a similar detachment to telling MacNeice’s story. In his preface, he promises to let MacNeice’s published and unpublished writings speak for the poet “more than is customary” for a literary biography. “Ideally, readers—especially readers new to the poet—should meet them in full, rather than in paraphrase or fractured or filtered through commentary.” Where commentary on the poems is required, Stallworthy is quick and efficient, stepping off the podium with a minimum of fuss. He quotes an early specimen whose last few lines anticipate Auden’s myth-making:

                        The water sound

                        Gurgles and bubbles around

                        In a wild country

                        The Cliffs are high

                        Against the sky

                        In a wild country

The Sun’s great ray

Makes hot the traveller’s way

In a wild country. 

Of the eight-year-old MacNeice’s effort, Stallworthy observes: “Cliff and water, fixity and flux: clear as a fingerprint in these lines of the child are the co-ordinates and configurations of the poems of the man.” For that matter, Stallworthy might have added, the image of “bubbles” would figure prominently in poems such as “Soap Suds” and the delicate “Cradle Song for Eleanor.” 

Other useful, but characteristically brief acts of interpretation are Stallworthy’s discussion of “Bagpipe Music” (a poem inspired by MacNeice’s trip to the Hebrides, in the footsteps of Boswell and Johnson), Autumn Journal (“the Prelude of the Thirties”), and “Evening in Connecticut.” This poem, like MacNeice’s “Autobiography,” revisits the fragile peace of his childhood:

                                    Equipoise: becalmed

                                    Trees, a dome of kindness;

                                    Only the scissory noise of the grasshoppers;  

                                    Only the shadows longer and longer.


                                    The lawn a raft

                                    In a sea of singing insects,

                                    Sea without waves or mines or premonitions:

                                    Life on a china cup. 

These impeccable stanzas are succeeded by two that a budding Geoffrey Hill might have written:

                                    But turning. The trees turn

                                    Soon to brocaded autumn.

                                    Fall. The fall of dynasties; the emergence

                                    Of sleeping kings from caves—


                                    Beard over the breastplate,

                                    Eyes not yet in focus, red

                                    Hair on the back of the hands, unreal

                                    Heraldic axe in the hands . . . 

The work MacNeice did while in Connecticut, combined with Wallace Stevens’s gorgeous legacy, should be enough to convince aspiring poets to flock to that state. 

As with the poems, Stallworthy proves adept at choosing just the right letters and anecdotes to illustrate the life. This impression of unity—perhaps it should be called verisimilitude—must be hard to achieve for a subject as itinerant as MacNeice, whose travels, prose books, radio plays, and multiple romances rival his poetic development for center stage. Stallworthy can be dry and dutiful in recounting MacNeice’s adventures, but as the book continues, we learn to appreciate the biographer’s steady focus on the poetic journey, the only tale that can enhance appreciation of the poems. 

Still, there is a generous flow of photographs and quotables throughout the volume. A photo captioned “A pride of literary lions” shows, crammed in one shot, Eliot, Auden, Spender, MacNeice, and a young Ted Hughes, smiling politely and trying not to mess it up. (Eliot, MacNeice’s publisher at Faber, admired Autumn Journal and had advised the younger poet at the outset of his career to write “one or two longish poems” to kick off his first volume.) We learn that MacNeice attended Marlborough College with John Betjeman and Anthony Blunt, and that he was particularly tight with the latter, a Soviet spy in the making. And here, if anyone wants to know, is MacNeice’s description of “the one great elegance” in American college football—the forward pass:

To see a man feint and then throw a long impertinent pass out of the palm of his hand into a space where no one is but suddenly someone appears and ball and man are wedded at the run, is exhilarating, almost a sacrament. 

Then there is Auden. The two became fast friends after MacNeice, then a classics lecturer at the University of Birmingham, met Auden’s father, a local classicist and public health professor. The man to make the introduction was E. R. Dodds, whose spirit hovers over Stallworthy’s book in more ways than one. As MacNeice’s appointed literary executor, Dodds would edit the 1966 Collected Poems and commission the biography from Stallworthy. 

 Contributing to the linkage of their names, Auden and MacNeice lived and traveled together for their joint Letters from Iceland (1937). (Stallworthy remarks of their camping excursion that MacNeice was “impractical even by the standards of poets”—which is saying something.) At Oxford, however, they had moved in different circles. Unlike Spender and Day Lewis, MacNeice “did not fall under [Auden’s] spell” when it came to finding a role model. From Oxford in general, MacNeice emerged as his own man. “In Oxford homosexuality and ‘intelligence,’ heterosexuality and brawn, were almost inexorably paired,” he wrote. This discovery “left me out in the cold and I took to drink.” Presumably MacNeice’s North Irish background, at least at first, aggravated the isolation from his schoolmates. 

As shown by the anecdote about the neckties, MacNeice derived a certain amount of pride from his failure to fall into other people’s categories. This noncommittal stance seems to have irked a few readers and acquaintances quite early on. (Betjeman once referred to him as “that [f-----g] little Oxford Aesthete who lives near Belfast,” though he had also told C.S. Lewis, “He doesn’t say much, but he’s a great poet.”) Others took the line of New Verse editor Geoffrey Grigson, who said: “There is no other poet now in England who’s such a good writer (Auden may be on a bigger scale altogether, but at present he does very often make a mannerism of his own inventions).” Yet if one had to communicate MacNeice’s appeal for the benefit of readers unfamiliar with his poetry, the following extract from Dodds might suffice:

I do like your poems—I’m astonished to find how much. Astonished, because like all modernist poems they have that outward air of being clever, and I do hate cleverness (usually failing to understand it). But most of these seem to me to have a live core which is the personality of their author, and a music and a dignity which grow naturally out of the core and aren’t just a gummed-on decoration . . . . 

1963 was an annus horribilis for American poetry, a year that saw the passing of Plath and Roethke, Williams and Frost. All four poets have attracted their distinct followers among younger American poets, and it is time to admit MacNeice, though an Irish and British poet, into their number. Like them, MacNeice died in 1963. (He caught pneumonia while strolling the Yorkshire moors in the rain, shortly after recording cave sound effects for the BBC.) Some of our more hidebound contemporaries could take MacNeice as a model, not least for the view espoused in his Modern Poetry (1938): “This book is a plea for impure poetry, that is, the poetry conditioned by the poet’s life and the world around him.” If his impurities have provoked the criticism that MacNeice’s poems are journalistic or verbose at times, they also produce a more engaged poetry—an unmediated being-through-language, with no “gummed-on decoration” walling subject from poet and poet from reader. (It is doubtful, for example, that such a fiercely empathetic poem as Derek Mahon’s “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford” could have been written without access to MacNeice’s delight in physical objects.) 

Put another way, in this year of Auden’s and MacNeice’s centennials, we may as well acknowledge that the singular example of Auden—chimera, virtuoso, polymath—may be hazardous for most young poets, who would do better to pursue MacNeice’s steadfast aim of writing good and often great poems. The catalogue is impressive; in addition to the poems already cited, it includes “Sunday Morning,” “Snow,” “Wolves,” “Valediction,” “Meeting Point,” “Truisms,” “The Death-Wish,” “The Suicide,” “House on a Cliff,” “The Taxis,” “Conversation,” and “When We Were Children.” And let us not forget one more poem, whose title MacNeice must have written without the faintest trace of insecurity, given his abandon to his lyric gift and his scorn for all vain, misguided attempts at classification. He accepted its premise, surely, with a child’s borrowed rightness. That poem is “Elegy for Minor Poets.”


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