Collected Poems of Louis MacNeice edited by Peter McDonald. Faber and Faber, 2007. 836 pages.
As Reviewed By: Maria Johnston
In a note on Louis MacNeice’s poetry penned in 1964, Louise Bogan observed that, “the Collected Poems 1925-1948 should, although not so arranged, be read in chronological order, for it is an added pleasure to watch the opening out of a true lyric gift, and of one so clearly illustrative of the subtle shifts and adjustments that have occurred within English poetic tradition during this century.” Bogan would doubtless have welcomed this magnificent new edition of MacNeice’s Collected Poems edited by Peter McDonald, replacing E.R. Dodds’ 1979 edition, which has restored the chronology of the individual collections in order of publication while also studiously taking account of MacNeice’s revisions. It contains too a number of valuable appendices which include helpful textual notes along with MacNeice’s notes to his individual collections and many previously uncollected poems of varying quality-including those that MacNeice omitted when revising collections during his lifetime.
[private]Throughout, the range and expansiveness of the poetry of this most prolific poet is on display, even if, as Philip Larkin said of MacNeice’s 1957 collection Visitations, some of it is “strictly for the fans.” One of the most important inclusions is MacNeice’s 1940 volume The Last Ditch which he dedicated to the American writer Eleanor Clark, published by Yeats’s Cuala Press in 1940, and which represents, as McDonald astutely asserts in his introduction, “an important moment in the poet’s publishing history.” MacNeice’s identity as a so-called “thirties poet” has been well documented, but The Last Ditch comes at a crucial time in his career, marking the end of the thirties phase and opening into his American experience of 1939 and 1940. Born in Belfast in 1907 to parents who had roots in the West of Ireland, then schooled from an early age in England where he lived most of his life, MacNeice is always viewed by critics in terms of either his Irishness, his Englishness or his Anglo-Irishness, but his autobiographical narrative The Strings are False begins with his symbolic crossing from America to Europe in late 1940, “on a boat going back to a war,” thus making for a larger and more complex reality. MacNeice’s American experience is a defining transitional moment, central to the trajectory of his career.
Aged just four years old, during Christmas 1911, MacNeice wrote a letter from Tuam to his older sister Elizabeth laying out his plan to run away to America:
I am going to run away on a raft [. . .] I am not going to stay. I am not going to stay. [. . .] Christopher Chippie and myself will be there. We will have plenty of provisions as we will have to go into the interior of North America. We will go where the lions howl in the night-time. We will keep a fire burning all night, as [you] wild beasts hate fire. I will disguise myself in my Indian suit and then they will be friends with us.
MacNeice’s extraordinary literary aptitude is evident at this early age, and it is clear that the four-year-old MacNeice sees America as a space away from the limitations of the present, a place of possibility and freedom, where disguise and remaking of the self is possible. Of course MacNeice’s run-away adventure never happened and despite such journeys of the imagination to America, MacNeice didn’t actually arrive on its shores until March 1939. Arriving for a lecture tour, MacNeice felt exhilarated beholding New York for the first time, capturing the colour and nuances of its landscape and character with a keen eye; what Robert Lowell in a 1946 review of MacNeice’s poetry for the Sewanee Review recognised as, “perhaps the most observant eye in England.” While there, MacNeice met and fell in love with Eleanor Clark prompting him to return to America in January 1940 on a boat of refugees for a long-term stay in what was a pivotal year in terms of world events and that had MacNeice, as he described himself in his autobiography, “tense, anxious, muddled, expecting the moon, guilty of the war.” For MacNeice, at this dark, uncertain time, New York and the towers of Manhattan as seen from deck, seemed “a weight of concrete plumped on the lid of Europe to keep the bad dreams down” as he recorded in his autobiography. MacNeice saw himself as a man of various selves and identities, all fluid; as he wrote in his study of Yeats: “I not only have many different selves but I am often, as they say, not myself at all.” In his essay “Traveller’s Return” in 1941 he reflects on his own complex identity as one “uprooted” and how his sense of being a self in transit connects to his writing life:
I can give myself as an example of uprootability. Born in Ireland of Irish parents, I have never felt properly “at home” in England, yet I can write here better than in Ireland. In America I feel rather more at home than in England (America has more of Ireland in it) but I am not sure how well I could write if I settled there permanently.
Travels, as McDonald remarks in his study Louis MacNeice: The Poet and his Contexts, were at the very heart of MacNeice’s work, “taking the self out of its accustomed context to face difficult otherness, testing the known against the unknown.”
W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood had caused controversy in 1939 by leaving England for America-a move termed by Cyril Connolly as, “the most important literary event since the outbreak of the Spanish War”-and were criticised by commentators in Britain for running away. MacNeice stayed with Auden for Thanksgiving in New York in 1940, a moment which is imaginatively envisioned in Paul Muldoon’s poem “7, Middagh Street.” Very much a poem concerned with questions of art and politics, evasion and commitment, it locates MacNeice along with Auden, Benjamin Britten, Salvador Dali, Gypsy Rose Lee and others in the commune at that address in Brooklyn, New York. This poem is particularly interesting in the way that it emphasises MacNeice as a multivalent, cosmopolitan figure, a Northern Irish poet among exiles in New York as World War II grips Europe. The poem was written at the time when Muldoon himself was preparing to emigrate to America. Muldoon’s poem has his “Louis” quoting Delmore Schwartz, alluding to Hart Crane, while Auden, visiting him in hospital, finds him reading Lorca’s “Ode to Walt Whitman”:
“If you want me look for me under your boot-soles”;
when I visited him in a New Hampshire hospital
where he had almost gone for a Burton
Louis propped himself up on an ottoman
and read aloud the ode to Whitman
from Poeta en Nueva York.
Here, Muldoon has Auden and MacNeice suspended in a dialogue regarding the poet’s responsibility in war-time; the spectre of Yeats haunting their words as they articulate their sense of being contemporary artists in this temporary American locale. Indeed, MacNeice completed his study of Yeats while in America, an undertaking which caused him to further contemplate such difficult questions. MacNeice during this time in America at the onset of war, became, as Peter McDonald has noted, more preoccupied with the connections between the public world and private self and “how much the external was in fact internalized for him at the time.” MacNeice considered his own departure from England an escape to America but not a relinquishing of responsibilities. Rather, it provided MacNeice who had long been, as he described himself, “tormented by the ethical problems of the war” with a space apart in which to consider such questions. As MacNeice reflected: “I thought I could think things out there, get myself clear before I went back into the maelstrom.” America confirms MacNeice as a poet of travel. His time there had him travelling widely to give lectures at Vassar, Buffalo, Montreal, Northwestern University, Syracuse, and he taught at Cornell, frequented New York, spent summer in New Hampshire (where he stayed with F.O.Matthiesen) and visited Atlantic City. This constant travel deeply affected on his thinking and his sense of the world and human affairs. As he had written in his “Letter” from Reyjavik in 1936: “We are not changing ground to escape from facts / But rather to find them.” The Strings are False contains a wonderful image of MacNeice sitting high among the clouds eating strawberries and cream, and his experience of America and its landscape is registered in his “American Letter” to Stephen Spender:
Last week I flew from New York to Chicago and back. Much of the American landscape being dull from the train, I was astonished by its elegance from the air. Elegance is the word for it-enormous plains of beautifully inlaid rectangles, the grain running different ways, walnut, satinwood, or oatcake, the whole of it tortoise-shelled with copses and shadows of clouds . . .
The description ends with a deep realization, a new vision that this American journey affords him:
but you cannot, with this endless land below you, avoid a beautiful feeling of futility, of fresh clean scepticism about humanity in general; the elections of Republicans and Democrats, the squabbles of the AFL and the CIO dwindle to a lottery in an ant heap; even if there were war down there on the plains of Indiana, it would just be one more ingredient in the pattern of a sliding map.
America in 1940 was for MacNeice a place of alternative experience where new possibilities could come into focus and where he could think out and reformulate his views. As he wrote in the Foreword to his own Collected Poems 1925-1940: “When a man collected his poems people think he is dead. I am collecting mine not because I am dead but because my past life is.” Overall, as he himself wrote; “something inside me changed gear.” Crucially “not at war” America became an important elsewhere, an “interregnum,” that freed his mind up to new ideas as he moved away from his much-documented poetry of the 1930′s and into larger concerns.
MacNeice’s poem “Meeting Point” from The Last Ditch registers the poet-as-lover’s initial American experience. Inspired by his relationship with Clark, it is one of his finest and most celebrated poems. Conrad Aiken, in a 1941 review of MacNeice, hailed it as one of his best lyrics. America here is a place out of time; time and mutability being constant preoccupations for MacNeice:
Time was away and somewhere else,
There were two glasses and two chairs
And two people with the one pulse
(Somebody stopped the moving stairs)
Time was away and somewhere else.
And they were neither up nor down:
The stream’s music did not stop
Flowing through heather limpid brown,
Although they sat in a coffee shop
And they were neither up nor down.
The bell was silent in the air
Holding its inverted poise-
Between the clang and clang a flower,
A brazen calyx of no noise:
The bell was silent in the air.
It is in America that he is temporarily freed from the constraints of time, outside the processes of war and history and finds himself “timelessly happy” in a new relationship, as he wrote to E.R Dodds. The Strings are False depicts America as a place “whose present tense is a continent wide” and in Meet the US Army MacNeice states: “all over the United States you meet many people who are not the victims of the clock.” “Meeting Point” is born out of that deepening sense of “life no longer what it was,” the future uncertain and the present moment held up, stilled in time. Another poem from The Last Ditch, the tenderly articulated second section of “Three Poems Apart” (later “Trilogy for X” in Plant and Phantom) professes the same desire to seal the moment in time, the chiasmus and caesura in the final line “closed on the world . . . world closed” creating the impasse, the still point:
O my love, if only I were able
To protract this hour of quiet after passion,
Not ration happiness but keep this door for ever
Closed on the world, its own world closed within it.
The technical mastery of “Meeting Point” is evident, its power lying in the rhyme scheme and the refrain that, as it frames stanzas, seems to suspend time and create stasis. Michael Longley has observed how “the rhyme scheme brings the couple together yet keeps them apart.” Interestingly, Longley has also stressed the relationship between “Meeting Point” and the later one “The Introduction” (1962), describing the “nightmarish transformation of the refrain” here and of the refrain in the equally exceptional poem “Autobiography” from 1940. In this way, what Longley terms the “family likenesses” between poems across MacNeice’s oeuvre has struck Longley and though critics routinely dismiss the poetry of what has been referred to as MacNeice’s “middle stretch” it is important to see the crucial links between MacNeice’s early work, here of the early forties, and his later poetry. For example, the “calyx” in “Meeting Point” is the same “calyx upon calyx” of “Les Sylphides” from “Novelettes” which comes later in The Last Ditch while the bell pervades MacNeice’s work. As MacNeice commented on this resonant image that haunts his poetry:
My father being a clergyman, his church was a sort of annex to the home-but rather a haunted annex [. . .] Which is one reason, I think, though I would also maintain that the sound is melancholy anyhow, why church bells have for me a sinister association, e.g., in my poem “Sunday Morning.”
The continuity of imagery and sounds across MacNeice’s oeuvre strikes one anew throughout the Collected Poems. MacNeice wrote with a deep attentiveness to the timbre of words, their distinct qualities of sound and colour, and throughout his oeuvre the tropes of light and darkness, movement and stillness, music and silence, time past and present, are interlocked in rich patterns. An earlier poem, “The Sunlight on the Garden” (1937), traces the dimming of the sunlight into the insistent assonantal double-clang of the “iron siren,” pivoting on the themes of mutability and stasis as it speaks of impending war:
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.
For a poem that is preoccupied with the losses of time and the vagaries of memory, this poem is masterfully composed out of interlaced patterns of rhyme-rhyme of course being the ultimate mnemonic device-making an utterly memorable music. There is something inevitable about the way each rhyme word follows on from the previous one, flowing over the enjambment-”garden / Hardens,” “minute / Within its,” “lances / Advances,” “upon it / Sonnets”-just as the same inevitability surrounds the obdurate facts of war, love and death. Appropriately in a poem that is so artfully composed out of sound and which hinges on aural chimes and sonic links, the percussive bells and sirens start up in the fourth stanza, ringing out a harsh cacophony of war and destruction:
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.
This is MacNeice at his lyrical best; a poem that exists to be learnt by heart. Autumn Journal, which followed in 1939, balanced the lyric and the didactic, pointing up the vast range of MacNeice’s poetics, as he wrote of it to T.S. Eliot: “It contains reportage, metaphysics, ethics, lyrical emotion, autobiography, nightmare. There is constant interrelation of abstract and concrete.”
Another poem inspired by America is “Cushendun” in the “Coming of War” sequence from The Last Ditch, written after MacNeice returned from his first trip to America in 1939. Much of MacNeice’s relationship with Clark was conducted by correspondence-letters and poems-across the Atlantic in 1939. Thus, the poem darkly addresses the absent Clark: “you beyond the clamour of Manhattan / Are terribly far away.” America, from the distance of Ireland, the poet’s view clouded by the outbreak of war in Europe, is an unrealistic prospect at this time. As McDonald has noted in his study, MacNeice in this poem, “made Ireland the middle ground between dream and nightmare,” America and Clark being the dream. The poem “Jehu,” written in America in 1940, was included in Oscar Williams’s American anthology The War Poets, and it juxtaposes the peaceful, lush New England setting-an “outmoded peace”-with the desert of war and the forces of destruction that have laid waste the world throughout history. Thus, the poem opens with a description of a tranquil New England:
Peace on New England, on the shingled white houses, on golden
Rod and the red Turkey carpet spires of sumach. The little
American flags are flapping in the graveyard. Continuous
Chorus of grasshoppers. Fleece
Of quiet around the mind. Honey-suckle, phlox, and smoke-bush
Hollyhocks and nasturtium and corn on the cob. And the pine
Smelling of outmoded peace.
The poetic style has clearly been influenced by MacNeice’s change of landscape. He leaves behind traditional metrical forms for a more intuitive rhythm and freer verse modes, drawing on the American idiom and landscape. Here MacNeice locates America as a space untouched by war, the desert sand now blowing over England, as he considers in the closing lines where he himself should be standing in the face of such devastation:
And now the sand blows over Kent and Wales where we may shortly
Learn the secret of the desert’s purge, of the mad driving,
The cautery of the gangrened soul, though we are not certain
Whether we should stand beside
The charioteer, the surgeon, or shall be one with the pampered
Queen who tittered in the face of death, unable to imagine
The meaning of the flood tide.
Another poem “Refugees,” written at the same time, describes the arrival of the uprooted to America as the promised land of freedom and dignity. As John Montague acknowledges, “few American poets could equal MacNeice’s description of New York in ‘Refugees’ where the skyscrapers ‘heave up in steel and concrete / Powerful but delicate as a swan’s neck.’” “Bar Room Matins,” composed by MacNeice in an apartment on Fifth Avenue, opens with the jaunty line: “Popcorn peanuts clams and gum,” pointing up the transatlantic momentum that informs his work of this period. The haunting poem “Autobiography” was also written at this time and it revolves around MacNeice’s childhood in Northern Ireland, a lurid kaleidoscope of heightened, discreet images bonded by a dark, obsessive refrain:
In my childhood trees were green
And there was plenty to be seen.
Come back early or never come.
My father made the walls resound,
He wore his collar the wrong way round.
Come back early or never come.
My mother wore a yellow dress;
Gently, gently, gentleness.
Come back early or never come.
When I was five the black dreams came;
Nothing after was quite the same.
Come back early or never come.
From his American vantage then, the whole panorama of selves, past and present, comes acutely into focus. The masterful and little-known poem “Evening in Connecticut,” also from September 1940, is set in the garden of Clark’s childhood home:
Trees, a dome of kindness:
Only the scissory noise of the grasshoppers:
Only the shadows longer and longer.
There are subtle echoes of Eliot’s “The Wasteland” here-Eliot was a formative influence on MacNeice-particularly in the use of anaphora in the last two lines quoted above and in the chorus of the grasshoppers. This sanctuary of seeming innocence is overshadowed by MacNeice’s knowledge of war and his continued search for meaning in America. The reality of world events, of growing threat, cannot but impinge here, the pivot being the word “Fall” and its duplicitous plurality of meaning:
But turning. The trees turn
Soon to brocaded autumn.
Fall. The fall of dynasties; the emergence
Of sleeping kings from caves-
The American natural landscape is here as remote as it was for Auden; vast, rendering the human more isolate in the “seeming-friendly woods” and ultimately “not to be trusted.” The poem ends with the shadows lengthening and continuing to encroach:
Not to be trusted, no,
Deaf at the best; she is only
And always herself, Nature is only herself.
Only the shadows longer and longer.
“I am writing a new kind of poetry,” MacNeice wrote to Mrs Dodds from Ithaca in March 1940. Throughout these American poems there is a darker vision at work, the distance affording MacNeice keener perspectives, and a more troubled and searching voice in his poetry emerges as it works through unending questions and registers the tensions of the self in a contingent world.
MacNeice’s writings on America show him to be an open and intelligent thinker as he denounces Anti-American prejudices and corrects received fallacies. His essay “Touching America” (1941) refutes stereotypical images of America and Americans as he avoids naively romanticising the country and comments with insight on American life, its politics, social structures, culture, attitudes, always sensible to its vices-stridently critical of its elements of Fascism and anti-Semitism-but he writes too of America as “inspiring” and praises the American’s “keen curiosity about the world.” This “keen curiosity” must be what MacNeice valued in himself also. MacNeice’s 1943 pamphlet Meet the US Army, a propaganda piece written for the British Ministry of Information, was written to promote awareness between the US and Britain. In its review of the pamphlet, Time magazine praised MacNeice’s piece of work, highlighting the relevance of his American background to such a project. His insights into America, its complexities, the “vastness and diversity of the American background” are well formed and comprehensive, eschewing easy generalisations. One of the many entertaining passages concerns American language. As MacNeice explains the differences between American and British English, including a glossary of American words and their English equivalents: “When an American speaks of the hood of a car he means what we call the bonnet; when he says vest he means waistcoat, and when he says undershirt he means vest.” His interest in American slang is emphasised here too:
Apart from such standard differences, Americans of course use a wealth of slang. Some of this is now familiar to British cinema-goers and may even have been adopted by them for their own use but much of it is likely to strike you as alien and perhaps unintelligible. You must remember that American slang is always changing and is richer and more colourful than our own; this is partly because the U.S.A., being still a comparatively young country, retains an experimental and effervescent habit of speech which we have not had since the days of Elizabeth, and partly because her diverse racial ingredients, including the America Negroes, have all contributed something to the national language, as well as to the national character. Some people in Britain may feel that American slang is too flamboyant. Remember that your visitors may find British slang flat, hackneyed, monotonous and colourless.
That MacNeice’s interest in American speech feeds into his poetry is particularly evident in his essay “Modern Poetry” as he discusses poetic language: “Popular images harden into clichés and so lose vividness, no longer call up a picture. But the popular imagination, as shown, for example, in the American wisecrack is something with which the poet should stay in communication.” MacNeice himself made masterful use of various registers of diction in his poetry, and here it is for him the “slang talk of New York” that is “rich and living,” making the poet in turn “rich and copious in his words.” It is interesting to note that it was around this time in the early forties too that MacNeice’s interest in the technique of parable became consolidated and which would enable his later, most achieved poetry. As he wrote later, “Since Autumn Journal I have been eschewing the news-reel and attempting a stricter kind of drama which largely depends on structure.”
MacNeice’s time in America formed a decisive experience and his love for the country endured, as Jon Stallworthy has noted, it “shines through his radio scripts of summer and winter 1942″ in radio broadcasts such as “Britain to America,” “Halfway House,” and “Salute to the US Army.” MacNeice returned to wartime London and began working for BBC radio in 1941. It is probable that his interest in radio as a form was influenced by his exposure to American radio and the broadcasts of Edward Murrow. His work for radio opened his work out into new dimensions and reveals the reach of his innovation and experiment. The radio medium enabled him to communicate through many voices, dissolving boundaries of time and place and of genre, and allowing him to travel the world in this way; indeed, “Christopher Columbus” “created a sensation in artistic circles on both sides of the Atlantic” according to Asa Briggs. MacNeice’s work with radio confirms his deep preoccupation with sound. In 1942 MacNeice married the singer Hedli Anderson, and he composed a song cycle titled The Revenant for her as a wedding present (also included by McDonald as an appendix).
Reading through the new Collected Poems one is struck by the range of technique, the endless variety of rhythms and metres, the use of sound patterns and sequences, and the masterful articulation of the dramatic voice. Robert Hass has perfectly summed up MacNeice’s “Bagpipe Music” (1937) as, “how to get from Rudyard Kipling to Shane MacGowan in sixty seconds.” A poem like “The Taxis” (1961) has to be performed, recited aloud, as Christopher Reid demonstrated recently at a celebration of MacNeice in Dublin, reciting the poem in a marvellous London Cockney accent which captured the black humour and human drama of the piece, the mordant music of that sing-song “tra-la” with its ominous falling cadence. MacNeice described Robert Frost as “one of the most sinister writers in the language” and the same is true of himself. A poem such as the darkly memorable “The Introduction” from The Burning Perch (1962) hailed by Michael Longley for its “bleak, frightening territory” testifies to MacNeice’s lyrical gift and his life-long preoccupation with love and loss. Note the chillingly tactile yet nightmarish nursery-rhyme-like refrain of “crawly, crawly,” the equally nightmarish cartoon-like image that has the “larvae split themselves laughing,” the harrowing twist at the end from “grave glade” to “green grave,” and the menacing transposition of the commonplace girlish sigh, “all dressed up with nowhere to go.”
They were introduced in a grave glade
And she frightened him because she was young
And thus too late. Crawly crawly
Went the twigs above their heads and beneath
The grass beneath their feet the larvae
Split themselves laughing. Crawly crawly
Went the cloud above the treetops reaching
For a sun that lacked the nerve to set
And he frightened her because he was old
And thus too early. Crawly crawly
Went the string quartet that was tuning up
In the back of the mind. You two should have met
Long since, he said, or else not now.
The string quartet in the back of the mind
Was all tuned up with nowhere to go.
They were introduced in a green grave.
MacNeice died in 1963 in Yorkshire after collecting sounds for his last radio play Persons from Porlock. He was elegised by Auden and Spender and by Lowell and John Berryman. In 1963 Lowell wrote to Elizabeth Bishop mourning the death of the Irish poet, mentioning too how much he had admired MacNeice’s poetry: “I liked some of his poems, more the early ones, very much. Always a smart mind and eye, and a spring to the rhythm.” Lowell’s elegy ends with a wonderfully symbolic image of MacNeice and Lowell engaged in conversation beside a bust of that other famous crosser of the Atlantic, Eliot:
A month from his death, we talked by Epstein’s bust
of Eliot; MacNeice said, “It is better
to die at fifty than lose our pleasure in fear.”
It was on board a passenger ship from New York, returning from a recital tour of song and verse with Hedli in 1953, that Louis MacNeice met John and Eileen Berryman. The two poets struck up an immediate friendship, and MacNeice insisted the Berrymans visit him in London that summer. Berryman was shocked by MacNeice’s death, writing to Lowell in September 1963: “Hell of a year, isn’t it? Mr Frost, Ted [Roethke] & NOW Louis whom I loved.” He elegised MacNeice in his “Dream Song 267,” mourning the death of the man he had described to Richard Wilbur as “one of my best-loved friends”:
So Henry’s thought rushed onto a thousand screens
& Louis’, the midwife of it. A thousand dreams behind,
birds are incredibly stupid.
My love for Louis transcended his good work,
and-older than Henry-saw him not in the dark
In London, Eliot wrote the obituary for MacNeice in The Times, expressing his “grief and shock” over the death of a “poet of genius.” As Eliot recorded, setting MacNeice apart from the poets of the thirties generation who made up the collective term “MacSpaunday”:
MacNeice was one of several brilliant poets who were up at Oxford at the same time, and whose names were at first always associated, but the difference between whose gifts shows more and more clearly with the lapse of time. MacNeice in particular stands apart.
Eliot concludes his obituary by praising MacNeice for having the “Irishman’s unfailing ear for the music of verse,” deeming his radio plays “haunting.”
MacNeice’s influence on contemporary poets has been born out of his own deep engagements with elsewheres, his vast scope and his deep sense of the complexities of human existence. It is the dynamic image of the sea-”something alien, foreboding, dangerous” but also “a symbol of escape”-that formed MacNeice’s earliest significant trope in childhood, and it is present throughout MacNeice’s entire poetic output. Tom Paulin has confirmed how MacNeice is to him, “a great poet of the sea. The sense of the sea, of Belfast Lough, of darkness and travelling and not knowing where you are or where you’re going is powerfully there; he’s a poet of emigration.” It is time that scholars of MacNeice look beyond the prevailing limited views that place MacNeice only within the restrictive contexts of Ireland or England, or as predominantly a “thirties poet” and Auden’s less successful side-kick. He was a transnational poet, determinedly outward-looking, and did not himself believe in entrenched national boundaries where art was concerned. Indeed, a discussion between MacNeice and F.R. Higgins on “Tendencies in Modern Poetry” in 1939 had MacNeice correct Higgins by adding pointedly that modern English verse was also being written in America and not just, as Higgins had authoritatively stated, in England. At another interesting point in this discussion MacNeice expressed his far-sighted opinion that: “sooner or later national traditions will be taken up into some wider traditions [of this kind], corresponding to the superseding of narrower national feelings by creeds or philosophies which cut across national frontiers.” MacNeice concludes with the following statement directed at Higgins: “I have the feeling that you have side-tracked me into an Ireland versus England match. I am so little used to thinking of poetry in terms of race-consciousness that no doubt this was very good for me. However, I am still unconverted. I think one may have such a thing as one’s racial blood-music, but that, like one’s unconscious, it may be left to take care of itself.” These are telling observations, all of which point to MacNeice’s open and inclusive view of poetry as a form that crosses boundaries of tradition, language, faith, and nationality and it is something which readers of his work should take care to remember.
In 1961 MacNeice suggested to Charles Monteith, his editor at Faber, a book titled Poems of Place in which “sixty-odd” poems would be presented under sixteen different country-headings, from Ireland (the first) to the USA (the last), by way of Iceland, Greece, India and Sudan, amongst other places. This arrangement was indeed “innovative” as Peter McDonald in his introduction to his edition of the Collected Poems comments and it is a selection that calls attention once more to MacNeice’s idea of poetry and knowledge transcending boundaries of place, the mind moving across geographical spaces to know more of the world and thus make sense of it, a world that is, in his immortal words, “crazier and more of it than we think”:
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.
World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.
And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes-
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one’s
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.
This poem creates, as Anthony Hecht described MacNeice’s “Visitations,” a “fluid world of metaphor.” MacNeice had also, in 1957, proposed a new kind of travel book to be titled Countries in the Air, the purpose of which as MacNeice declared, was “to explore, in the light and shade of my own experience, the corroborations and refutals of my myths, the frustrations and illuminations I have found in various travels.” Hedli’s portrait of her husband “The Story of the House that Louis Built” encapsulates his vast world-view, his wide-ranging outlook, as:
The windows on the west side looked towards Connemara, Mayo and the Sea. Those to the south scanned Dorset, the Downs and Marlborough-the windows to the north overlooked Iceland and those to the east, India.
“The front door,” as Hedli wrote of MacNeice’s ability to encompass all, “was wide and always open” and his poetry, as laid out in this new Collected Poems traverses a vast topography from Iceland to India, America to Athens, returning over and again to Belfast, London, Carrickfergus, Connemara. This new Collected Poems deepens our understanding of his immensely rich, complex, and copious oeuvre, enlarging his position in poetry to one that transcends the rigid national boundaries of Ireland and Britain and embraces the world in all its variousness, always alive to new possibilities, remaining to the end, “incorrigibly plural.” Karl Shapiro, reviewing MacNeice’s Autumn Sequel in 1955, celebrated him as “the natural poet of the age, possibly the only living poet who knows how to speak in poetry,” asserting that “his significance has never been properly estimated.” This is true even now. This new edition of his Collected Poems, meticulously researched and assembled by a dedicated scholar and poet, should go some way towards redressing this oversight.[/private]