The Burning Perch
Collected Poems, 1925-1948
Two years ago Louis MacNeice kindly spared a summer Saturday to come up from London and talk to an assortment of English provincial poetry-fanciers at a bleak technical college in the Midlands. I took the chair for him. As often when one takes the chair, I found myself listening to the tune and the tone more than the argument. Again and again, one very strange phrase caught my ear: “Midnight in turkeys…midnight in turkeys!” It was only over coffee and discussion afterwards that it suddenly hit me that what MacNeice had been saying was “mid nineteenthirties.” This fine poet’s voice, with its aspirated dentals, its noise of determined snorting through a permanent mild nasal catarrb, was an Irish countryman’s, almost an Irish peasant’s, voice. He was an Oxford graduate, a passionate Londoner, in Ulster itself his father had been a Church of Ireland clergyman who became a bishop. His childhood had been a lonely one, in a rambling vicarage, and one thing that had much influenced his poems (Perseus and the gorgon’s head, St. Sebastian feathered with his pet hours) had, he once wrote, been early confrontation with mental illness: he recurred, because of that, to images of petrifaction.
He sought hedonism often in his poems, but it was a haunted hedonism. There is a poem in his last volume which is a set of allusions to Horace, an ironical attempt at expressing urbane resignation: but, as MacNeice wrote in a letter from what he did not know was his death-bed to the English Poetry Book Society (The Burning Perch was one of their autumn choices), his resignation was even less convincing than Horace’s, because he had not a pagan background. He wrote how surprised he had been to find how bleak and dour, how much concerned with, in Mr. Eliot’s phrases, “boredom and horror” this last volume was. He wondered sardonically whether “fear and resentment”—like “lust and rage” for Yeats in his last volume—were what he now needed to “spur him into song.” But he noted rather wistfully that even in the most bored and the most horrified, the most frightened or resentful poems, there was often some image that stood for another kind of feeling: in one of the bleakest of these poems, for instance, the image of the sea, open, cleansing, leading anywhere, never far away. A few days after writing this piece of calm, inquisitive, slightly surprised, and by no means breathily intimate selfanalysis, he died.
Nobody expected this. Tall, bony, muscular, gaunt, with a face like a handsome horse’s with too many teeth in its mouth, MacNeice had played vigorous amateur rugby into his thirties, into his fifties would take long, long country walks in heavy hobnailed boots. Pneumonia caught him by surprise, as it catches many people. I never saw him not looking hard as nails. He drank enormous quantities of beer, as almost all B.B.C. producers do in the nervous waitings …