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Feet on the Ground

Louis MacNeice

by Jon Stallworthy
Norton, 572 pp., $35.00

Irish poets, learn your trade,
Sing whatever is well made,
Scorn the sort now growing up
All out of shape from toe to top…”

Yeat’s admonition in his Last Poems, published in 1939, could hardly have been of any great encouragement to his fellow countrymen. He towered over Irish poetry, and his famous ability to change his style and “remake himself” in tune with the century, as well as his still unshaken beliefs in fairies, the mystical, and the occult, made it difficult for younger Irish poets to be as rational in those challenging times as they might have wished to be. With the revival which has culminated in the award of the Nobel Prize to Seamus Heaney, Irish poetry has become far more down-to-earth.

But things were more difficult for Louis MacNeice, a poet with his feet firmly on the ground, who, like Yeats, came of Protestant Irish stock. “An ancestor was rector here,” Yeats had declaimed in his typical grandiose manner about the little west of Ireland parish of Drumcliff, thus turning his family into a legend with a stroke of his pen, as he so often did, and numbering them with Fergus and with Conchubar. “My grandfather was the curate,” though it would be more accurate, would not have struck the same heroic note at all. But MacNeice’s father really was a Protestant rector, as was the father of W. R. Rodgers, another Northern Irish poet and contemporary of MacNeice. Both began their poetic careers under Yeats’s shadow: and although both learned their trade impeccably they each had to disclaim and evade in their own way the manic influence of their great mentor.

In 1939, at the age of thirty-two, Louis MacNeice was commissioned by the Oxford University Press to write a critical study of Yeats’s work. He had agreed partly to try to make some money and partly to “have it out” with the famous older poet, who had died that year. Possibly with a recollection of Auden’s great elegy on Yeats’s death, which had appeared in The New Republic, MacNeice echoed the informal and affectionate word that Auden had slipped in between the formally beautiful salutations in his poem: “You were silly like us; your gift survived it all.”

Naïve enemies regard him as knave or fool all through—at best as a “silly old thing”; his more naïve admirers regard him as God-intoxicated and therefore impeccable. It is high time for us to abandon this sloppy method of assessment; if poetry is important it deserves more than irresponsible gives on the one hand or zany gush on the other.

Despite the lofty critical tone of this review of Yeats’s Last Poems and Plays, which also appeared in The New Republic, and which was clearly intended by MacNeice as a preliminary statement about the purpose of his own book, that book itself turned out something of a disappointment. Like much of MacNeice’s prose, and indeed some of his poetry, too, it gives the impression of being conceived and written in haste; but then MacNeice, like many others, had more to think about in 1939 than the niceties of another poet’s style.

Then, too, whatever his other shortcomings as a poet and a man, MacNeice was certainly never in the least “silly.” Had he been, he might—in his own way of course—have become not a better but a greater poet. As it is, his poetry gives above all an impression of the deft and the provisional, of wariness and adroitness; never putting a foot wrong or committing itself either to splendor or to absurdity. His instrument is lively but impersonal, as in that admirable poem “Bagpipe Music.”

It’s no go the Yogi-Man, it’s no go Blavatsky,
All we want is a bank balance and a bit of skirt in a taxi.

The throwaway accent was highly contemporary, but for an age when it was becoming compulsory for writers to be seriously social and political, MacNeice can still seem today, as he must have seemed in the Thirties, as fey and elusive as a leprechaun.

Jon Stallworthy, a poet himself and a scholar who has produced a highly workmanlike biography of Wilfred Owen, is under the disadvantage of having to justify a solid and detailed study of MacNeice’s life and work, which for that reason necessarily seems to take for granted his stature as a major poet. In fact Stallworthy does not exactly take it for granted; he is much too honest for that, yet he never quite confronts the question either of just how big a poet MacNeice is. Instead, and quite plausibly, he assumes that the question has little or no importance. Perhaps it hasn’t; and yet there is a faint sense of unease in the book, as if its care and meticulousness—copious notes, contemporary records, lavish photographs and all—were in danger of being asked the question that the poet himself trenchantly asked in a long and ruminative poem—one of his best poems—“Autumn Journal”:

Why bother to water a garden That is planted with paper flowers?

MacNeice’s poems are not made of paper—indeed they are more like the almost metaphysical roses of his memorable anthology favorite “Snow”—but they can nonetheless give the impression of being stuck in the soil of the 1930s, the soil in which Auden’s poetry flourished and grew so naturally. “Snow” and “Sunday Morning” are marvelously successful poems, but they leave a curious feeling of being felicities achieved by that enigmatic craftsman “Anon.”: they do not suggest or join up with a particular three-dimensional poetic mind and personality. With a shrug the poem blandly concludes that “World is crazier and more of it than we think” (“Snow”) or that there is no “Escape from the weekday time. Which deadens and endures.” (“Sunday Morning”)

It is impossible to imagine MacNeice saying, as the sixteen-year-old Auden had done, that “he intended to be a great poet.” His modesty had a sardonic edge. This was in a sense deliberate, as if the poetic life were a perpetual wry joke, in which his putative ancestor Conchubar MacNessa, the villain of the Deirdre saga and a real and august figure in Irish mythology, were jesting at the expense of Yeats’s pompous but wholly serious claim to be the heir of the Duke of Ormonde. (Auden in the same vein used to boast that the Icelandic sagas were full of people called Auden.) Ulster people have too much dry Scots humor to take “Irishness” seriously, but if MacNeice had managed to get more full-blooded pretension into his work it might have been no bad thing for his reputation. As it was he never quite fitted anywhere; certainly not into that composite figure of a Thirties poet—together with Spender, Auden, Day Lewis—whom the South African poet Roy Campbell had derisively christened “MacSpaunday.”

MacSpaundayism,” which for the poet involved an ardent pursuit of all the fashions and preoccupations of the time, particularly as regards politics and ideologies, did not suit MacNeice’s brand of poetic detachment, although for a time at least he went along with it. It was Yeats, after all, who had in his own bizarre way set the fashion for finding the true subject of contemporary poetry in the stark realities of the twentieth century, doing his best to shock the reader of his later poems by demonstrations of “lust and rage.” But the modish phallocentric urgency of the epoch was not MacNeice’s thing either. Although he married twice and had numerous girl-friends as well as a capacity for alcohol that made Auden’s look modest, he was temperamentally cool. This particularly struck a shrewd young observer who for the next thirty years was to act as something of a connoisseur and recorder of “Modern Trends in English Poetry and Prose,” which, as it happened, was the title of a reading given by MacNeice and his friends in Manhattan on April 6, 1939, organized by the League of American Writers.

John Malcolm Brinnin “had spent the greater part of his savings on a plane-ticket so that he could hear”

three mortals who, as far as I was concerned, might have been Luke, Matthew and Mark, in haloes.

Louis MacNeice came first. Calm and handsome in a Donegal tweed suit and suede shoes, he read without the slightest change of emphasis poems that were either playfully light and intricate or casually grim and touched with the forebodings of Neville Chamberlain’s England. Then came Isherwood. No bigger than a boy and with a smile broad enough to light up the room, he gave us a series of chatty anecdotes about the trip he and Auden had recently made to Chiang Kai-Chek’s China. At last, Auden himself…

There was also another star-struck young man in the audience, who seemed

barren of any apparent credentials beyond fan club curiosity. Auden was also smiling an intrigued sort of smile, I noticed, and seemed actually to be prolonging a conversation he could only have wished to bring to a polite conclusion. Then I heard him ask the boy for his address and telephone number.

The boy was Chester Kallman, who was to be Auden’s companion for the remaining thirty-four years of his life. Brinnin was indeed surrounded, as he realized later, by legend in the making, but MacNeice had little if any part in it. He was not by temperament a legend-maker himself, or a subscriber to legends.

It is clear from Brinnin’s description of the reading that what struck him was the tone of ironic assent in MacNeice’s poems to the fears and fads of what Auden was memorably to call “a low dishonest decade,” and his ability to play on them without committing himself to the excitements of mythology. Christmas for MacNeice, as in his leisurely sardonic “Eclogue for Christmas,” offers no occasion either to reject or to rejoice at.

Therefore when we bring out the old tinsel and frills
To announce that Christ is born among the barbarous hills
I turn to you whom a morose routine
Saves from the mad vertigo of being what has been.

The poet turns not to a symbol, an ideal, or a hope for the future, but to the comfort of a quotidian friendship.

Autumn Journal, written at the same time, struck admirers like MacNeice’s old classics tutor Professor E. R. Dodds (also a revered figure for Auden and one transmuted into the hilarious portrait of his early poems) as above all an honest document, and one that made no attempt to exaggerate the poet’s feelings, or to make up a somber and sinister fairy story of its own. “Honesty,” for the perceptive Dodds, was a quality far removed from the thrillingly disturbing imaginary worlds that so much modern poetry was striving to create. But it is precisely MacNeice’s honesty, and the power of his poetry to dissipate, at this distance of time, the legendary aura that surrounds his poetry of the Thirties, which makes Stallworthy’s project worthwhile. His is an honorable and careful reconstruction of the world of an essentially honest and clearsighted poet and one who was never, in Auden’s cozy phrase, “silly like us.”

We could say that, in a curious sense, MacNeice’s poetic ancestry had gone askew at some point. The kind of honesty Dodds had in mind was that which belonged to a poet like Hardy, whom MacNeice of course admired, but felt distanced from by his own Irish origins and upbringing. His friend and contemporary Cecil Day Lewis, being English, was a natural disciple of Hardy, rather dangerously so indeed for his own poetic independence. But though the honesty and the detachment of the Wessex poet, the quiet observer of passing shows who “used to notice such things,” exactly suited in a way MacNeice’s own poetic temperament, MacNeice was atavistically committed to quite another poetic tradition, in which the poet’s supreme task was to create a magic world of his own. Yet this MacNeice could not, or did not, want to do.

In 1939, already divorced, he met in New York the beautiful Eleanor Clark, a writer of short stories who had been briefly married to Trotsky’s secretary, with whom she had lived in Mexico. They had some sort of affair, in England and America, but it came to nothing, possibly because although Louis liked vigorous and lively women, and such women fell for him easily, he seems to have preferred them to be decidedly nonintellectual. His first wife’s passion was for dog-breeding, and later for chicken-farming. This was incongruous, since she was the stepdaughter of the great Professor Beazley, a world expert on Greek vases, who had taught Louis at Oxford and whose exotic wife, Marie, kept open house for dons and under-graduates alike and gave celebrated parties. Marie had been married to a Captain Ezra, killed in the war, who came from a distinguished Jewish family in India. Her daughter, Mary, was dark and rather like a porcelain doll, a superb dancer (but Louis never danced) and with what one of his friends described as a touch of the “hareem” about her. She also desired greatly to be an English-type county hostess, the Lady of the Manor, an ambition which Louis was only partly able to gratify on his salary as a lecturer in classics at Birmingham University, although dons’ salaries in England were proportionately much higher then than they are today.

The history of their marriage is highly intriguing, with all the makings of a tragicomic novel (Mary, for instance, sounds exactly like the memorable Rosie Manasch in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time) but although Jon Stallworthy is a good as well as a leisurely and detailed biographer, even he cannot afford time for too much Proustian speculation into the psychology of his author’s female attachments. Mary fell in love with a big rugby-playing Oxford student called Katzman, and she and the poet decided to separate, Louis keeping the custody of their son, Daniel. His tempestuous mother-in-law, though she had never approved of the marriage, now turned all her wrath upon Katzman, whom her daughter was proposing to marry in New York and then to run a farm with outside the city. She set about persuading one of her husband’s most brilliant disciples, Isaiah Berlin, to carry across the Atlantic a specially commissioned curse from an eminent rabbi, and lay it upon Katzman in person.

Berlin declined the assignment, but was not allowed to leave the Beazley house until after what he described to a friend as “a séance lasting some 3–4 hours of uninterrupted Medea-talk.” Mrs. Beazley clearly had no humor, but her would-be messenger’s comments on the episode are, as one would expect, inimitably droll:

The combination of tigress, bore & femme fatale is really very odd: the effect is violent claustrophobia & a desire for solitude, with me as rare as rare.

Oddly enough her son-in-law seems to have got on with her quite well, at least until the breakup of his marriage; she herself had earlier described him not without affection as “just a stream to sit by and throw pebbles into.” No doubt there was a deep Celtic pool of silence in MacNeice which could be useful to himself at times, as well as restful to others, although his fellow poet John Betjeman, who had been at the same school, described him when they met again in later life “as gauche & literary & irritating as ever.”

In the knockabout and witty poem which he wrote together with Auden, a typically in-group denunciation of all their pet hates and bêtes noires entitled “Auden and MacNeice: Their Last Will and Testament,” Louis got his own back on Mrs. Beazley in a memorable triplet.

And to the most mischievous woman now alive
We leave a lorry-load of moral mud
And may her Stone Age voodoo never thrive.

As Stallworthy justly observes, the mother-in-law “hitherto regarded as an exotic eccentric revealed herself a monster.”

By the late Thirties money had become a serious problem. The Very Reverend John MacNeice, now a Church of Ireland bishop, did his best to help; and T. S. Eliot, who published his son’s poetry at Fabers, suggested giving a lecturing tour in America (but not at the ladies’ clubs, where “only people like Hugh Walpole and Harold Nicolson…can make any money out of it”), shrewd advice from old Possum. In fact, as the war came closer, Louis had no trouble in sinking into the hospitable arms of the BBC, where he remained for the rest of his life, turning out a remarkable quantity of verse plays and other features, always good but seldom of the highest poetic grade. His major accomplishment was his partial translation of Goethe’s Faust. The figure of Mephistopheles, “the spirit who denies,” must have made a sardonic appeal, but although MacNeice’s outward appearance was ideal for the part he was a benevolent Mephistopheles, one who was amused by his power as an artist expertly to manipulate words and things. Whether his poetic talent suffered from this prolonged cultural fellowship with the BBC is open to question. Always a craftsman rather than a poet of the interior life, perhaps it was really the thing he was best at, and most enjoyed doing.

After the war he married Hedli Anderson, the cabaret singer to whom Auden had dedicated his most memorable ballads, and they were happy enough for some years, though Louis’s prodigious drinking led to a final estrangement. He died young, at fiftysix, still working for the BBC, after making a program in a cave system on the northern moors. Always careless about such matters, as he had been before the war when traveling in Iceland with the more prudent Auden, he was caught in a downpour, failed to change his clothes, and came down with viral pneumonia, to which his whisky-soaked system had no resistance. “Am I supposed to be dying?” he asked the disconcerted medical men, with a last glimmer of the old detached Celtic irony. His last attachment, Mary Wimbush, put their new Great Dane into kennels in order to be with him at the end.

The other Mary, his first wife, had been devoted to their borzoi; and it was to that first Mary, to whom he remained deeply attached, that he had written one of his best-known love poems, characteristically just after their separation and divorce.

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…

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.

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