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 …