If you’re a poet fated to be eclipsed, doubtless you could do worse than to have W.H. Auden be the one who stands between you and the light. For one thing, Auden’s surpassing range, both of mode and subject matter, leaves a broad field for maneuvering. For another, his civility and geniality are—to choose an Audenesque term—comfy; the shadow he casts is warm rather than cold.
Louis MacNeice, anyway, whose career was dimmed by Auden’s at every turn, apparently felt little resentment about his friend and Oxford classmate’s greater renown and accomplishment. But then MacNeice was a man in possession of a remarkable aplomb. His autobiography, the posthumous, unfinished The Strings Are False, maps a minefield: the death of his mother when he was seven; cruel nannies; bullying boarding school classmates; schoolmasters who caned their charges. But when recounting his ordeals he rarely detonates. It isn’t as though fury were foreign to his soul—rather, his seems a case of someone habitually predisposed to deflect anger inward, as guilt and self-castigation. When he was a schoolboy, this impulse took the form of titanic grapplings with his conscience. As an adult, it must have found some venting in his alcoholism. His tendency to blame self before others may account for his striking ability to resume cordial relations with those women who had abandoned him or whom he had abandoned. His first wife, Mary Beazley, treated him with extreme shabbiness: she abruptly absconded with a friend of his, leaving MacNeice to juggle job and child on his own. He repaid her with compassion and sympathy, and soon amity was renewed between them. Those who managed to get close to him were often inspired to a devoted solicitude.
The getting close was sometimes no easy matter. On the page, certainly, he remains appealing but puzzlingly aloof—all the more puzzling for the intimacy of his subject matter. He was a poet obsessively drawn to just the sort of material that might be aired in a shrink’s sanctum: nightmares, estrangements from parents, sexual daydreams, early childhood traumas. Yet something in his delivery distanced him from his reader; his verses can be obstinately, if beguilingly, self-contained. MacNeice’s remoteness may further explain why he has remained so overshadowed by Auden, whose engaging personality leaps off the page. And it clearly provided a challenge both for the English poet Jon Stallworthy, whose Louis MacNeice (1995) was the first full-length biography, and for the mostly Irish contributors to Louis MacNeice and His Influence, edited by Kathleen Devine and Alan J. Peacock.
This year marks the centenary of MacNeice’s birth. He was born in Belfast in 1907, the son of a Protestant rector. The boy’s mother, until her death from tuberculosis, was a woman of shaky physical and mental health. The household was supplemented by a “Mother’s Help,” a woman “much possessed by death,” who at bedtime would advise young Louis, “Aye, you’re here now …