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 but you don’t know where you’ll be when you wake up.” Not surprisingly, the child was frequented by nightmares, and Stallworthy does a fine job of evoking how the poet-to-be, equipped with the frail craft of a keen but sensitive intelligence, navigated from one environment to another, eventually shoring up at Oxford, where he studied Classics and received a double First.
For all his brightness, MacNeice was no poetic prodigy like Auden. Some critics have noted that MacNeice found his mature voice with “Belfast,” a poem that simultaneously evokes a childhood home and bids it a bilious farewell. Written when he was twenty-four, it’s certainly an accomplished performance for someone of that age—but perhaps more admirable than affecting. Until he reached his thirties, the MacNeice capable of poems that quicken the breath and pull at the heart surfaced only sporadically.
MacNeice’s slow poetic gestation has created difficulties for his editors. Until recently, the standard edition has been the Collected Poems (1966) edited by E.R. Dodds, which has the disadvantage of including a substantial sheaf of juvenilia at the outset; the book gets off to a laborious and lackluster start. It will surely wind up supplanted by the new and expanded Collected Poems edited by Peter McDonald, which seeks to adopt “as far as possible the groupings of MacNeice’s poems into their originally published volumes,” and which wisely consigns much of the juvenilia to a series of appendices. Although McDonald’s Collected is a good deal larger that Dodds’s, it offers more by way of correction and convenience than revelation; the winding curve of MacNeice’s career, as it was outlined by Dodds, remains essentially intact.
For many critics, the apex of MacNeice’s poetic achievement is the long “Autumn Journal,” completed in his thirty-second year, which mixes a love affair’s dissolution with philosophy, politics (the Spanish Civil War, Hitler’s rise), travel (from London to Spain), humor. It is, in MacNeice’s own formulation, “impure poetry”: ”poetry conditioned by the poet’s life and the world around him.” MacNeice was no theorist—his critical judgments were more ad hoc than systematic—but he knew what he was after. As he explained to his editor, T.S. Eliot, he desired a form in which “different parts of myself (e.g. the anarchist, the defeatist, the sensual man, the philosopher, the would-be good citizen) can be given their say in turn.” Stallworthy makes expansive claims for the poem (“Autumn Journal is The Prelude of the Thirties”) and backs them up incisively.
Even so, what remains for me most memorable about MacNeice is his “pure poetry”—his short lyrics. They make a peculiar group, both in their versification and in their surrealistic effects. It may be with them, in all their harsh and haunting loveliness, rather than with the more nakedly autobiographical longer poems, that MacNeice emerges most distinctly—and with them that MacNeice, burning his brightest, comes out from under Auden’s shadow and anyone else’s.
One of his better-known short poems, the nine-line “The Brandy Glass,” comprises—like the liquid it contemplates—a rich, potent, and unsteadying blend of tastes:
Only let it form within his hands once more—
The moment cradled like a brandy glass.
Sitting alone in the empty dining hall…
From the chandeliers the snow begins to fall
Piling around carafes and table legs
And chokes the passage of the revolving door.
The last diner, like a ventriloquist’s doll
Left by his master, gazes before him, begs:
“Only let it form within my hands once more.”
For all its brevity, the poem is like a document signed in triplicate; MacNeice has put his name all over this one. We recognize both the reliance on meter (in this case, iambic pentameter) and the avoidance of metrical regularity, the fondness for rhyme and the distrust of any tidy or rigid rhyme scheme (the one line lacking a rhyme-mate is a typical touch). Over the decades, MacNeice assumed a number of prosodic incarnations—he was an inveterate experimenter—but in this regard he was a bulwark of perseverance: from first to last, he favored a rough-hewn finish.
We also recognize MacNeice’s obsession with the islanded moment—the magical interval somehow sprung from Time. It’s of course a common poetic sentiment, underlying some of the richest lyrics in the language (Marvell’s garden poems, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium”), and traditionally tied to the pastoral and the mellow. But in MacNeice’s case it was often linked, as in “The Brandy Glass,” to the macabre, the irrational, the grotesque. We can expect no penetrating or liberating utterance where, as here, a dummy has been abandoned by its master or where, more generally, Man has been estranged from any greater Master. Many of the poems are pierced by spiritual solitude and futility. The diner is alone, and the door that might bring him companionship is—flake by flake, second by second—becoming inoperable.
Finally, the poem illustrates perhaps the most salient, the signature trait of MacNeice’s lyric poetry: its reliance on repetition. The last line echoes the first. It’s amazing how often he chooses to close a poem by returning to its opening. And amazing how often the poem’s subject is itself recurrence. Sometimes the first and last lines mirror each other exactly or almost exactly:
It does not come round in hundreds of thousands of years…
It does not come round in hundreds of thousands of years.
The sunlight on the garden
For sunlight on the garden.
(“The Sunlight on the Garden”)
Grey brick upon brick
And brick upon grey brick.
(“The Closing Album”)
In other cases, the ending plays a slight but telling modulation on the poem’s opening:
In a between world, a world of amber….
In a below world, a bottom world of amber.
Round the corner was always the sea.
Round the corner is—sooner or later—the sea.
(“Round the Corner”)
Both lists could be generously extended.
The characteristic pitfall of circular poems is that the reader may wind up feeling that, literally, the lyric goes nowhere—that MacNeice gives us a cavalcade whose horses turn out to be carousel ponies. In rare cases, however, such poems move the reader through their very immobility: a work of art that ends at its starting point is likely to appear narrow and confined—or else it may, in its escape from the linear, seem free and boundless. A number of MacNeice’s poems impart the refined sense of enclosure belonging to a crystal geode, to a silk-bordered Japanese scroll-painting, to a voluptuous, multiarmed sea anemone—to any object both intricately assembled and purely abstracted from the workaday.
His penchant for echoing a first line in a last—creating a poem that revolves with the neatness of the mythical hoop snake—was only one of the uses he found for repetition. It pervaded his work. Probably no other modern English-language poet—except Randall Jarrell—has made the rhetoric of repeated utterance so central to his artistic strategies and has wrung so many fertile variations upon it. MacNeice’s poems are constantly reshuffling previous lines, often in transfigured forms. (In a review of Frost he once observed, “A sentence in prose is struck forward like a golf ball; a sentence in verse can be treated like a ball in a squash court.” The poet in him expected to have things come bouncing back.) Sometimes, (as in “Yours Next” or “Meeting Point”) you feel as though you were reading a poem built on repeated phrases—a villanelle, a sestina, a pantoum—and yet the form is unfamiliar; you seem to be reading a villanelle, sestina, pantoum run through a paper shredder.
Although MacNeice was a more dependable modernist than Auden (it’s impossible to imagine him composing, as Auden did, reams of sonnets in conventional rhyme and meter), his work has spiritual affiliations with one of the quaintest poetic tools imaginable: the refrain. Today, few devices look more old-fashioned than the line or lines that return at each stanza’s close:
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.