Sunlight on MacNeice

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Mark Gerson
Louis MacNeice (far left) with Ted Hughes, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, and Stephen Spender at a Faber and Faber cocktail party, 1960

In 1946 the vigorously right-wing South African poet Roy Campbell was festering with militaristic irritation at the pacifism, Marxism, and sexual oddities of Bloomsbury and the fashionable UK poets of the Thirties, and became particularly enraged by his wife Mary’s passionate affair with Vita Sackville-West. To work off his feelings he published Talking Bronco, of which the main (eponymous) poem, a satirical jeremiad in heroic couplets, featured a composite literary pantomime horse, the MacSpaunday (the chief reason why “Talking Bronco” is still remembered today). Zestfully blending the names of Louis MacNeice, Stephen Spender, W.H. Auden, and Cecil Day-Lewis into one handy scapegoat, Campbell charged them collectively with adolescent fantasizing, left-wing utopianism, implied homosexuality, draft-dodging hypocrisy during the war, and a general look- after-number-one attitude to life:

Come ask yourself MacSpaunday when and where
It ever swerved you by one tiny hair
From the main chance, or took a different route
From that which pure self-interest would suit…

It was undoubtedly in large part because of Campbell’s MacSpaunday that Louis MacNeice became so firmly, and wrongly, categorized in literary conventional wisdom as a not quite first-class member of the “Auden gang.” Campbell himself seems to have sensed this: several times in “Talking Bronco” we find the name Spaunday, as though its creator had doubts (as well he might) whether MacNeice really belonged with the others. The legend, often repeated, that MacNeice once floored Campbell in a barroom brawl (thus gaining his firm friendship) may have had something to do with it too.

In recent years MacNeice’s stock (helped by Jon Stallworthy’s perceptive biography and the excellent re-editing of the Collected Poems by Peter MacDonald) has risen steadily, and his place in the Anglo-Irish tradition as one of the finest, and most durable, poets of the twentieth century has been established with increasing confidence.1 But MacNeice himself, characteristically, helped the delay in recognition. His poetry’s prior reputation for simply bobbing along in the wake of Auden’s owed a lot to the trip to Iceland they shared in 1937, and in particular to the intermittently witty but overlong jeu d’esprit “Auden and MacNeice: Their Last Will and Testament” that formed the final chapter of Letters from Iceland, the off-beat travelogue on which they afterward collaborated. MacNeice’s ultra-camp, chatty “Hetty to Nancy” letters in that book, and “Hetty to Maisie” in I Crossed the Minch, carried, to readers like Campbell, an unmistakable whiff of the Homintern, not least since it was an open secret that “Nancy” was Anthony Blunt, with whom MacNeice had shared a study at school. It seemed as though MacNeice himself was, perversely, emphasizing his always peripheral connection, in literature as in life, to the more well-known poets marked by Campbell’s pantomime horse. If so, his reputation as a poet paid a heavy long-term …

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  1. 1

    For a good early reassessment of this kind, together with an account of previous faint-praise criticism, see Alan J. Peacock’s introduction to Louis MacNeice and his Influence (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1998); and Edna Longley, “Traditionalism and Modernism in Irish Poetry Since 1930: The Role of MacNeice,” in The Crows Behind the Plough: History and Violence in Anglo-Irish Poetry and Drama, edited by Geert Lernout (Rodopi, 1991) pp. 159–173, a key passage of which Peacock cites (p. xv).