Good Manners

The Collected Poems of Louis MacNeice

edited by E.R. Dodds
Oxford, 575 pp., $9.75

High and Low

by John Betjeman
Houghton Mifflin, 81 pp., $3.95

Collected Poems 1930-1965

by A.D. Hope
Viking, 214 pp., $5.75

Louis MacNeice
Louis MacNeice; drawing by David Levine

Probably most readers, like the present writer, have always felt vaguely amiable toward Louis MacNeice’s poems. They have been well-mannered and have exhibited commendable sentiments. They have shown obvious critical intelligence about the contemporary cultural and social scene without pedantry, and have not been afraid of a nostalgic wistfulness (duly disciplined) for a more attractive past while sensibly accepting the present. MacNeice could write lines with rhythms so insistent that they tyrannized the inner ear. I fully expect to go out at last with the verse

We are dying, Egypt, dying
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,

ringing in the submerging consciousness.

Therefore it was with a certain anticipation that I opened his Collected Poems, discreetly edited by E. R. Dodds. But the event has proved more of a trial than a pleasure. The collection covers 575 pages of closely printed type. Few poets could be read in such quantity in a comparatively brief time without boredom settling in. But in MacNeice’s case the sensation of stasis is particularly acute. Last summer I reread Wordsworth’s The Excursion in three afternoons with a large preponderance of pleasure and satisfaction, but it has taken three weeks to make a reasonably adequate (skipping even so) investigation of MacNeice’s collection. As I continue to respect MacNeice’s work, this is a phenomenon that calls for some consideration.

There are two long poems in the book that seem to me especially symptomatic and revealing both of MacNeice’s strengths and weaknesses. Autumn Journal is a day-by-day record that MacNeice kept in rhymed but loose verse lines during the Munich crisis in the autumn of 1938. For one who happened to be seeing London for the first time in September of that year, there are many passages that, across so long a stretch of time, evoke the charged atmosphere of that English autumn with poignant vividness. There was an extraordinary sense of intensified national identity in the air that even a stranger was immediately aware of. I recently found it perfectly described in a letter V. Sackville-West wrote to Harold Nicolson, dated September 27, 1938:

I do not know whether you have found the same psychological experience going on in yourself as I am finding during these dreadful days: a sort of strange calm and resignation, a mood which scarcely fluctuates at all save in brief moments of human weakness. I feel almost exalted, and most strangely part of a corporate body called England, and not merely “England,” but of all whose ideals and principles are at this moment similar. I might put it like this: that the strings of one’s being are tuned up to their finest pitch.

Autumn Journal is not, of course, a patriotic poem, but…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.