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.
Sonnets, blank verse, even heroic couplets: however disparaged such traditional forms may be in some quarters, they continue to attract a broad array of contemporary poets. But the refrain seems to have largely died out with Yeats, and later poets who have sometimes employed it (Auden, Howard Moss, L.E. Sissman, Elizabeth Bishop) have done so when seeking after an ironic or archaic effect.
Actually, MacNeice wrote only a few poems with refrains, but he produced many poems which, while quite modern in their rhythms, their brusque music, their clipped diction, and their abrupt leaps of logic, draw upon the primeval, incantatory impulse of the refrain. Auden, too, drew on venerable forms (most flamboyantly, the Anglo-Saxon alliterative hemistiches of The Age of Anxiety), but usually he did so more straightforwardly than MacNeice—who, in the borrowing process, tended to bend the goods in unforeseeable ways.
For the fact is that MacNeice wrote, prosodically, some of the queerest poems of our time. He fused a revolutionary’s appetite for novelty to a conservative’s reverence for discipline. (In 1953, when asked to address the question “What do I believe?,” MacNeice responded: “What I do believe is that as a human being, it is my duty to make patterns and to contribute to order—good patterns and good order.”) Like Marianne Moore, he created unusual designs as a matter of reflex. But in Moore’s case, once you’ve adjusted to her guiding procedures (her syllabic verse, her “light rhyme,” her wayward indentations), you generally know where you stand. Having read a stanza, you can safely extrapolate the form that will follow. With MacNeice, though, the under-pinnings are often slow to declare themselves, as in the four-part “Nature Notes.” Its first section is entitled “Dandelions”:
They brightened the cinder path of my childhood,
Unsubtle, the opposite of primroses,
But, unlike primroses, capable
Of growing anywhere, railway track, pierhead,
Like our extrovert friends who never
Make us fall in love, yet fill
The primroseless roseless gaps.
What do these lines reveal about what’s to come? Almost nothing. For who in the world would predict that each of the succeeding stanzas would begin with the word “Incorrigible”? That each second line would end with “childhood”? That each third line would incorporate “opposite” and each fourth line “unlike”? The rules here may be self-generated, but they are quite rigid; they stipulate with precision the definitions of both obedience and violation of the form—a form that, naturally, bears no relation to anything you’d find in any handbook of prosodic terms.
Some of MacNeice’s most interesting experiments arise in a small scattering of poems that seek to wed disparate stanzaic configurations. Here is the opening of “Hands and Eyes,” which brings together (a typically unlikely MacNeice mélange) a farmer, an infant, and a monkey:
In a high wind
Gnarled hands cup to kindle an old briar,
From a frilled cot
Twin sea anemones grope for a hanging lamp,
In a foul cage
Old coal-gloves dangle from delected arms.
Of which three pairs of hands, the child’s are helpless
(Whose wheels barely engage)
And the shepherd’s from his age are almost bloodless
While the chimpanzee’s are hopeless
Were there not even a cage.
In formal terms, the two stanzas have little in common: the first has six lines, the second five; the first has no rhymes, the second has one; the first (alternating dimeter and pentameter) flows, the second congests. Perhaps they’re only randomly conjoined? And yet MacNeice holds to their alternating pattern until the seventh and final stanza emerges as a hybrid: a seven-line form that borrows from each prototype. When its techniques are dissected in this fashion, a poem like “Hands and Eyes” may appear bloodless and academic. On the page, though, with its contrapuntal music jostling in your ears, it comes off as novel and invigorating.
“House on a Cliff” is another poem that sets up its own rules and expectations:
Indoors the tang of a tiny oil lamp. Outdoors
The winking signal on the waste of sea.
Indoors the sound of the wind. Outdoors the wind.
Indoors the locked heart and the lost key.
Outdoors the chill, the void, the siren. Indoors
The strong man pained to find his red blood cools,
While the blind clock grows louder, faster. Outdoors
The silent moon, the garrulous tides she rules.
Indoors ancestral curse-cum-blessing. Outdoors
The empty bowl of heaven, the empty deep.
Indoors a purposeful man who talks at cross
Purposes, to himself, in a broken sleep.
The human portrait here is typically sketchy. Perhaps the subject is a lighthouse keeper, or a farmer. We know, anyway, he’s reticent and indrawn; uneasy about aging; troubled in his ancestral legacy. We know he finds no peace anywhere, out or in. Formally, I suppose you could call this a traditional poem—what could be more conventional than rhymed iambic pentameter quatrains? But within its orthodox format the poem announces another pattern, one so odd and so strident as to drown out traditional harmonies. The poet does some deli-cate work with a sledgehammer. We have a poem of eleven scattered sentences, each beginning, alternatingly, with “Indoors” or “Outdoors.” The poem poses a technical problem, which might be described as: How do you stop the hammer blows? Or: What device will bring this slam-bang construction together?
The answer lies in that phrase “cross purposes”—or better still, “cross/Purposes (the enjambment enhancing and summing up the dynamic balance of tensions). The poem floats away. Both the indoors and the outdoors dissolve—or are carried off—into the likewise conflicted domain of the man’s unconsciousness. It’s an adroit solution. At times, MacNeice’s poems partake of the spirit not so much of the chess player, who naturally focuses on plausible lines of play, as of the chess problemist, who relishes positions that wouldn’t normally arise. He shares with the problemist both a love of ingenuity for its own sake and a penchant for outlandish configurations.
MacNeice has had his share of passionate advocates in recent years, as Louise MacNeice and His Influence makes clear, where his case is advanced on a number of grounds: as a leftist political poet whose innate skepticism rescued him from rigidity and dogma; as a diversely talented, well-rounded man of letters; as a passionate love-poet in a century not known for its durable romantic tenderness; as a clarifying link in the chain of modern Irish poetry that binds Yeats and Kavanagh to Heaney and Mahon and Muldoon. (To this American reader, who found the book’s concern with MacNeice’s “Irishness” a little confining, the two most interesting essays were Stallworthy’s “Louis and the Women,” which discusses the women in MacNeice’s life and verse, beginning with his early-dying mother, and Peter McDonald’s analysis of MacNeice’s classicism.)
But it seems to me that nowhere else is MacNeice’s influence potentially so salutary than in his prosody—or let’s call it his restless urge to create singular, weird-looking objects. A hundred years after MacNeice’s birth, ours seems an era where much formal verse (all those blank-verse narratives, those earnest quatrains) has a wayworn feel, and where various once-recherché forms have been done to death. (Are there any readers of contemporary poetry left in America who don’t shudder on turning a page and discovering yet one more sestina?) Contemporary poets of a prosodic bent—those in whom the creative impulse is indissolubly tied to an impulse to fabricate patterns—might well look to MacNeice as a replenisher.
The year 1941 erected two pillars in MacNeice’s life. He was recruited by the BBC, for whom he wrote scripts and organized broadcasts, and he took up with the cabaret singer Hedli Anderson, who became his second wife. If at times both relationships were troubled, they endured until his death, in 1963, from viral pneumonia.
From a contemporary American standpoint, MacNeice’s list of BBC projects is nothing short of flabber-gasting. In recent years, as our politicians have wrangled over the future of public broadcasting, we’ve heard endless denunciations of “elitism”—but clearly we don’t know what elitism is. MacNeice broadcast to his nation tributes to Xenophon and Aristophanes and Chekhov, adaptations of Icelandic sagas and his translation of Goethe’s Faust, a “Portrait of Rome,” and a “Portrait of Delhi,” a parable-play inspired by a poem of Housman’s.
MacNeice’s final years have all the earmarks of a familiar, wearisome tale of deterioration. They’re just what you might expect from a writer of waning powers: health problems; heavy boozing to the point of occasional disintegration (at one public lecture he repeatedly declared, “I am the last of the individualists, thank God!”—nothing else was forthcoming); marital bickering; the death of friends.
Yet there is another side to the story. After writing reams of dreary verse in the years after the war (his colossal Autumn Sequel, sequel to Autumn Journal is all but unreadable), MacNeice in the last chapter of his life enjoyed a powerful resurgence. Something clicked, or sparked, or fell into place…Whatever: into this artist’s life came one of those rare, little-understood resurrections by which an aging creative soul undergoes a rebirth. The poems of the last few years (“The Riddle,” “Apple Blossom,” “Idle Talk,” “The Lake in the Park,” “Vistas,” “Soap Suds,” “Round the Corner,” “Perspectives,” “The Taxis,” the mini-masterpiece “The Truisms”) are not merely good; they are remarkable for their breadth of tone and effect.
A pair of poems, “The Introduction” and “Thalassa,” might represent the poles of his final achievement. “The Introduction” is MacNeice at his most grisly, displaying spiritual affinities with John Crowe Ransom, who likewise was drawn to star-crossed romances in a warped, darkly comic fairy-tale setting:
They were introduced in a grave glade
And she frightened him because she was young
And thus too late. Crawly crawly
Went the twigs above their heads and beneath
The grass beneath their feet the larvae
Split themselves laughing. Crawly crawly
Went the cloud above the treetops reaching
For a sun that lacked the nerve to set
And he frightened her because he was old
And thus too early. Crawly crawly
Went the string quartet that was tuning up
In the back of the mind. You two should have met
Long since, he said, or else not now.
The string quartet in the back of the mind
Was all tuned up with nowhere to go.
They were introduced in a green grave.
This is MacNeice at his most claustrophobic: the ill-cast lovers are all but swallowed up by the scenery. They are encircled by insects below, by sinister foliage above, by a world that everywhere exhibits—crawly crawly, crawly crawly—a thriving parasite’s hideous vitality. The “grave glade” of the opening line passes in succeeding lines through a sort of diabolical tongue-twister that renders it as the “green grave” of the conclusion. We’ve stepped into that paradoxical realm where the forces of death are livelier than those of life, and there is no exit.
An exit is what “Thalassa”—the Greek word for “sea”—is all about. It was evidently the last poem MacNeice wrote. It’s certainly one of his finest:
Run out the boat, my broken comrades;
Let the old seaweed crack, the surge
Burgeon oblivious of the last
Embarkation of feckless men,
Let every adverse force converge—
Here we must needs embark again.
Run up the sail, my heartsick comrades;
Let each horizon tilt and lurch—
You know the worst: your wills are fickle,
Your values blurred, your hearts impure
And your past life a ruined church—
But let your poison be your cure.
Put out to sea, ignoble comrades,
Whose record shall be noble yet;
Butting through scarps of moving marble
The narwhal dares us to be free;
By a high star our course is set,
Our end is Life. Put out to sea.
The speaker might be Ulysses. Or he might be the aging poet himself, importuning all those component-selves inside him whose collaboration is essential to the making of a true poem. In any case, “Thalassa” convokes a number of MacNeice’s subjects and methods: his classical training; his religious upbringing (transformed into a “ruined church”); a love of loops and circles (the last line parroting the second line of the final stanza); the internal rhymes; a keen eye for nature. (What poet ever needs to describe a narwhal—or a whale—again? Could anyone do better than “butting through scarps of moving marble”?) If “The Introduction” is designedly claustrophobic, “Thalassa” strikes out daringly. For all its self-disparagings (it’s hard not to apply “broken” and “heartsick” and “feckless” and “ignoble” to the poet), there’s a recognition that the search itself, however unworthy the speaker, has the potential to vindicate anyone and everyone. “Our end is Life,” MacNeice exhorts us, and he won through in the end to his end. The poet may often capsize, but he’s only the poet, after all. Poems are another matter. These live and will go on living.
August 16, 2007