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 price for the joke.

In fact the differences were fundamental. As Blunt himself maintained (and he should have known), “Louis was always, totally, irredeemably heterosexual.”2 After Oxford, Auden—contrary to what is often assumed—was never one of MacNeice’s intimate friends: only one letter to him survives, and I doubt whether the gap was simply because, as Jonathan Allison, the editor of Letters of Louis MacNeice, claims, “Auden kept very few letters of any kind.” Similar gaps are noticeable in respect to Spender, Day-Lewis, and Christopher Isherwood. MacNeice’s private correspondents tended to be academics like E.R. Dodds or Ernst Stahl, and the women—lovers, wives, confidantes—on whom his emotional stability depended.

The gap between MacNeice and the other literary figures of the Thirties had another, more serious aspect than sex. Some of them had embraced Soviet Marxism as a kind of secular religion, a passionate creed with which to fight fascist dictatorships: for MacNeice, skeptic and political realist, the cure was no better than the disease, and often identical with it. Thus his work came to be dismissed, not only by right-wing critics such as Roy Campbell, but also, bitterly, by the very writers with whom those critics associated him.

The skepticism had an unusually solid basis. One key fact seldom emphasized about Louis McNeice—perhaps because he consistently downplayed it—is his remarkable record as a scholar and intellectual. While other future luminaries such as Evelyn Waugh or John Betjeman left Oxford with a poor Third or no degree at all, MacNeice (much to the surprise of his tutor, clearly taken in by his air of dandified indolence) achieved a brilliant double First, in Literae Humaniores (Classics), the second part of which, known as Greats, has always been regarded as an intellectual challenge of the first order. In Autumn Journal (1939), MacNeice gave a typically throwaway description of what preparation for Final Schools involved:


And then they taught us philosophy, logic and metaphysics,
The Negative Judgment and the Ding an Sich,
And every single thinker was powerful as Napoleon
And crafty as Metternich.
And it really was very attractive to be able to talk about tables
And to ask if the table is
And to draw the cork out of an old conundrum
And watch the paradoxes fizz.

In MacNeice’s case Greats did what it was supposed to do: took a good logical mind and gave it a razor-sharp capacity for detecting nonsense. As he went on to say, after Oxford, “You can never really again/Believe anything that anyone says, and that is an asset/In a world like ours”—not least when it involved telling earnest political idealists “that they can’t see the trees for the wood.” This disdainful attitude could not have endeared him to his contemporaries. Nor his passion for tennis, cricket, and rugby football, nor the fact that E.R. Dodds, the future Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford, offered him a lectureship at Birmingham University before the results of his Finals were known.

As he made very clear in the unfinished memoir he wrote in 1940, The Strings Are False (not published until 1965, two years after his death), the feeling was mutual. MacNeice scrutinized the other components of Roy Campbell’s MacSpaunday, Auden included (“He did not seem to look at anything, admitted he hated flowers and was very free with quasi-scientific jargon”), with detached intellectual amusement. His account in The Strings Are False of the grilling given Stephen Spender by a group of Communist stalwarts for alleged political heresies is both hilarious and telling. “After that,” he sums up, “S. gradually fell away from the Party; he had not been born for dogma.” Similarly, one feels, MacNeice was not born to be a joiner: he was always on the outside looking in, always liable, like his (much-quoted) persona in “The Individualist Speaks,” to “escape, with my dog, on the far side of the Fair.”

But the factor that most divided MacNeice’s loyalties, and the source of his greatest inner conflict, was his Irishness. Frederick Louis MacNeice was born in 1907 in Belfast “to the hooting of lost sirens and the clang of trams,” the third child in a parsonical family of the Ascendancy. His father ended up as Bishop of Down and Connor, but was Irish enough to refuse to fly the Union Jack over the grave of Lord Carson, that outspoken Ulster Unionist, after officiating at his funeral. On the other hand he duly sent off his son to be educated, at Marlborough College and Oxford, as a child of the upper-middle-class English establishment—“Far from the mill girls, the smell of porter, the salt-mines/And the soldiers with their guns.” The conflict thus started early, and (to complicate matters further) split the boy’s loyalties between Belfast and Dublin: he fantasized about having bog-Irish ancestry—with mythical royalty in the background—which he held responsible for what he called his peasant features and vitality. This, characteristically, did not stop him, in “Valediction” (1935), from delivering a lethal account of all he disliked about the Irish, a goodbye to “Your drums and your dolled-up Virgins and your ignorant dead” that was violently resented and held up his native acceptance as a major Irish poet for years.


What first strikes a reader of MacNeice’s poetry is its sensual exuberance, its accurate brilliance of imagery: a children’s spring “dousing our heads in suds of hawthorn/And scrambling the laburnum tree—/A breakfast for the gluttonous eye.” What is then particularly striking is the immense metrical sophistication produced in his sensitive mind by an old-fashioned classical education, which involved not only translating Aeschylus or Homer into English but also, more important, learning (when barely adolescent) to turn, say, A.E. Housman’s lyrics into Latin elegiacs, or a passage of Shakespeare into the Greek iambic trimeters used for dramatic speeches by Greek tragedians. Third, and only perceived gradually, comes an awareness of a deep pervasive melancholy, a growing sense that (like Webster, like T.S. Eliot) MacNeice is a poet much possessed by death.

In part this, again, can be attributed to classical influences: “Never to be born was the best,” he wrote in Autumn Journal, “call no man happy/This side death,” a Greek commonplace from Hesiod to Theognis, in Sophocles and Herodotus. But much, too, derived from his early years. “When I was five the black dreams came;/Nothing after was quite the same.” He had a Downs Syndrome brother of whom he was scared. Their governess-cum-nurse was a hellfire religious puritan obsessed by funeral processions. His mother Lily became convinced that the uterine fibroid tumor that led to her hysterectomy, subsequent mental collapse, institutionalization, and premature death in 1914 had been somehow caused by Louis’s difficult birth. This belief she passed on to her son, and left him with a lifelong guilty conviction that in some way he had been responsible for her illness and death.3 Not surprisingly, his relationship with his father, though never hostile, was difficult. Images from all these influences—juxtaposed oddly with the sharp philosophical insights that were a legacy from his reading for Greats—recur throughout his life in his poetry.


Jonathan Allison prints an unusual number of juvenile boarding-school duty Sunday letters from MacNeice to his father and stepmother. These, not surprisingly, show virtually no hint of the visionary individualist to come, and we get some far sharper recollections of school life, again, in Autumn Journal, with “little jokes of Billy Bunter dirt/And a heap of home-made dogma” morphing with age into “logarithms and Greek and the Essays of Elia” along with “The fives-courts’ tattling repartee/Or rain on the sweating body.”

It is Anthony Blunt, his elegant study-mate, who first sets out to wean MacNeice from the Rectory, beginning with a change of names: “Freddie” clearly won’t do, and we watch the gradual change from that to “F. Louis M.” and finally to “Louis.” The process advances fast at Cambridge, where we find MacNeice enthusiastic about Poussin, Giotto, Fra Angelico, and (with moments of doubt) something called Pure Form. These letters reveal a blossoming and slily witty sensualist, and are some of the most enjoyable in a dauntingly fat volume. Under Blunt’s guidance, Louis begins looking at things, with fascinating results:

The other day I was sitting under an umbrella & notice[d] that the raindrops on it were just like hanging gas lamps, diaphanous above & opaque below. Eternity must be like sitting under an umbrella and not daring to move because one is sitting on the only dry patch.

If the first sentence anticipates the maturing poet, the second hints at MacNeice’s disconcerting personal sense of the ridiculous inherent in most generic abstractions. He had some mastery of art and literature: what he needed now (but remained nervously shy of) was to move out into the real world.

This step was advanced by his transfer to Birmingham (which his friends in the charmed Oxford circle regarded, predictably, as “darkest Africa”). His new boss, Eric Dodds, though informed by Father Martin D’Arcy that “Providence had committed to my care a very rare and exceptional person and that I must take this responsibility seriously,” and very sympathetic to MacNeice as both poet and fellow-Ulsterman, was under no illusions about the new addition to his staff:

When he first came to Birmingham Louis was something of an intellectual snob. From his schooldays onwards he had been influenced by the aestheticism that was fashionable in the nineteen-twenties…. Birmingham was his first introduction to the workaday world; it humanized his aestheticism and set free his natural love of life, but the process took some time. He was faced simultaneously with two new experiences—marriage and earning his living.

Of these it was the marriage that proved the greatest handicap when it came to growing up.

Giovanna Marie Thérèse Babette Ezra, known as Mary (Mariette in The Strings Are False), was the stepdaughter of the great classicist Sir John Beazley; her mother Marie, an exotic Russian Jew from Smyrna, was also a famous, and eccentric, Oxford hostess. No one could figure out what it was about Mary that attracted MacNeice: she has always put me in mind of Max Beerbohm’s Zuleika Dobson. Reputedly the best dancer in Oxford, she kept all her dance cards; Louis didn’t dance. A small dainty creature, white of skin and black of hair, like a Japanese doll, she had neither interest in, nor respect for, poetry, but was, to put it bluntly, an airheaded socialite, more interested in breeding dogs. When he first met her, and was asked whether she would do as the “Not Impossible She,” Louis said, understandably, “No, she would not.” But one day, “aided by rum and the Mozart Horn Concerto,” this unlikely couple found themselves engaged. Strong opposition to the match (religious differences on one side, fear of hereditary mongolism on the other) simply made them more obstinately determined to wed, and after MacNeice’s Finals they did.

This was the couple that arrived in Birmingham, and made their home in a converted stable that Dodds had found for them, playing a game of “keeping house” (as Dodds noted) like a couple of grown-up children: indeed (as his wife felt) “more like children than was altogether wholesome on a long-term view.” Mary used the flat as a kind of enchanted island to keep out not only the city but the, to her, boring university. Louis, always fond of make- believe, went along with this, wondering why he was no longer writing poetry (he suspected, probably rightly, that he associated it with disloyalty to Mary). But dog shows had their limits, and in 1933 MacNeice sat down and wrote a long poem called “An Eclogue for Christmas.”

The jaded calendar revolves,
Its nuts need oil, carbon chokes the valves,
The excess sugar of a diabetic culture
Rotting the nerve of life and literature…
We shall go down like palaeolithic man
Before some new Ice Age or Genghiz Khan….

Yet despite the apocalyptic sense of social decay, his sensuous urban eye still could see “beauty/narcotic and deciduous/In this vast organism grown out of us,” in a city where “tilting by the noble curve bus after tall bus comes/With an osculation of yellow light, with a glory like chrysanthemums.”

After that things moved fast. Their son Dan was born in May 1934. MacNeice’s Poems was published in September 1935. Two months later (totally to his surprise, as his letters make clear) Mary walked out on both him and Dan to take off with a graduate student friend of theirs, a 200-pound American ex-footballer called Charles Katzman, to the US, where they tried, with no great success, to run a chicken farm. She had been “lonely in her mind,” she said. Though no one at the time saw it as such, this was the end of a long struggle, and poetry had won it. In trying to deal with the shock to his psyche and pride, MacNeice discovered his own unique voice.


His divorce, and his subsequent move to London—first as a lecturer at Bedford College for Women, then out of the academic world into the features department of the BBC, where he remained for the rest of his life—thus marked a major change in both his personal and his creative life. His ingrained sense of classical form not only helped him to control his shattered world, but actually produced, in his perfect and much-anthologized lyric “The Sunlight on the Garden,” a valediction, all unforced internal rhymes and assonances, to his lost wife:

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.

The control is visible everywhere: not least in his translation of the Agamemnon (1936), rightly regarded by Dodds’s successor in the Regius Chair, Hugh Lloyd-Jones, as “the most successful version of any Greek tragedy that anyone in this country has yet produced.”

At the other end of the creative spectrum, in the fall of 1938, the year of Munich, he also wrote what is for me (and many others) one of the century’s great long poems, Autumn Journal, a variegated and immensely alive verse memoir embracing domestic politics, schooldays, the Spanish civil war, personal nostalgia (“I shall remember how your words could hurt/Because they were so honest”), Chamberlain and “peace in our time” (“only the Czechs/Go down and without fighting”), the Irish once again (“Who slouch around the world with a gesture and a brogue/And a faggot of useless memories”), and, most unforgettably (I still have most of it by heart), a meditation on ancient Greece (“all so unimaginably different/And all so long ago”)—the whole conveyed in ever-changing rhythms and rhyme schemes, with quietly powerful rhetoric and a quiverful of sharply radical political judgments.

But if this creative reforging through discipline tempered by loss produced fine poetry (his finest, some would say), the end of MacNeice’s marriage was also followed by two habits that were (the second in particular) to produce chaos in his life and, for long stretches, a falling-off in his poetry. The “irredeemably heterosexual” Louis began a series of affairs, some casual, some not, that he kept up through most of his life. At the same time he began increasingly heavy social drinking. By 1960 these two factors had brought about a separation from his second wife, the singer Hedli Anderson, while his drinking had acquired all the symptoms of advanced alcoholism, including days without solid food and, at least once, collapse on a public platform.

Finally rescued by the actress Mary Wimbush, with whom he spent the last three years of his life in comparative sobriety and great happiness, he caught viral pneumonia through getting soaked in a rainstorm after going down a Yorkshire cave to record sound effects for one of his radio plays, and died, just a few days short of fifty-six, when antibiotics made no headway against a lifetime of cigarettes and hard liquor. It is ironically appropriate that what was probably his very last poem, found on his desk after his death, should end:

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.

With a creative record so intimately bound up with the events of his life, MacNeice was a natural (it might have been thought) both for a biography and for a volume of collected correspondence. He finally, after a long wait, got the first, by Jon Stallworthy, and a very good one too; he now, after an even longer delay, has the second. This presented its editor with a very real problem. The most interesting thing about MacNeice is his poetry, and his poetry was what he absolutely refused to discuss with anyone. Indeed, the only letters in which he really let himself go were those with women he was in love with, and the reports he sent to Hedli about his overseas assignments for the BBC (most interestingly in India at the time of Partition).

Much of the rest consists of professional exchanges with literary editors (often T.S. Eliot at Faber) and difficult notes to his children. The truth of the matter is that Louis MacNeice simply wasn’t, for the most part, a good letter-writer: a reader will get a far more vivid impression of his schooldays from his poetry. He was an intensely private person, and this dichotomy was surely deliberate.

Despite this, Jonathan Allison’s tome manages to be over seven hundred pages in length, largely by including almost everything available. On the other hand, he omits the best of MacNeice’s very touching love letters to Mary Wimbush,5 which is surely having the worst of it both ways. A more manageable volume would have been cut down to the love letters (including the already much-cited screeds to Eleanor Clark, the future writer of Rome and a Villa, in 1939–1940), the correspondence with Eric Dodds (always “E.R.D.” to MacNeice, and in many ways his surrogate father), a far shorter selection from Marlborough and Oxford days (but keeping the show-off jeux d’esprit to Anthony Blunt), and only a handful of business letters and casual notes. A revision of the editorial notes would also help: apart from the obvious major names, most characters are identified only by their dates of birth and death, and places of education, with degrees. Letters of Louis MacNeice has not yet found a US publisher (even, out of pietas, Faber themselves), and one can see why: those unfamiliar already with the events of MacNeice’s life will get little help here.

I knew MacNeice—both in 1943–1944, when I discussed metrics and translation with him over drinks at his favorite lunchtime pub, and after the war, when we were involved in the same London literary circuit for a decade or so—and have always had enormous admiration for his poetry: not only for the universally appreciated early work and the two death-haunted final collections, Solstices and The Burning Perch, but also for some less well understood ventures: Ten Burnt Offerings, the fruit of his eighteen months in Greece (1950–1951), offers a superb poem about Byron’s end there, “Cock o’ the North,” with its marvelous allegro opening—

Bad Lord Byron went to the firing, helmet and dogs and all,
He rode and he swam and he swam and he rode but now he rode for a fall;
Twang the lyre and rattle the lexicon, Marathon, Harrow and all,
Lame George Gordon broke the cordon, nobody broke his fall…

—moving into a sad andante at Missolonghi (“the flattest place, it seems, in Hellas”), and closing with a dying Easter dream of fever, leeches, and melancholy resignation (“I have no candle,/ Only a sword. Which I have not used”). There are also some unforgettable passages in the much- denigrated Autumn Sequel (1954), such as “A Fanfare for the Makers,” justly given a place of honor by Helen Gardner in her New Oxford Book of English Verse (1972), with its heart-lifting final stanza:

As horsemen fashion horses while they ride,
As climbers climb a peak because it is there,
As life can be confirmed even in suicide:

To make is such. Let us make. And set the weather fair.

For over seventy years, ever since Tony Caro—then an ebullient sixteen-year-old, with no hint of the great sculptor in sight—burst into my study at school and began reading “An Eclogue for Christmas” to me, I have lived with, and been sustained by, in good times and bad, the extraordinary creative achievement of a poet who for me has always been and always will be among the twentieth century’s greatest and most original voices. I owe him more than I can say.

This Issue

April 28, 2011