Monday, April 27, 2020

In Auden's Shadow: Louis MacNeice

Louis MacNeice (1907-1963)

Like other members of the Auden group, Louis MacNeice's defining hour came in the early days of the Second World War. It's then that he wrote much of his best poetry. It's probably no accident that this happened after Auden had left the scene and MacNeice was accordingly free to reforge his identity both as an Irish poet and as an Ulsterman.

He never had that much in common anyway with the other members of the 'gang' (as Spender called it). He didn't have a defined position like 'the novelist' (Christopher Isherwood), 'the musician' (Benjamin Britten), 'the painter' (William Coldstream) - not to mention 'the other poet' (Stephen Spender).

For a start, he was heterosexual, gregarious and a bon-viveur - not really characteristics of any of the others. Also, he got first class honours in Classics at Oxford (unlike Auden's third in English), so was therefore able to obtain a lecturing post at the University of Birmingham rather than the hand-to-mouth schoolteaching jobs available to the rest of them.
Look in your heart, you will find a County Sligo
... a litter of chronicles and bones
wrote MacNeice in one of his wartime poems. He was born in Belfast, and his father John MacNeice would eventually become a Bishop in the (protestant) Church of Ireland. His family 'claimed descent from the kin of the early Irish saint MacNissi.' It's safe to say that all this history, personal and collective, weighed increasingly heavily on him as time went by.

from "Five War Poems":

III: Neutrality

The neutral island facing the Atlantic,
The neutral island in the heart of man,
Are bitterly soft reminders of the beginnings
before the end began.

Look into your heart, you will find a County Sligo,
bevel hill with for navel a cairn of stones,
You will find the shadow and sheen of a moleskin mountain
And a litter of chronicles and bones.

Look into your heart, you will find fermenting rivers,
Intricacies of gloom and glint,
You will find such ducats of dream and great doubloons of ceremony
As nobody to-day would mint.

But then look eastwards from your heart, there bulks
A continent, close, dark, as archetypal sin,
While to the west off your own shores the mackerel
Are fat with the flesh of your kin.
'Neutrality,' indeed - it sounds like such a passive thing. And yet, during the war, with neutral Eire standing like a roadblock between Britain and the Atlantic, it seemed anything but.

W. H. Auden & Louis MacNeice: Letters from Iceland (1937)

It apparently came as a great surprise to MacNeice when Auden invited him to come along on a trip to Iceland in 1936. The two were not particularly close, and had never travelled or worked together before. Perhaps that was what Auden was looking for, too - a change of company as well as a change of scene.

The collaborative book that resulted from this journey, Letters from Iceland (1937), remains one of the gems of 1930s travel literature. I've written about it more extensively in the Study Guide for my Massey Travel Writing course so, for simplicity's sake, I thought I might include a few extracts from those notes here:

Magnus Magnusson, ed.: The Icelandic Sagas (1999-2002)

Für uns, Island ist das Land
– An unknown Nazi

In the section of their book entitled “Sheaves from Sagaland,” where W. H. Auden and his travelling companion Louis MacNeice have compiled an “Anthology of Icelandic Travel” for their friend, fellow-poet John Betjeman, this discordant little statement stands out amongst all the camp clowning.

“For us, Iceland is the land” – the source and origin of “German-ness” is what this “unknown Nazi” means to say here. The year is 1936, and war-clouds are gathering over Europe once again. The Spanish Civil War is in full swing, with leftist poets and intellectuals travelling from all over the world to help the fledgling Spanish Republic:

They clung like burrs to the long expresses that lurch
Through the unjust lands, through the night, through the alpine tunnel;
They floated over the oceans;
They walked the passes: they came to present their lives.

Auden was one of the most politically conscious poets of his generation, and in the poem “Spain 1937,” he attempted to sum up what that war meant to young people such as himself, born too late to have fought in the First World War, but now faced with the threat of Round Two in this (temporarily suspended) universal bloodletting:

To-morrow for the young the poets exploding like bombs,
The walks by the lake, the winter of perfect communion;
To-morrow the bicycle races
Through the suburbs on summer evenings: but today the struggle.
The stars are dead; the animals will not look:
We are left alone with our day, and the time is short and
History to the defeated
May say Alas but cannot help or pardon.

Auden later came to repudiate what he saw as the false dichotomies in this poem, but at the time it perfectly expressed the sense of urgency so many saw in this bitter conflict between Progressive and Reactionary Spain. For Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, by contrast, it was a chance to try out some of their new weapons and tactics, and generally advance the training of their armed forces before the real war broke out in earnest.

For Communist Russia, too, it was a chance to spread its influence further among the Western Democracies. It was, then, a time of hope and disillusionment. In the end, though, the Spanish Republic lost its struggle – largely due to the appeasing, “wait-and-see” policies of Britain and France.

In the midst of all this, Auden decided to go to Iceland. Why? Well, for one thing, because it was as far away as you could get from Europe while still maintaining some kind of foothold in European culture. Also, as an aficionado of the Icelandic Sagas, it was a true pilgrimage for him: to the birthplace of vernacular European literature, long before Chaucer or Dante or Cervantes or any of the founders of the great European literary traditions.

“Sheaves from Sagaland.” Auden’s friend (and occasional lover) Christopher Isherwood, who accompanied him on his trip to China – scene of the other great war before the Second World War – once remarked to him that the doomladen characters in the Old Norse Sagas reminded him of their schooldays.

The hint underlying this statement dominates most of Auden’s early work: the spies, aviators, engineers and other characters in his early poems and plays all speak in a kind of clipped, Germanic shorthand: the idiom of the Sagas and the Anglo-Saxon bards.

Graham Greene, ed.: The Old School (1934)

“The best reason I have for opposing Fascism is that at school I lived in a Fascist state” he said in his contribution to an anthology entitled The Old School, edited by Graham Greene. For Auden, the Honour system that dominated the minor Public School he attended – the oath that he and all the other children were forced to take to inform on any of their companions they saw doing anything “beastly” or dishonourable – was the essence of Fascism.

Auden was homosexual, and so this did entail, in his case, literally living a lie – a life of deception and false façades, since nothing in his most basic instincts was regarded as “natural” by the potential spies who surrounded him (despite the obvious prevalence of homosexual attitudes and activities in most large British Public Schools).

One answer to this official hypocrisy and set of double-standards was politics. Auden was a committed Communist by the early thirties, like many of his contemporaries, though the brutally repressive activities of the Comintern in the Spanish War disillusioned him for good with the Soviet Union. After the War, in fact, he returned to the Church, and attempted to construct a revised code of morality which could explain just why he felt the Nazis were so very much more wrong than their opponents – despite all the obvious failings of liberal democracy.

W. H. Auden: Louis MacNeice on horseback (1936)

Is there much of a hint of all this angst and mental anguish in Letters from Iceland? If so, it’s very well concealed. Louis MacNeice had his own troubles and tribulations to deal with: brought up as an Ulster Protestant in Northern Ireland, his own childhood had been overshadowed by hatred and war. Nor (unlike the Eire poets) could he retreat into any pastoral visions of “Mother Ireland” to justify his alcoholism and compulsive womanizing. They made a pretty pair!

Which is one reason, I would argue, why their book still reads so entertainingly, after all this time. The immediate shadows of the pre-war may have been temporarily in suspension for them in a place as remote from the front lines as Iceland, but the sense of escape, of the need to pause and think things through, is almost palpable in this strange set of “letters home” in verse and prose, bound up as a book.

Auden’s tongue-in-cheek account of a pony-tour through the Icelandic countryside, recasting himself and MacNeice as two School Mistresses with a class of school girls is a thinly disguised version of the actual trip the two poets took with a group of young Public School boys. The silliness of the whole thing is undeniable – but also entrancingly funny, and Wystan’s constant sniping at Louis sounds far more plausible in this new persona as a spinster teacher jealous of her younger, prettier rival.

It may be one of the oddest, most disjointed travel-books ever written, but there’s actually little that’s arbitrary in what the two authors were trying to do with it:
Private faces in public places
Are wiser and nicer
Than public faces in private places
This epigraph to Auden’s 1932 book The Orators encapsulates his view of the world at that time. It was the refusal to be silly and private which had led so many people to death and destruction throughout that “low, dishonest decade”, the 1930s.

Mark Gerson: The Faber Poets (1961)
[l to r: Louis MacNeice, T. S. Eliot, Ted Hughes, W. H. Auden & Stephen Spender]

Well, as you can see, I'm every bit as bad as the next person when it comes to keeping the whole discussion firmly under Auden's shadow - which is where we came in in the first place ... MacNeice scarcely rates a mention.

But, just as Auden went off to China shortly afterwards, to build on his new-found vogue as a travel writer, so MacNeice took the opportunity to head straight from Iceland to the Gaelic-speaking Hebrides.

Louis MacNeice: I Crossed the Minch (1938)

I Crossed the Minch is as much of a cross-genre product as Letters from Iceland, published the year before. This time MacNeice's collaborator was Nancy Sharp, the estranged wife of Auden's friend William Coldstream. Here's a poem from the book (one of his most famous, actually), which shows the Auden-influence still strong on him:
Bagpipe Music

It's no go the merrygoround, it's no go the rickshaw,
All we want is a limousine and a ticket for the peepshow.
Their knickers are made of crepe-de-chine, their shoes are made of python,
Their halls are lined with tiger rugs and their walls with head of bison.

John MacDonald found a corpse, put it under the sofa,
Waited till it came to life and hit it with a poker,
Sold its eyes for souvenirs, sold its blood for whiskey,
Kept its bones for dumbbells to use when he was fifty.

It's no go the Yogi-man, it's no go Blavatsky,
All we want is a bank balance and a bit of skirt in a taxi.

Annie MacDougall went to milk, caught her foot in the heather,
Woke to hear a dance record playing of Old Vienna.
It's no go your maidenheads, it's no go your culture,
All we want is a Dunlop tire and the devil mend the puncture.

The Laird o' Phelps spent Hogmanay declaring he was sober,
Counted his feet to prove the fact and found he had one foot over.
Mrs. Carmichael had her fifth, looked at the job with repulsion,
Said to the midwife "Take it away; I'm through with overproduction."

It's no go the gossip column, it's no go the Ceilidh,
All we want is a mother's help and a sugar-stick for the baby.

Willie Murray cut his thumb, couldn't count the damage,
Took the hide of an Ayrshire cow and used it for a bandage.
His brother caught three hundred cran when the seas were lavish,
Threw the bleeders back in the sea and went upon the parish.

It's no go the Herring Board, it's no go the Bible,
All we want is a packet of fags when our hands are idle.

It's no go the picture palace, it's no go the stadium,
It's no go the country cot with a pot of pink geraniums,
It's no go the Government grants, it's no go the elections,
Sit on your arse for fifty years and hang your hat on a pension.

It's no go my honey love, it's no go my poppet;
Work your hands from day to day, the winds will blow the profit.
The glass is falling hour by hour, the glass will fall forever,
But if you break the bloody glass you won't hold up the weather.

Louis MacNeice: Autumn Journal (1939)

Nancy illustrated the book, and their short affair formed part of the inspiration for (arguably) MacNeice's greatest poetic achievement, Autumn Journal (1939).

Autumn Journal chronicles the uncertain time before the outbreak of war, in the form of a long autobiographical argument with himself about the true nature of poetry - as well as its place in a world obsessed with simplistic propaganda and facile heroism. Much criticised (but widely read) at the time, it has grown to be one of the few essential poems of the 'phoney war' period.

After a brief stint at Cornell University in America, MacNeice returned to London in 1940, and joined the BBC in 1941. This decision would set the tone for most of the rest of his writing life. On the positive side, it led to the composition of a series of radio plays and programmes some of which (plays such as The Dark Tower, for instance) have stood the test of time.

On the negative side, contact with habitués of the BBC recording studios such as Dylan Thomas facilitated his gradual descent into alcoholism, and the demands of the job itself made it hard to maintain the level of creativity he had enjoyed in the 1930s.

As a poet, I think it's fair to say that it's taken a long time for MacNeice to come into focus. It seems now to be the various conflicted identities surrounding his Irishness which mean most to contemporary readers. Take, for example, a poem such as the following - written in the same year, 1937, as 'Bagpipe Music':

I was born in Belfast between the mountain and the gantries
To the hooting of lost sirens and the clang of trams:
Thence to Smoky Carrick in County Antrim
Where the bottle-neck harbour collects the mud which jams

The little boats beneath the Norman castle,
The pier shining with lumps of crystal salt;
The Scotch Quarter was a line of residential houses
But the Irish Quarter was a slum for the blind and halt.

The brook ran yellow from the factory stinking of chlorine,
The yarn-milled called its funeral cry at noon;
Our lights looked over the Lough to the lights of Bangor
Under the peacock aura of a drowning moon.

The Norman walled this town against the country
To stop his ears to the yelping of his slave
And built a church in the form of a cross but denoting
The List of Christ on the cross, in the angle of the nave.

I was the rector's son, born to the Anglican order,
Banned for ever from the candles of the Irish poor;
The Chichesters knelt in marble at the end of a transept
With ruffs about their necks, their portion sure.

The war came and a huge camp of soldiers
Grew from the ground in sight of our house with long
Dummies hanging from gibbets for bayonet practice
And the sentry's challenge echoing all day long.

I went to school in Dorset, the world of parents
Contracted into a puppet world of sons
Far from the mill girls, the smell of porter, the salt mines
And the soldiers with their guns.
It's hard to say what precisely this is supposed to add up to or 'mean' - but it's almost unbearably evocative and elegiac about an irrecoverably lost past. Not that he's sparing in his account of the alienation that surrounded him, born in the heart of the Protestant Ascendancy, and thus 'Banned for ever from the candles of the Irish poor.'

The strength of a poem like this lies, I would argue, in its refusal to editorialise, to make an act of contrition for the mere fact of his birth. Carrickfergus is real, it is and will remain part of him - in a deeper sense, though, there are aspects of his birthplace which must remain forever hidden away. I think this rings a bell for all of us born as the beneficiaries of colonialism across the world - here in New Zealand, for instance.

Then there are the other, 'purer' poems, which simply delight in the music of words and the texture of existence. Poems such as 'Snow' (1935):
The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.

And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes –
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of your hands –
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.
There is, to be sure, a hint of Wallace Stevens' 1923 poem 'Snow Man' in this:
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow
but there's something, too, about that exuberant middle stanza of MacNeice's poem which is incorrigibly his, 'incorrigibly plural,' - 'The drunkenness of things being various.'

At his best, Louis MacNeice was a wonderful poet - the major thing that happened in Irish poetry between Yeats and Heaney, as no less a luminary than Paul Muldoon has argued - and he was at his best far more of the time than he's ever been given credit for.

Louis MacNeice: Autumn Sequel (1954)

Louis MacNeice: Collected Poems (1966)

Frederick Louis MacNiece (1907-1963)

[titles I own are marked in bold]:


  1. Blind Fireworks (1929)
  2. Poems. 1935. London: Faber, 1944.
  3. The Earth Compels (1938)
  4. Autumn Journal (1939)
  5. The Last Ditch (1940)
  6. Selected Poems. 1940. Sesame Books. London: Faber, 1947.
  7. Plant and Phantom (1941)
  8. Springboard (1944)
  9. Prayer Before Birth (1944)
  10. Holes in the Sky (1948)
  11. Collected Poems, 1925–1948 (1949)
  12. Ten Burnt Offerings (1952)
  13. Autumn Sequel (1954)
  14. Visitations (1957)
  15. Solstices (1961)
  16. The Burning Perch (1963)
  17. Star-gazer (1963)
  18. Selected Poems, ed. W. H. Auden (1964)
  19. Collected Poems. Ed. E. R. Dodds. 1966. London: Faber, 1979.
  20. Selected Poems, ed. Michael Longley (1988)
  21. Collected Poems. Ed. Peter McDonald. 2007. London: Faber, 2016.

  22. Plays:

  23. Out of the Picture: A Play in Two Acts. 1937. London: Faber, 1937.
  24. Christopher Columbus (1944)
  25. He Had a Date (1944)
  26. The Dark Tower and other radio scripts (1947)
  27. The Dark Tower. 1947. Faber Paper Covered Editions. London: Faber, 1964.
  28. The Mad Islands and The Administrator (1964)
  29. Persons from Porlock and other plays for radio (1969)
  30. One for the Grave: a modern morality play (1968)
  31. Selected Plays of Louis MacNeice, ed. Alan Heuser & Peter McDonald (1993)

  32. Translation:

  33. The Agamemnon of Aeschylus. Trans. Louis MacNeice. 1936. London: Faber, 1967.
  34. Goethe’s Faust: Parts I and II. An Abridged Version. Trans. Louis MacNeice. & E. L. Stahl. 1951. Faber Paper Covered Editions. London: Faber, 1965.

  35. Fiction:

  36. [as 'Louis Malone'] Roundabout Way (1932)
  37. The Sixpence That Rolled Away (1956)

  38. Non-fiction:

  39. [with W. H. Auden] Letters from Iceland. London: Faber, 1937.
  40. I Crossed the Minch (1938)
  41. Modern Poetry: A Personal Essay (1938)
  42. Zoo (1938)
  43. The Poetry of W. B. Yeats. 1941. Foreword by Richard Ellmann. Faber Paper Covered Editions. London: Faber, 1967.
  44. Meet the US Army (1943)
  45. Astrology (1964)
  46. Varieties of Parable (1965)
  47. The Strings are False: An Unfinished Autobiography. Ed. E. R. Dodds. London: Faber, 1965.
  48. Selected Prose of Louis MacNeice, ed. Alan Heuser (1990)

  49. Letters:

  50. Letters of Louis MacNeice ed. Jonathan Allison (2010)

  51. Secondary:

  52. Barbara Coulton. Louis MacNeice in the BBC. London: Faber, 1980.
  53. Robyn Marsack. The Cave of Making: The Poetry of Louis MacNeice. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982.
  54. Jon Stallworthy. Louis MacNiece. 1995. London: Faber, 1996.

Jon Stallworthy: Louis MacNeice: A Biography (1995)

A very important point when it comes to assessing this group of poets from this distance in time is the quality of the various biographies available for each of them.

MacNeice has been particularly fortunate in this regard. Jon Stallworthy's book about him is honest and balanced - and (more importantly) beautifully composed. If you weren't interested in his work going in, this biography would probably be sufficient to convert you. It includes such useful features as a detailed breakdown of the pseudonyms used in Autumn Journal, together with the names of their supposed originals. In short, it's a model of the biographer's art.

John Sutherland's 2004 biography of Stephen Spender is also excellent, and contains most of what one would want to know about him.

Auden has fared less well, unfortunately. There are a number of biographies, all of them useful, but none definitive. Mendelson's critical biography, which originally appeared in two volumes as Early Auden (1981) and Later Auden (1986), is by far the most comprehensive, but for everyday detail it still needs to be supplemented by Humphrey Carpenter's W. H. Auden.

Humphrey Carpenter: W. H. Auden: A Biography (1981)

I'll be making more notes as I go along on each of our protagonists' luck in this regard.

1 comment:

Richard said...

The ongoing story of the Auden group. This will be useful, the lists of biographies in particular. I have the Collected by Dodds and a book by him called 'Springboard'.

I think it helps and inspires to read biographies of these and other writers. I have read Auden for years and his early poems and even up to 'Thank You Fog'. His way of writing is suited to a mix of abstraction and 'moral' or ethical concerns. Then there are the many stages of Auden. 'Spain 1937' I at first thought was too tendentious etc but I like it. Orwell criticized the 'necessary murder' but I read that Auden, who was always altering his poems, had already changed it. Orwell I think was wrong. Auden is who most focus on: but I see 'Autumn Journal' is in my Collected.

Some good poems by McNeice quoted.

I wonder if he was one of the ones Dan Davin was talking about in a memoir he wrote. He had poets who spent more time boozing than writing and couldn't get them to focus. It seems that his alcoholism was unfortunate. His death as described would be like someone severely suffering from the Covid-19 virus: not pleasant. Not a long life but he wrote a lot and got around.

Very interesting. Thanks for these insights. Following it is like reading an ongong story!