Harry Clifton, review of Collected Poems by Louis MacNeice, ed., Peter MacDonald, in The Irish Times (10 Feb. 2007)

[Details: Harry Clifton, ‘An Oeuvre Seen in Full Coherence’, review of Collected Poems by Louis MacNeice, ed., Peter MacDonald, in The Irish Times (10 Feb. 2007), Weekend p.10. Sub-heading: This edition of Louis MacNeice shows that his greatest work was perfectly in tune with his own era.]

Louis MacNeice 1907-1963 ‘Have you seen Louis MacNeice’s poems?’ Elizabeth Bishop wrote to Marianne Moore in 1938. “That’s the kind of spotted, helter-skelter thing it seems so easy to fall into.” MacNeice, all decade, had been writing his finest short poems and was about to peak creatively with Autumn Journal, a meditation on political ethics, personal life and Irish upbringing in the teeth of coming war that was to stand, with the writings of George Orwell and Primo Levi, as one of the key texts of liberal humanism, whose age we have lived through since 1945, and that many would say, since September 2001, has come to an end.

Sleep to the noise of running water
Tomorrow to be crossed, however deep;
This is no river of the dead or Lethe,
Tonight we sleep
On the banks of Rubicon - the die is cast;
There will be time to audit
The accounts later, there will be sunlight later
And the equation will come out at last.

So why the niggling disparagements, all along the line? Bishop, a decade later, repeated her comments to Robert Lowell, whom she clearly understood to be of the same opinion. Conrad Aiken put MacNeice down as a kind of travelling journalist in verse.

Even his London drinking buddy, Dylan Thomas, described him, off the record, as “thin”. Was it that the ground had begun to shift, in English poetry, from Britain to America? Or was it more simply that MacNeice, as has been said by less meticulous craftspersons than Bishop, Lowell and Moore, was too fluent for his own good? Some poets always know their exact value on the literary stock-market. Others, more simpatico, are sleepwalkers all their lives. MacNeice, despite the support and advice of T. S. Eliot, seems never to have had a true sense of what his best work was. He was offhand, to say the least, about his masterpiece, Autumn Journal (1939), but highly defensive on the subject of his later long poem, Autumn Sequel (1954), generally regarded as a low point in his work. Like Molière’s M. Jourdain, he was unsure if he was talking in poetry or prose.

There was, I think, another reason for self-misjudgement. The public school world he had left Ireland for, and the Oxbridge England of the 1920s, of which he and his friend Wystan Auden were a part, was a culture of brilliant light verse, schoolboy high-jinks segueing almost too naturally into youthful poetic genius, the two not easily distinguishable, even to their authors, involving, as they did, hybrid forms like song lyrics, verse letters, eclogues and charades - the kinds of thing that might, in an age dominated by Yeats and Eliot, seem like social versifying and no more. It is one of the virtues of this new edition that it restores to credibility a marvellous text such as “Auden and MacNeice: Their Last Will and Testament” whose wit, grasp of particulars and underlying moral drive are reminiscent of that other Testament of François Villon.

Item: to John Betjeman (the most Remarkable man of his time in any
We leave a Leander tie and Pugin’s ghost
And a box of crackers and St Pancras Station
And the Church of Ireland Gazette and our confidence
That he will be master of every situation.

Light verse, as Auden wrote in his essay on Pope, is simply poetry in harmony with its time - as distinct from the alienated verse we normally take to be “real” poetry. Both men, whether trekking together in Iceland, observing the remade image of Man in the Spanish Civil War, or riding the roller-coaster of love affairs, were in harmony with their time. A “low, dishonest decade” it may have been, but they were not alienated from it. Instead, MacNeice’s greatest work, strangely close in tone to the Zhivago poems of Pasternak, was made possible by a tension, at that terrible hour of the world-historical, between private tenderness and the threat of general annihilation.

And why, now it has happened,
And doom all night is lapping at the door,
Should I remember that I ever met you -
Once, in another world?

But the war passed, and with it the world-historical dimension, the depth of field behind the love-poems of the previous decade. Britain, provincialised, shrank into itself, and other poets - Larkin, Amis, Davie - smaller perhaps, but surer of their ground, came to the fore. The tragic element went out of the equation.

What was left, for MacNeice, were the private attritions of marriage and, perhaps as a throwback to his Irish clerical ancestry, a tendency to preach.


The dilemma for the writer in middle age had already been stated, by Cyril Connolly, another disappointed 1930s liberal - silence or over-production. MacNeice, having gone the latter road, damned himself to being held up, ever after, as an example of fluency run wild. “I” was replaced by “We”, concrete detail by abstract generality. Massive formal energies were expended on nothing in particular. If, between 1947 and 1957, he had stopped publishing altogether, would the reading world be the poorer? Probably by a few short poems, but not by very much. For once, though, a glimmer of self-awareness entered under the door.

Do I prefer to forget it? This middle stretch
Is bad for poets; a sombre view
Where neither works nor days look innocent
And both seem now too many, now too few.

Poetic rebirth, some would say, came with Solstices (1960) and The Burning Perch (1963), his last two books. Marriage and work at the BBC had been replaced by freelancing and the covert presence of a new muse. The metres had been roughened, Horatianised. The mood became ever darker, even as the manner became more playful. “Budgie” is a small metaphysical cosmos in itself. “Soapsuds” and “The Taxis” roll back the years in an interesting clever way. They are different from, but not better than, his best work in the 1930s - for the tragic element, in the England of the early 1960s, is not there. Everything, though gloomy, is in a minor, self-deprecatory key.

Even an exceptional poem in the new manner, like “Charon”, borrows its apocalyptic feel from something resembling the London Blitz.

And then we came to the Thames and all
The bridges were down, the further shore
Was lost in fog, so we asked the conductor
What we should do. He said: Take the ferry
Faute de mieux ...

Some poets, such as Auden, are almost too timely for their own good. Others, such as MacNeice, or Patrick Kavanagh in 2004, must wait for centenary editions like this, long after their deaths, to be seen in their full coherence. Whatever the erosion in the liberal ethos, one thing never changes in the whole oeuvre of MacNeice - his belief in women (my “you” as the poet Mandelstam said to his wife). It is one of the glories of Peter McDonald’s new edition of the poems that a roll-call of energy-giving muses are foregrounded as dedicatees of the individual volumes. In my beginning is my end, as Eliot wrote. The boy running backwards through time and women in search of the lost, inaccessible Mother, one of the stories of MacNeice’s life, can never have found more immortal expression than in “Mayfly”, one of his earliest poems:

The show will soon shut down, its gay-rags gone,
But when this summer is over let us die together.
I want always to be near your breasts.

[ Harry Clifton teaches at the School of English, University College Dublin. His new book, Secular Eden I: Paris Notebooks 1994-2004, is due from Wake Forest University Press in September. Collected Poems By Louis MacNeice Faber and Faber, 836pp. £30. ]

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