David Wheatley, review of Letters of Louis MacNeice ed. Jonathan Allison, in Times Literary Supplement (14 July 2010)

[ Details: David Wheatley, ‘Louis MacNeice and Friends’, review of Letters of Louis MacNeice ed. Jonathan Allison, in Times Literary Supplement (14 July 2010) - available online; accessed 23.02.2011. Subtitle: ‘Anthony Blunt at school, Eliot when drunk, absent Auden and present love affairs in the letters of Louis MacNeice.’]

The Greeks thought of the past as stretching out before them while the future waited behind their backs. As a sometime lecturer in Classics and translator of Aeschylus, Louis MacNeice would have needed no reminding of this, but the experience, in April 1939, of sitting down in New York on board the departing Queen Mary to write Eleanor Clark the longest letter of his life might nevertheless have seemed uncomfortably Greek in its symbolism. He had met Clark a few weeks before and fallen badly in love with her, but was returning to Britain amid much uncertainty. He had lectured at Birmingham University and Bedford College through the 1930s, but correctly sensed his future did not lie in the academy. Behind him lay an unsuccessful first marriage, and waiting for him in London a complex relationship with Nancy Coldstream, the “married friend” of his letters to Clark. His friends W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood had crossed the Atlantic in the other direction in January 1939, but MacNeice sensed the coming conflict would be “his” war, and was reluctant to miss out on history.

It was not the first time MacNeice had envisioned the United States as an escape route. In a letter to his sister written in 1911 but not reproduced in Jonathan Allison’s splendid and masterfully edited Letters of Louis MacNeice, he outlined a plan to “run away on a raft” and disguise himself “in my Indian suit” among the natives of North America. For all his desire to escape, it was someone else’s disappearance that most strongly coloured MacNeice’s early years. In 1913, when he was six, his mother Lily had a hysterectomy and was moved to a Dublin nursing home: MacNeice never saw her again, and she died the following December. She features in only two letters here, each written during a painful wrangle in 1929 with his prospective mother-in-law, who had demanded medical evidence that Down’s syndrome (from which MacNeice’s older brother suffered) was not hereditary. Explaining the situation to John Hilton, he comments “I have worked out that I am really a mistake (i.e. my birth ought to have been forbidden)”. This morbid identification was summarized by his sister Elizabeth in 1974: “I believe that [Louis] had an irrational idea, perhaps only partly conscious, that his birth had caused his mother’s illness and death”. “Come back early or never come”, MacNeice would write of his childhood in “Autobiography”, though as the poem reminds us, creatively it remained very much there, albeit in dark and unsettling form.

The rectory at Carrickfergus, where MacNeice’s father was the incumbent, lent itself all too well to the mood of inspissated gloom in which, to quote “Autobiography” again, “The dark was talking to the dead”. But away from home too MacNeice did not lack for damply over-sized, unwelcoming spaces. Between 1917 and 1926 he boarded first at Sherborne and then at Marlborough, where he roomed with Anthony Blunt. Reading his early letters conjures not just MacNeice’s account of these years in his unfinished memoir, The Strings Are False, but Stephen Dedalus’s Clongowes days in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and the picture each book paints of forbidding authority and its challenge to an unformed young mind. Riddles are a recurrent theme. He participates in a debate on “whether Keats deserves to be called a poet” (no was the answer, by a margin of sixteen to two), decides the music of the spheres is caused by saints’ halos “turning round like gramophone records”, and sends his sister “much love and contempt”. The intimate connection between these childhood years, with their absent mother and chilly school dorms, and the death-haunted poems of his last years, has long been apparent, but to have the young MacNeice’s testimony, and in such detail, cuts unmistakably to the heart of the trauma.

Boarding school sees the question of nationality begin to obtrude. In a much-cited passage from The Strings Are False, MacNeice parades his disdain for Orangemen and their Twelfth of July marches to a teacher at Sherborne, only for a second, Irish teacher to enter the room and ask what he was saying. He is left feeling “guilty and cheap”. Loss of face also features in a letter of 1918, which describes another teacher’s verdict on England forever sending “silly people to take care of Ireland”: “He said it was just the same as if a new headmaster came to the Prep., and somebody flung a pellet at him and it hit his eye and he rubbed his eye and didn’t say ‘who flung that pellet?’ then”. Anglo-Irish tensions were more than familiar from home, where MacNeice’s father had risked Unionist ostracism by refusing to sign the Ulster covenant of 1912 and would later refuse permission for the Union Jack to fly over Edward Carson’s grave. In 1922 his stepmother omits to write “England” on the envelope and her letter goes to Marlborough Street College in Dublin instead, reminding us of the long, difficult history of finding MacNeice’s correct address in the larger poetic scheme of things. The Irish mote in MacNeice’s eye at public school in England was as nothing to the beam that blocked, for many years, his acceptance as anything other than a satellite of W. H. Auden, but even as he shuttled between Carrickfergus and boarding school in the 1920s the story of MacNeice’s critical naturalization as an Irishman was still a long way down the road.

Engrossing though these early letters are with their constant grumbles about fountain-pen nibs and fondness for kittens, Egyptology and the word “anent”, the sheer proportion of this volume they occupy is worth remarking. The Selected Letters of Philip Larkin and The Letters of Ted Hughes assign, respectively, thirty and ten pages to the first twenty years of their subjects’ lives, while the almost 1,800 pages of T. S. Eliot’s published letters to date also allow a mere ten pages for his youth and teens. However memorably rendered, the headmasters, prefects and rugby captains of MacNeice’s school years cannot help merging into a composite entity, as one chafes for the more engrossing dramatis personae awaiting us in Oxford. Yet when Oxford finally arrives, it is not without surprises. The great friendship of this period, the reader might decide, was not with Auden but Blunt. Though later judged “irredeemably heterosexual” by Blunt, MacNeice shows a rare camp side to Blunt, which reappears in the in-jokes of “Hetty to Nancy” in Letters to Iceland. Any fantasies Blunt might have entertained of MacNeice’s amenability to his advances (as conjectured in an editorial footnote) will have suffered a reverse with MacNeice’s marriage in 1930, but here too we confront a blank: the courtship was hasty enough, but the first letter between the couple to feature here postdates their break-up in 1935. Is MacNeice the letter-writer the full MacNeice, and, if not, where is he hiding?

The absence of key correspondents who might have been expected to feature more strongly, Auden for one, gives the 1930s years a breathless, jittery feel, as MacNeice abruptly goes from the prentice rhymer of his debut collection Blind Fireworks to publishing fifteen books between 1935 and 1941. For all his busyness in the literary marketplace, MacNeice cannot be described as much of a hustler, in the sense of cultivating critics and contemporaries. In 1939 he turns down a chance to feature in a television programme on America because of the “petty generalisations” he sensed the producers required, and, as he reports to Clark, recommends Stephen Spender instead. The touch of archness here is amusing (a note alerts us to the rivalry between MacNeice and Spender at the time, and in May 1941 MacNeice condemns Spender as “deplorably soft”), but it is hardly less amusing to find Allison quoting John Sutherland on Spender, as recently as 2004, as “England’s leading young poet” of the time. Some period orthodoxies die hard.

And then, in 1939, comes Eleanor Clark. The letters to Clark form the emotional core of this volume, and dominate the thirty-nine months between the love-struck missive from the Queen Mary and the short note, in July 1942, informing Clark of his impending marriage to Hedli Anderson. His quarrels with Clark are a peculiar mix of passion and something like editorializing, in the vein of the more discursive passages in Autumn Journal. As a member of the Partisan Review set, Clark loathed Stalinists with sufficient vehemence for MacNeice (a most unlikely Marxist apologist) to spring to their defence. He badgers her about her physical reserve, even as, back in London, he is conducting several overlapping liaisons. Will he return to the States? Will she come to London? “Tossed by circumstances” as he is (Clark’s accusing words), nothing is certain; in May 1939 he even proposes they go to the South of France. The path not taken beckons most tantalizingly in a letter of May 14, 1940, which ambles its way to the most oblique and not entirely grammatical of marriage proposals (note the missing “for us”): “I might get to a position where it would be not only practically more convenient but psychologically more satisfactory to get married to each other”. A week later the prospect has receded (“Your letter wasn’t quite what I expected & I am really angry with you”), if not definitively, then far enough for the urgency of MacNeice’s wish to remain in the US to begin to fizzle out. MacNeice had many occasions to rebuke Clark for political obtuseness, but the accusation she has levelled at him in the offending letter (partially reproduced in a note) is nevertheless shocking: “You have, darling, an awful lack of curiosity about the world”. If only, once, he could have turned back in the street to “read something at a newsstand”, “I would fall really in love with you”. MacNeice has been accused of many things, but a lack of attention to the newspapers has rarely if ever been among them.

The simultaneity of his involvement with Clark and the build-up to and outbreak of war is a powerful factor in the strength of MacNeice’s feelings - and the strength of his arguments with her. Philip Larkin’s non-committal attitude in his letters to the Second World War has done nothing to deter those who would make a collaborator-in-waiting of him, but MacNeice’s initial response to the war too was less than clear-cut. While deploring Auden and Isherwood’s pacifism, he presents his preference for Chamberlain over Hitler as a “choice of evils” rather than an identification with the state of Britain. For all MacNeice’s resolve not to miss out on the war in Britain, his reaction to the spectacle of the London Blitz in a poem such as “Brother Fire” is deeply ambivalent (“Did we not on those mornings after the All Clear, / ... Echo your thoughts in ours? ‘Destroy! Destroy!’)”. The ambivalence takes comic form too, as when in 1941 he gives a lecture to a group, as he believes, of Central European refugees, referring repeatedly to “our country” and “In this country”, only to discover “they were all British”.

But mostly it is the possibility of casual death that occupies his thoughts: writing to Frederick Dupee in 1941, he recounts with fascinated detachment walking home to breakfast “through blazing streets (tinkling with falling glass) to find all the windows in my own street blown in & my own house full of soot & broken glass & plaster”. Talk persists of him helping Clark to set up as a writer in London, and of a month-long trip to the US in 1941, but what began as a maddening ocean of separation all too perceptibly settles into first a pretext and ultimately a convenience, and after his marriage to Hedli the correspondence stops. MacNeice’s steeliness about moving on can be seen in a chatty long letter to his first wife Mary Beazley, after their separation, in which he brushes aside her concerns for his state of mind (“you must really quit worrying about me or thinking I am sad because I AIN’T”). What he calls his “functioning vitality” is always ready to hand to sweep him along to the next relationship, and if there was inner turmoil about his break-up with Clark (or other, future relationships), it does not find an outlet here.

MacNeice is one of the great poets of instantaneity, of the present moment “And then the minute after”, as he puts it in “River in Spate”, but it is wrong to see in him a celebrant of sensuous immediacy alone, sheltering his humane scepticism and emotional self-reliance from the encroaching ideologies of the 1930s and after. If the poetry of his middle years represents a fatal sag at the centre of the Collected Poems, the tussles with abstraction that get the better of the stale poems of the 1940s and 50s had never been wholly alien to his work. He may have been the least tempted of 30s poets to exchange the honest confusions of liberalism for the certainties of the Party line, but few poets delighted as much as MacNeice in the rough and tumble of New Verse questionnaires on the engaged poet, soul-searching on the individual and society, and all the other period furniture of debate which he does so well to come through with his readability intact. Out of the crucible of this conflict comes Autumn Journal, but out of it too, with hardly less intensity, come the letters to Clark. MacNeice typically finds an antipathetic stimulus - bad politics, impatience with the short lyric poem, journalese - and sparks himself into life against it. A letter to T. S. Eliot of April 7, 1944, in which he declares the unlikelihood of his writing any short poems in the near future reads like a wilful tryst with the muse of abstraction that would preside over the next decade of his work, but in 1932 he writes in almost exactly the same terms to John Hinton (“I don’t think I shall write many more short poems - one has to be rather childish for that”). It failed to stop him in 1932, and the dry middle years failed to stop the breakthrough to his late lyrical triumphs. Seeing these statements of disillusion in context, as the dramatic feints they are, is an important corrective to the distorting patterns and false teleologies we might otherwise impose.

The outraged response that greeted Larkin’s letters showed the danger of partial and tendentious readings, but the vagaries of what does or does not survive of a correspondence can also colour the view of posterity. Auden rarely kept letters, and his correspondence with MacNeice is represented here by a solitary letter (and one, later letter from Auden to MacNeice). Nor are there any letters to Spender, Day-Lewis (so much for MacSpaunday) or Isherwood. His letters to Eliot are businesslike throughout - the one surprise, though not in a letter to Eliot himself, coming when he reports (to Clark) encountering Eliot “blind drunk” in a Tube station, “rocking on his heels & staring at me vacantly”. The absence of group gossip among the four points of the MacSpaunday compass hampers our sense of MacNeice’s dealings with his Oxford peers, but his dealings with other literary contemporaries too appear to have involved him more in time at the pub counter than at his writing desk. The death of Dylan Thomas affected MacNeice greatly, but Thomas does not feature among his correspondents here; nor does William Empson (“a filthy fellow”, in a 1934 letter to John Hilton), despite their years as colleagues at the BBC. Larkin puts in an appearance in 1958, as a fellow editor (with Bonamy Dobrée) of a PEN anthology: Larkin took a poor view of MacNeice’s work ethic, and complained to Kingsley Amis that he became “lazier and duller witted” as time went on (“and me more acutely critical and increasing in integrity”). Equally unrevealing, at the death, are the affectionate but terse letters to his third wife Mary Wimbush (“You are to be happy”).

MacNeice’s early death is not the only source of might-have-beens in this volume. Like Coleridge, that lifelong genius of the prospectus, MacNeice was a seasoned hatcher of schemes as transient as the mayfly of his celebrated early poem. In 1961 he talks John Freeman of the New Statesman into sponsoring a jaunt to Ireland to cover an Ireland-England rugby game: the commission foundered, Allison reports in a footnote, when “his driver in Ireland ran out of petrol” (MacNeice did eventually file an article on the following year’s Ireland-England game, in February 1962). A longer-lived but equally doomed project was The Character of Ireland, which MacNeice planned to edit with W. R. Rodgers, and whose principle raison d’être, the longer it dragged on with no obvious end (or beginning) in sight, was to facilitate boozy editorial get-togethers in Oxford, or benders in Ireland with Dominic Behan.

Sometimes the project does get completed but fails to match the chat surrounding it in the letters. MacNeice travelled to India in 1947, attending the midnight session of the Constituent Assembly at which independence was declared, but the unengaged “Letter to India” that resulted (in Holes in the Sky) falls far short of the vivid and marvellous letters he sends his wife, as when he interviews an eccentric industrialist who is also head of the Indian Cow Protection League (“the cow is like your mother, only more so; she goes on giving you milk”). Several long-haul trips followed in the next decade, to Ceylon, Ghana and South Africa and back to the US, but we quickly reach a point where “the hotels are all the same”, as he put it in the late poem “Solitary Travel”, and not just the hotels but the rugger-talking cronies and cultural attachés.

The pace of both MacNeice’s drinking and romantic entanglements picked up considerably in his last years, coinciding with domestic unhappiness and upheaval (Hedli asked him to move out in 1957), but also his luminous last two books. Solstices (1961) and The Burning Perch (1963) may seem death-shadowed collections, for all their vitality (“all our games” are “funeral games”, he writes in “Sports Page”), but this is to risk another false teleology: these are not the poems of a man who felt his end was nigh. Had MacNeice died in the late 1950s, the arc of his creative life would have been seen to peak a decade and a half before - then fall away; but as it is, in yet another blank, the comet-blaze of his last books is not accompanied, in his letters, by anything like the revelations of these to Clark. The poet had recovered, but the letter-writer had not. His final months find him enjoying Francis Bacon and Beyond the Fringe, before the BBC field trip to a Yorkshire cave in August 1963 which brought on his fatal bout of pneumonia. The very last letter, written from his deathbed, expresses a “great desire to be in on the oyster festival at Clarinbridge” in Galway. Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley were twenty-four at the time and Derek Mahon, who was to elegize MacNeice unforgettably in “In Carrowdore Churchyard”, just twenty-two. It is a wrench to think of the letters MacNeice might have lived to exchange with this brilliant later generation of Northern Irish poets.

As editor, Jonathan Allison has in general struck a happy balance between the skimpy apparatus of, say, Elizabeth Bishop’s One Art and the creeping ivy of over-annotation that sometimes threatened to choke the first volume of Beckett’s letters. If Eleanor Clark’s first husband, Jan Frankel, is incorrectly shorn of the e in his surname at one point, elsewhere Achill Island, where MacNeice honeymooned with his first wife, is compensatingly rendered as “Achille”. A description of Walter Starkie that decks him out in no fewer than nine honorifics (“CMG, CBE, MA ...”) is either a piquant dig at this largely forgotten figure, or excess of scholarly zeal. If the text of the letters speaks from the “drunkenness of things being various”, the editorial small print stays conscientiously sober throughout, but without spoiling the party.

There is hardly a great writer in his or her letters who does not have a repertoire of styles and registers from which to choose, depending on the correspondent and the occasion. MacNeice was no exception, but the question of where the real MacNeice lurks in all this persists. A recurrent complaint among MacNeice critics is that his delight in cliché, pub talk and transience is a mask for aloofness, the “essential absence in his make-up” that Ian Hamilton diagnosed, reviewing Jon Stallworthy’s biography in 1995. In 1955 he concedes to Hedli, the person to whom he gave most, “I don’t suppose I ‘give’ much”. Another moment of painful recognition occurs in a letter to Clark of 1941 in which he jibs at a description of him in Time magazine as possessing a “flaccid” heart. MacNeice comments: “It ain’t true but I know what they mean. If I survive this mess, it (heart) will be what it wouldn’t have been otherwise - but, all the same, what it was to have been from the start”. As self-analysis, this is more than a little opaque. Emotional flaccidity is the price to be paid for his uncertainty over Clark, and something he could have avoided, either by acting more decisively or by not getting involved in the first place; and yet it is also his predestined condition, Clark or no Clark. The brief note in which he breaks the news of his marriage conjures an Olympian height: “What I said before about you & me perhaps is what really applies: we met on top of a mountain & should leave it at that”. For all his newspaper-reading, pub-going, and hymning of the ordinary life, a significant part of MacNeice remained in residence on that mountain top, and it was on its difficult heights that he was able to reveal himself more fully and humanly than ever before or afterwards.