The name of Louis MacNeice, as the Irish poet Derek Mahon recently remarked, "is still overshadowed by those of Auden and Spender-to each of whom he was, in significant respects, a superior poet." Having immersed myself for some months in the Collected Poems
, I can only agree. They register the achievement of a powerful mind and imagination, of a poet of genius who draws upon and enlarges a wide range of poetic speech in English, from classics to nursery rhyme to street language and even cliché.
And now Jon Stallworthy, himself a poet and the author of an admired life of Wilfred Owen, has written a biography in which the poetry is given full place. MacNeice did bequeath an unfinished autobiography, The Strings are False, which supplies Stallworthy with some of his best quotations, but the poems themselves more movingly reflect the story of his heart, as in "Autobiography":
My father made the walls resound,
He wore his collar the wrong way round.
Come back early or never come.
The poet was born in Belfast in 1907 ("to the hooting of lost sirens and the clang of trams") and brought up in Carrickfergus, the son of an Anglican rector who later became a bishop, a man with the wild blood of Connaught in his veins, a staunch Home-Ruler in Unionist Ulster.
When I was five the black dreams came:
Nothing after was quite the same.
Come back early or never come
After his mother's death, the child was cared for by nursemaids until he acquired a "rich and generous" stepmother. Following the custom of his caste, from the age of ten he was sent to English boarding schools, to Sherborne and Marlborough, where he was happy enough after the usual initial shocks. He acquired a love of rugby football, which he never lost, and a passion for classical learning.
There were aesthetes as well as jocks at Marlborough. John Betjeman was slightly senior to MacNeice; already they were both poets. Anthony Blunt, who opened his eyes to art, became a lifelong friend. Stallworthy refrains from noticing Blunt's future as the false recreant knight who spied on his own country. It's clear, though, that both at school and at Merton College, Oxford, MacNeice was far too independent to be a party member. Again, when he travelled in Iceland with Auden (see their Letters from Iceland), he was easy with a friend of different sexual proclivities. Auden found him the "ideal travelling companion, funny, observant, tolerant, and good-tempered."
A romantic in search of the not impossible she, Louis found her in the person of a professor's daughter, Mary Beazley, the first of a series of women in his life. The young couple decided to marry, to the dismay of both their families, Mary being Jewish. By all accounts MacNeice was an attractive, loving, and truthful man, though casual acquaintances thought him shy or arrogant. Graduating with Firsts in Mods and Greats, the poet became a lecturer in classics at Bedford College, Birmingham, hired by Professor E. R. Dodds (later famous for The Greeks and the Irrational), who became his loyal friend and executor. MacNeice did not enjoy teaching. For a while the young marrieds were happy breeding dogs and playing house. Not long after bearing their son, Dan, Mary left.
Stallworthy doesn't have much to say about the effect of that desertion on a man who had lost his mother in childhood (emotionally a defection). Apart from many brief affairs, Louis was deeply involved with four other women, "a painter, a writer, a singer to whom he was married for eighteen years, and a talented actress," to quote the singer in question, the gifted Hedli Anderson.
As a poet of the 1930s, MacNeice's most important major work is "Autumn Journal". In this long poem he evokes the whole range of his experience in the tense months following the Munich settlement of 1938. The verse is magical in that one can't see how it was done, as in the opening line
Close and slow, summer is ending in Hampshire.
Ebbing away down ramps of shaven lawn where close-clipped yew
Insulates the lives of retired generals and admirals
This magic often lies in condensed imagery as in the following lines (this from a poem about Byron): "Twang the lyre and rattle the lexicon, Marathon, Harrow and all."
The problem of livelihood was not settled until 1941 when Louis was given a staff job in the BBC. As reference, he had given the name of his editor at Faber, T. S. Eliot. He had already written scripts and broadcast propaganda for the war effort. The work he did for radio was sincere enough to be considered part of his oeuvre and the BBC often did him proud, commissioning incidental music from Benjamin Britten. A two-fisted drinker, whisky in one hand, Guinness in the other, Louis was often drunk and disorderly, despite which he put out a prodigious amount of work. London was now his home. As Stallworthy observes, he loved cities. His poem about Dublin, written on the eve of war, is one of the finest celebrations of that graceful capital. "She will not/ Have me alive or dead/ But yet she holds my mind/With her seedy elegance." His evocations of place are matchless.
His biographer is tactful about the lost opportunity when Trinity College, Dublin, passed up the chance to appoint him English Professor. To them, perhaps, he was the bishop's son, but infected with London sophistication. They chose a man they knew better, untainted by the great world.
Among appointments MacNeice did have was a stint as head of the British Institute in Athens, where he became friends with Patrick Leigh Fermor, another Anglo-Irish Grecian.
MacNeice died in 1963, in his fifty-sixth year. He had been drenched by rain on the Yorkshire moors and succumbed to viral pneumonia. Stallworthy says that antibiotics had no effect, "probably because his constitution had been undermined by alcohol and tobacco." The biographer's prissy disapproval is showing. He ought to know that viral infection cannot be cured by antibiotics.
In some other ways the biography is unsatisfactory. When Louis is returning from Canada by sea in wartime, we're told that among the survivors of H. M. S. Jervis Bay are also passengers. This information is meaningless unless one knows the heroic story of Jervis Bay, outgunned by the enemy, whose captain sacrificed his ship to save the convoy. As with the traitor Blunt, Stallworthy doesn't tell enough.