MacNeice, Louis 1907–1963
MacNeice was an Irish-born English poet, translator, classical scholar, critic, and the author of several plays, many radio scripts, and, under a pseudonym, a novel. MacNeice wrote complex poems characterized by rich and subtle imagery and controlled sardonic wit. He cultivated a deliberately flat language for what Christopher Ricks called "an economic truth-telling which sees the encroachment of disaster without revelling in the apocalypse."
[MacNeice] is like an ancient catalpa in a London square dazzling with its annual display of blossom the passers-by who are unable to see it. It is time that someone spoke up and said what pleasure his writing has given during the last quarter of a century since he arrived, in full possession of all his gifts, with the first startling lines of 'An Ecologue for Christmas'….
To begin with, he is a classical scholar and so we shall always be able to rely on his grammar, on his lucidity, on mental processes which, if not always easy to follow, obey the rules of thought as practiced by good minds; and he has also a knowledge of prosody.
On the other hand he is not a don, his philosophy has been tested in a hard school; he is not intellectually arrogant which lends an added beauty to his intellectual images; he is a toughminded stoic with a soft spot for hedonism. His weakness is a tendency to fall into flatness and banality, the music giving out and the thought disappearing into clever tricks. At such times he seems to be playing the tortoise to Professor Auden's hare, and this perhaps is what Dame Edith Sitwell meant by referring to his 'inelasticity of rhythm, his verse either sticky in texture or disintegrated, gritty and sabulous'. He has a strong vein of journalism and sometimes seems to be putting the New Statesman's 'London Diary' into free verse.
But the toughness and energy of the journalist sustains the poet and philosopher who also draws sustenance from love and nature and travel, and from his local inheritance as an Anglo-Irish expatriate, a product of the Oxford of Auden, Spender, Day Lewis and Rex Warner.
Like Dylan Thomas he managed to write some of the best war-poetry; in fact the books which I enjoy the most, besides his first Poems, are Plant and Phantom (1941), which includes one of his best love-poems ('Time was away'), and the Irish poems of The Last Ditch and of Springboard (1944) which also includes 'Brother Fire', 'The Libertine' and 'Prayer before Birth'. And, of course, Autumn Journal (1939), where the journalist has helped the philosopher to preserve for ever the uneasy atmosphere of 'Munich'.
Cyril Connolly, "Louis MacNeice" (originally published in the [London] Sunday Times), in his Previous Convictions (© 1963), Hamish Hamilton, 1963, pp. 320-23.
Louis MacNeice's last volume of poems, The Burning Perch, went to press in January 1963; he died suddenly in September of the same year at the age of 56. Critics since have generally acknowledged that he was a poet of genius, and that much of his finest work was produced in the three years immediately preceding his death. While granting him his place in the front rank among the poets who came to prominence in the thirties—W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Cecil Day Lewis—they have had considerable difficulty in assessing the nature of his achievement. On his death, T. S. Eliot commented that he "had the Irishman's unfailing ear for the music of verse." During his lifetime, however, many readers felt that his ear did indeed fail him, that his rhythms were frequently too easy, and his parodies and imitations of jazz lyrics too flat and mechanical in nature to hold one's interest for long. While he had much in common with his contemporaries, he was, in many ways, totally unlike them. His poems are easy to understand on the surface (seemingly far less complicated than those of Auden or Dylan Thomas), but they present deeper, less obvious difficulties. They appear to be the open, easy expression of an engaging and intelligent personality, but basically that personality, and the poems through which it manifests itself, is not easy to grasp.
William Jay Smith, "The Black Clock: The Poetic Achievement of Louis MacNeice," in Hollins Critic, April, 1967, pp. 1-11.
The tributes in verse and prose which, since MacNeice's death in 1963, have poured out from the distinguished poets who knew him and admired him document his significance in the history of the poetry of our time. This bulky collection of his works [The Collected Poems of Louis MacNeice] demonstrates that he stands apart from most of his contemporaries in the volume of his work. The consistent polish of the poems bears witness to his achievement as an artist. Yet the poetry—perhaps in some measure because of his reputation, perhaps in some measure because of its bulk—disappoints the expectant reader. It impresses, but it fails to excite. There are good lines in abundance, there is accuracy of observation, there is an admirable objectivity, and yet there is all too seldom what we recognize by instinct to be poetry. MacNeice's forte was the long personal narrative in verse best represented by "Autumn Journal" and "1953." But personal narrative—autobiography—is a recalcitrant genre; being what it must be, it resists the shaping imagination of the poet, his sense of pace, his ordering of experiences toward a climax. In just these respects MacNeice's poetry comes short of the highest achievement.
Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 43, No. 3 (Summer, 1967), p. cxi.
[Louis] MacNeice had the luck and the persistence, if not quite all the time he should have had. Without arguing the case, let me assert that [The Collected Poems] is the evidence that his work is comparable in seriousness and in wit to his contemporaries—Auden, Edwin Muir and Graves (not Spender and Day Lewis as has too often been said). And there are moments in the poems when the personality revealed seems incomparable, like to nothing but itself…. The life that beckons from MacNeice's poetry is welcome indeed.
William H. Pritchard, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1967 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XX, No. 2, Summer, 1967, pp. 313-14.
[MacNeice] distrusted all neat philosophical systems, all 'the nostrums Of science art and religion'; he had abandoned his father's Christian beliefs; he regarded the world of scholarship and of museums as an attractive but slightly disreputable escape from reality…. Yet, despite his frequently expressed desire to live in the present, his resolve to cease constructing moral or philosophical codes, his longing to throw off the burden of introspection—'I do not want to be reflective any more'—he was never able to abdicate from the responsibility of being a rational, moral creature. He remained all his life his father's son, often indeed weakening the impact of his poems by his tendency to preach a lay sermon, to expound the necessity of decency, courage, endurance. (p. 31)
The coming of war provided MacNeice with a new range of experiences and deeply affected his emotional development. Although his verse undergoes no spectacular change, it gradually alters its character in a variety of ways, becoming less impressionistic and glittering. MacNeice seems now to be more concerned with the congruence of the images in a poem than with their individual brilliance. (p. 35)
In many of the poems MacNeice is haunted by Christian symbols, by the ghost of that Christian morality which he has rejected but not exorcised. (p. 37)
Perhaps the most original achievements in [the] final volumes are those poems in The Burning Perch that convey a sense of desolation, of something gone awry, as though one were walking down a staircase where a step is missing, or had entered a room where everything is in order except for some terrifying absence or reversal of normality. These poems crackle with an eerie vitality, and are shaken by the kind of savage mirth that informs some of Bartok's later music. (p. 44)
Few poets have managed to make poetry out of the enjoyment which they have distilled from the minor pleasures of life. A short list of such poets would include Shakespeare, pre-eminent in this as in so much else, Ben Jonson, Herrick, Burns, Byron, Tennyson and Browning. MacNeice belongs to the select company of those who are able to communicate their delight in the minutiae of daily life, the sense of happiness and well-being that springs from good health, mental alertness and emotional vitality. (p. 44)
John Press, in his Louis MacNeice, Longman Group Ltd., for the British Council, revised edition, 1970.
MacNeice defined a poet as "an ordinary man with specialized gifts". His own gifts were an acute sensory, and especially visual, perception; colour, shape, light and shade, sound, smell, touch and taste, lend to his verse an immediacy closely connected with time and place. For him emotional recollection was bound up with where and when, as in the whole of Autumn Journal, in 'Birmingham' and 'Belfast'. He exploited the pathetic fallacy for all it was worth, not as a mere device, but because his experiences were bound up with actual times and places, as we see clearly in 'Solitary Travel', in Canto III of Autumn Journal and, above all, in 'Snow'. This external sensory perception was an integral part of the deeper emotional or intellectual feeling he was trying to express. So when he had to try even harder to convey an emotion whose validity he doubted, as in 'Flowers in the Interval', he relied on the association with places both to recall and heighten it. (p. 237)
He knew, and expressed again and again in his poetry, the delights of the senses and he experienced them so fully that he could half deceive himself into believing that they were a "mystical experience" and half way to faith, or belief….
MacNeice came no nearer to a passionate resolution of philosophical or religious conflict than the expression of doubt in 'Didymus', the regression of 'Prayer Before Birth', and the terrible fear that lies at the heart of 'Charon'.
[In this study, we] approached the poetry of MacNeice, expecting to find, as he had himself indicated that we should, a poet in the Romantic tradition, and this indeed we have found. We may compare his achievements with [Marcel] Raymond's definition of the Romantic poet…. His primary "form of knowledge" as displayed in his poetry, is self-centred. Every shift of ground, every alteration of emphasis is, in his verse, a contribution to the "metaphoric" or "symbolic" portrait of himself, pored over, again and again, with the nostalgic longing for the moment it embodies. His metamorphoses range from the lonely child, cursed with a lifelong Oedipus complex, the schoolboy and student, then the townsman, the deserted lover, the husband, father, academic and author. The word "enjoyment" is echoed in the use of "mystical" to cover the experiences of the senses. Only when we come to the phrase "a feeling of the universe, experienced as a presence" are we forced to pause. A feeling of the minutiae of the universe, its colour, sounds, touch and smell, was indeed an integral part of his poetry and gives it an immediacy, a sense of heightened reality, that might at first sight satisfy the requirement of this definition, but the pleasure in colour or shape is not enough. It is not "a mystical experience". "A feeling of the universe, experienced as a presence" calls for a transcendental understanding of which he was only occasionally capable, as in the last few poems.
MacNeice remained the prisoner of his childhood. He could never escape the nostalgic chains this placed upon him either as lover or thinker. (pp. 247-48)
A parallel and not dissociated failure lay in his inability to make the intellectual effort either to achieve faith, to deny all belief, or to systematize his agnosticism. This ethical and intellectual weakness led to a certain sentimentality in his approach to social criticism and equally made any firm political attitude impossible. So MacNeice could find neither spiritual faith, political belief, or personal love and understanding to form the basis of his poetry, but relied instead on the conflicts of indecision. In so far as it lacks a passionate attempt to cope with the conflicts that arise from doubt and indecision, the poetry of MacNeice sometimes falls short of greatness. The tragedy is that he could not escape from within himself to wider exploration. (p. 249)
D. B. Moore, in his The Poetry of Louis MacNeice, Leicester University Press, 1972.
MacNeice, at his best, was always the personal poet, "lover of women and Donegal," responsive to a particular, quotidian world that was "incorrigibly plural." He was also responsive, and knew he was, to the delights of self-pity, and he had the true melancholiac's gift for ironic self-denigration. But he also valued honesty, even when it meant the faithful recording of his own inconsistencies and uncertainties. He was not a thinker, and his efforts to think in verse (as for example in Ten Burnt Offerings and Autumn Sequel) are his dullest poems—though as Auden remarked, even the dull poems are beautifully carpentered; what he could do best was record feelings, and especially the sad side of feelings—the regret, the melancholy, the nostalgia, the helplessness and hopelessness of ordinary existence in an ordinary world. If he could not think his way to a philosophy or a religion, he could at least feel, and sentiment is, in his poetry, a value in itself—a way of affirming the personal life by responding to it. Such a poetry of feeling is always at the edge of sentimentality, but sentiment and sentimentality are not the same thing, and in the best of MacNeice's poems it is honest feeling that we acknowledge. In his Autumn Journal, or a typical poem like "Plurality," the world does not make sense, but the feelings about it do. That world didn't change much from the first poems to the last, and neither did the tone of voice; both seem to me to derive from the thirties, and to evoke that time, so that even the poems of The Burning Perch, MacNeice's last collection, seem instantly nostalgic of a time long before they were written.
Samuel Hynes, "Auden and MacNeice," in Contemporary Literature (© 1973 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), Vol. 14, No. 3, Summer, 1973, pp. 378-83.
A poetry like MacNeice's which is so persistently dogged by honest doubt, which wavers at such intimate lengths between such dismal opposites, can be expected to have a ready appeal. But to accept this as a full characterization of MacNeice's achievement is to under-emphasize the very gifts which he himself spent so much time suppressing and apologizing for; it is to be too solemn about a poet who could never finally accept that he 'loved the surface but lacked the core'….
It is interesting that in [his] first volume [Blind Fireworks] MacNeice constantly treats of visual experience which is unintelligibly (if engrossingly) fluid and confused; he confronts a glittering, opalescent universe in a wholly submissive and amiable manner. Poem after poem opens on a note of tranquil decline; 'the quietude of the soft wind', 'Trains came threading quietly through my dozing childhood', 'In this evening room there is no stir, no fuss', 'The room is all a stupid quietness', 'In a between world … the old cat … sleeps on the verge of nullity' and so on. It is from a similarly drowsy 'between world' that MacNeice watches his random experience fragment and dissolve. Time passes, the view changes, these poems seem to say. The poet's intrusion on the cycle is marginal, almost photographic, rarely rhetorical or analytic, never profoundly disturbed.
What is charming in these early poems is a fractional immediacy of perception, a developed gift for projecting a momentary visual complex (a gift that made MacNeice wary of grand systems; see the post-war 'Plurality' for an interesting, if leadenly expressed, background to all this) and a passive liveliness to the sheer plenitude and variety of human experience.
It is easy to see how gifts of this kind could be made to seem irresponsible and trivial, but it is in them that one can discover the source of MacNeice's most brilliant passages of social reportage and also of the self-consciousness that enervates such large stretches of his subsequent work….
Throughout the 'Eclogues', the 1936–8 volume, and the best passages (Parts 5 to 8, particularly) of Autumn Journal there is a range and accuracy of observation, a lively grasp of the frenetic bored excess of a threatened social order, which are really admirable. Predictably, it is the scope and variety of social experience, the detail of its surface, that delights him; he alternates between moods of jaunty 'bravado in the face of time', of ironic sumptuousness, and of flat, menacing reportage….
[While] the thirties climate matured MacNeice's bright, documentary style it also encouraged the development of his prosy analysis. The problem of his own personal involvement in what he saw could not be evaded and MacNeice became obliged to stand at the centre of his work in a confessional stance that did not suit him but which he never completely abandoned. His doctrine of the poet as extension of the ordinary man was not vanity but a way of burying his personality in the kind of plural activity he could handle. He believed that the poet should remain elastic in his sympathies whatever the pressures on him to propagandize; his reaction against the 'esoteric' poetry of Eliot did not mean that he chose instead a legislating or civilizing role for the poet but simply that he must write out of experience which was generally available and interesting. For this purpose his poetry of appearances could work very well. But the detachment, the range of acceptance which it presupposed was difficult to preserve. Credentials had to be shown, the surfaces had to be probed.
It is in attempting this that MacNeice is at his weakest. The devitalized ambivalence of, say, Parts 2 and 3 of Autumn Journal is typical; the conflicts he writes about are real and important ones and his motives are worthy, but the structure of his argument is limp and half-heartedly protracted. One is conscious primarily of an enormous failure of energy….
[It] is never clear if this malaise results from the insoluble issues of commitment that face him, if it is a personal failure in love that causes it, or if it is to be seen as symptomatic of the total uneasiness of the time….
In his war-time poems, MacNeice attempts to synthesize the rhetorical and documentary aspects of his work in a series of anecdotal character-poems ('The Conscript', 'The Mixer', 'The Satirist') but these are too complacently punch-lined, their solutions intrude too glaringly and, worst, they are pale imitations of Auden. The tight, witty accent is largely abandoned and where it is attempted—as in 'Brother Fire', 'Bar-Room Matins' etc.—it seems tricksy and hollow….
It is noticeable that in Visitations (1957) and Solstices (1961) MacNeice was able to rediscover much of his old concentration and vitality, and to withdraw into the background of his work. In these he is no longer so prone to 'mark the spot/Meticulously in black and white' but is more directly susceptible once more to 'whatever glints'. There are still poems in which he seems to lose his nerve after a riotous first stanza and relapses into frozen paradox but on the whole one senses a welcome access of vigour and invention. This is true also of the volume that was published a fortnight after his death, The Burning Perch. His Budgie once more attitudinizes entertainingly; that it does so on a burning perch is not ignored but nor is it laboriously overemphasized. Throughout the book the old paradoxes are seen to be inexorable, and thus nonsensical or terrifying, or both; undebatable finally, but still to be spoken of….
Ian Hamilton, "Louis MacNeice," in his A Poetry Chronicle (reprinted by permission of Faber and Faber Ltd.), Faber and Faber, 1973, pp. 30-6.
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