Louis MacNeice was an extremely self-conscious poet. He wrote several books of literary criticism, gave lectures on the subject, and often reflected on the role of the poet in his poems. In an early essay, written in 1936, he reveals his allegiance to the group of poets represented by W. H. Auden, who believed their chief responsibility to be social rather than purely artistic. MacNeice divided art into two types: parable and escape. William Butler Yeats and T. S. Eliot, while unquestionably great, represent the latter, the less valid route. MacNeice always retained his belief in “parable-art,” that is, poems that appear naturalistic while also suggesting latent moral or metaphysical content—although he came to realize in later years that journalistic or overly realistic art has its defects while “escape-art” often addresses fundamental problems. MacNeice’s lasting conception of the poet’s task is remarkably close to William Wordsworth’s in the preface to the Lyrical Ballads (1798): The poet should be a spokesperson for and to ordinary men. To communicate with a large audience, the poet must be representative, involved in current events, interested in the news, sports, and so on. He must always place the subject matter and the purpose of his art above a pure interest in form. In Modern Poetry, he echoes Wordsworth’s dictum that the poet must keep his eye on the object. A glance at the titles of MacNeice’s poems reveals the wide range of his subjects; geographical locations, artists, seasons, classical and mythical figures, types of people, technological objects, and types of songs are a few representatives of the plurality embraced by his poems. Furthermore, like Wordsworth, MacNeice studies external objects, places, and events closely, though his poems often end up really being about human consciousness and morality, through analogy or reflection on the experience.
Telling vs. showing
Thus, MacNeice’s fundamental approach to poetry also resembles Wordsworth’s. Many of his poems are a modernized, sometimes journalistic version of the loco-descriptive genre of the eighteenth century, arising from the description of a place, object, or event, followed usually by a philosophical, moral, or psychological reflection on that event. Although MacNeice attempts to use a plain, simple style, his training in the classics and English literature tends to produce a rich profusion of allusive reverberations. The relationship between the topical focus of the poem and the meditation it produces varies from association to analogy to multiple parallels. In technique, MacNeice differs from the Imagistic, Symbolist thrust of T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and the modern American poets influenced by them. The framework of MacNeice’s poems is primarily expository; he tells rather than trying to show through objective correlatives.
Poet of ideas
As Terence Brown argues in Louis MacNeice: Sceptical Vision (1975), MacNeice is most notable as a poet of ideas. In his study of Yeats, he emphasizes the importance of belief in giving substance to a poet’s work. Many critics have mistakenly criticized MacNeice’s poetry on this basis, finding it superficial and devoid of philosophical system. Brown argues cogently that MacNeice is deceptively philosophical because he remains a skeptic. Thus the few positive beliefs underlying his poetry appear negative. Many of his poems question epistemological and metaphysical assumptions; depending on one’s interpretation, MacNeice’s “final” position may seem positive or negative. Many of his poems represent what might loosely be called an existentialist position. Although he never stops evaluating the validity of religion, MacNeice ceased to believe in God in his late teens, after being brought up in the home of a future Anglican bishop. The loss of God and Christianity left a huge gap in the metaphysical structure of MacNeice’s thought, and he resisted replacing it with another absolute system such as Marxism. He retained a strong sense of moral and social duty, but he found no objective sanctions for value and order. In his poems, he explores the conflicting and paradoxical facts of experience. For example, he believes that a new social order will benefit the masses, but he is honest enough to admit his fondness for the privileges of the elite: good education, clothes, food, and art. He remains obsessed with the Heraclitean theory of flux, that we can never step into the same river twice. Yet when we face the absence of certainty, belief, and absolute value, we can celebrate plurality and assert ourselves against time and death. Brown distinguishes the modernity of MacNeice in “a sceptical faith, which believes that no transcendent reality, but rather non-being, gives being value.”
The most striking technical features of MacNeice’s poems evince his sometimes conflicting concerns with reaching a large audience of ordinary people and with reflecting philosophically on experience. In line with the former, he attempts to use colloquial, or at least plain, language, and often to base his rhythm and style on popular musical forms, from the folk ballad, nursery rhyme, and lullaby to modern jazz. His concern with contemporary issues, coupled with his classical training, makes irony and satire inevitable. Like the English Augustans (with whom he did not want to be identified), MacNeice cannot help contrasting reality with the ideals of past literature, politics, and belief systems. His satire of contemporary society tends to be of the urbane, gentle, Horatian type, only infrequently becoming harsh and bitter. Other stylistic features mark his concern with metaphysical issues. He uses analogy and paradox, accreting many resonances through classical and biblical allusions, usually simultaneously. Many poems pose unresolved questions and problems, circling back on their beginnings at the end. The endings that repeat initial statements or questions would seem to offer closure, or at least a definite structure, to the poems, but paradoxically they do not. Rather, they emphasize the impossibility of answering or closing the issue.
Another stylistic feature that recurs throughout MacNeice’s work is the list, similar to the epic catalogs of Homer. Rather than suggesting greatness or richness as they usually do in epics, MacNeice’s catalogs represent the irreducible plurality of experience.
Evolution vs. stasis
In addition to the question of his belief system or lack thereof, critics have disagreed over whether MacNeice’s work develops over time or remains essentially the same. The answer to this question is sometimes viewed as a determinant of MacNeice’s rank as a poet. An argument can be made for both positions, but the answer must be a synthesis. While MacNeice’s appreciation of the complexity of life, its latent suggestions, grows as his poetry develops, certain interrelated clusters of themes and recurring images inform his work from beginning to end.
For example, the places and events of his childhood shape his problematic identity and worldview, including his obsessions with dreams and with Ireland as a symbol of the more gothic, mysterious, and mystical sides of experience. Connected with his upbringing in the home of an Anglican rector is a preoccupation, mentioned above, with disbelief in God and religion, and faith in liberal humanism. The disappearance of God results in complex epistemological and moral questions that also pervade many poems. Another related thematic cluster is a concern with time, death, and Heraclitean flux. Closely related to this cluster is an increasing interest in cycles, in repetition versus renewal, reflected in many poems about spring and fall.
Although these themes, along with recurring images of train journeys, Ireland, stone, dazzling surfaces, and time represented as space, among others, continue to absorb MacNeice’s attention, the types of poems and emphases evolve over time, particularly in response to changes in the political temper of the times. His juvenilia, written between 1925 and 1927, reflects the aesthetic focus of his student years, playing with sound and rhetorical devices, musing on sensation, death, God, and self-consciousness. MacNeice did not really emerge as a poet until the 1930’s, when his teaching, marriage, and life among the workers of Birmingham opened his eyes to the world of social injustice and political reality. At that point he was influenced by Auden, Spender, and Lewis, and came to see the poet’s role as more journalistic than purely aesthetic.
From political to philosophical
The poems of the 1930’s reflect his preoccupation with the disheartening political events in Spain and Germany and his belief that the existing social order was doomed. The poetry of this period is more leftist than at any other stage in MacNeice’s career, but he never espouses the dogmas of Marxism. During World War II, his poetry becomes more humanistic, more positive in its treatment of man. MacNeice’s faith in human nature was fanned by the courage and generosity he witnessed in his job as a fire watcher in London during the war.
After the war, his poems become at first more philosophical, reflecting a revaluation of the role of art and a desire for belief of any kind, not necessarily in God. At this point, the poems express an existential recognition of the void and a disgust with the depersonalization of England after the war; they also play with looking at subjects from different perspectives. His last three volumes of poems, published in 1957, 1961, and posthumously in 1963, represent what most critics consider to be the apotheosis of MacNeice’s career. The lyrics of his latest poems are austere and short, often using tetrameter rather than pentameter or hexameter lines. Many of these poems are “parable-poems” in the sense that MacNeice described in his Clark Lectures of 1963, published as Varieties of Parable; that is, they use images to structure a poem that is in effect a miniature allegory. The poems appear to be topical or occasional, but they hold a double or deeper meaning.
Because MacNeice was essentially a reflective, philosophical poet, his poetry records an ongoing dialectic between the shaping forces of his consciousness and the events and character of the external world. Thus certain techniques, goals, and preoccupations tend to recur, though they are different in response to historical and personal developments in MacNeice’s life. Since he was a skeptic, he tends to ask questions rather than give answers, but the more positive values that he holds become clearer by the last years of his life. In particular, the idea of a kingdom of individuals, who lay claim to their freedom and create their lives, is implicit in many of the later poems, after being introduced in “The Kingdom,” written around 1943. The members of this kingdom counteract flux and fear by their genuineness, their honest seeing and feeling, their incorruptibility. The Greek notion of arête, sometimes translated as virtue or excellence, but without the narrowly moral meaning usually attached to “virtue,” comes to mind when one reads the descriptions of exemplary individuals in “The Kingdom.” This kingdom is analogous to the Kingdom of Christ, the ideal Republic of Plato, and the Kingdom of Ends in Immanuel Kant’s moral system. Yet it does not depend on absolutes and thus it is not an unattainable ideal but a mode of life that some people manage to realize in the ordinary course of life. Moreover, the members of this kingdom belong by virtue of their differentness, not because they share divine souls or absolute ideas of reason.
MacNeice sees himself in terms of stages of development in such poems as “Blasphemies,” written in the late 1950’s, where he describes his changing attitude toward God and belief. The poem is a third-person narrative about his own feelings toward religion since his childhood. In the first stanza, he is seven years old, lying in bed pondering the nature of the unforgivable sin against the Holy Ghost. In the second stanza, he is seventeen, striking the pose of a blasphemer, parodying prayers. The middle-aged writer of the autobiographical poem mocks his earlier stance, seeing the hollowness of rebellion against a nonexistent deity. The third stanza describes how, at thirty, the poet realized the futility of protest against an absence and turned to a new religion of humanism and realism, facing facts. The mature MacNeice undercuts these simple new faiths by ending the stanza with a question about the nature of facts for a thirty-year-old. Stanza 4 finds the poet at forty attempting to appropriate the myths of Christianity for purely symbolic use and realizing that their lack of absolute meaning makes them useless to him. At the age of forty, he has reached a crisis of sorts, unable to speak for himself or for humankind. The final stanza sums up MacNeice’s ultimate philosophical position: that there are no ultimate beliefs or postures. He finally throws off the entire issue of Christianity, finding divinity neither above nor within humankind.
The irreducible reality is that he is not Tom, Dick, or Harry, some archetypal representative of ordinary man. He is himself, merely fifty, a question. The final two lines of the poem, however, in typical MacNeice fashion, reintroduce the problem of metaphysics that he has just dismissed. He asserts that although he is a question, that question is as worthwhile as any other, which is not saying too much. He then, however, uses the word “quest” in apposition to the word “question,” reintroducing the entire issue of a search for ultimate meaning. To complete the confusion, he ends with a completed repetition of the broken-off question that opens the poem: What is the sin against the Holy Ghost? The repeated but augmented line is an instance of the type of incremental repetition used in folk ballads such as “Lord Randall,” and it suggests the kind of dark riddle often presented in such songs. The final question might be just idle intellectual curiosity or it might imply that ultimate questions of belief simply cannot be escaped by rationality.
MacNeice’s dedicatory poem, “To Hedli,”...
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