Louis MacNeice Biography


Louis MacNeice was born Frederick Louis MacNeice on September 12, 1907, in Belfast, the son of a well-respected Church of Ireland rector. Because his early childhood experiences inform the imagery and ideas of almost all his work, the details of MacNeice’s early life are important. His father, John Frederick MacNeice, and his mother, Elizabeth Margaret, were both natives of Connemara in the west of Ireland, a bastion of wild tales and imagination. Both parents communicated to their children their strong attachment to the Ireland of their youth as opposed to the stern, dour, Puritanical atmosphere of Ulster. MacNeice’s father was extraordinary among Protestant Irishmen in his outspoken support for Home Rule and a united Irish republic. Thus the young poet started life with a feeling of displacement and a nostalgia for a culture and landscape he had never seen. Life in the rectory was, of course, pervaded by religion and a sense of duty and social responsibility. MacNeice had a sister, Elizabeth, five years his elder, and a brother, William, in between, who had Down syndrome and therefore did not figure heavily in the other children’s play. The children were fairly isolated and developed many imaginative games. Louis showed a tendency toward gothic preoccupations in his fear of partially hidden statues in the church and in the graveyard that adjoined his garden. Of special significance is his mother’s removal to a nursing home and subsequent death when Louis was seven. She had provided comfort and gaiety in the otherwise secluded and stern life of the Rectory. Louis, the youngest, had been particularly close to her, and his poetry reflects the rupture in his world occasioned by her loss. Without their mother and intimidated by the misery of their father, the MacNeice children became particularly subject to the influences of servants. On one hand, the cook, Annie, was a warm Catholic peasant who spoke of fairies and leprechauns. On the other hand, Miss MacCready, who was hired to take care of the children when their mother became ill, was the antithesis of both Mrs. MacNeice and Annie, a puritanical Calvinist, extremely dour and severe, lecturing constantly about hell and damnation.

In 1917, MacNeice’s father remarried. Though she was very kind and devoted, the new Mrs. MacNeice had a Victorian, puritanical outlook on life that led to further restrictions on the children’s behavior. Soon after the marriage, MacNeice was sent to Marlborough College, an English...

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Louis MacNeice (muhk-NEES) was born in Belfast, Ireland (now in Northern Ireland), on September 12, 1907. His father was a pastor in the Church of Ireland; his mother had been born in Connemara in the west country. When he was still a very young child, his father received a parish in Carrickfergus, at that time a small town in the countryside outside of Belfast. He had an older sister and a younger brother who was afflicted with Down syndrome. In 1914, his mother died of tuberculosis after a lengthy illness, and the young Louis was devastated. This experience seems to have made him perpetually reserved and shy and rendered him vulnerable to the fear of loss.

MacNeice’s father, despite his church affiliation, supported home rule, a position which made his life among his fellow Protestants rather uncomfortable and went a long way toward isolating the MacNeice family from their neighbors. His political sympathies did not make him friends in Catholic Ireland, either. In order to remove Louis from the tensions of Irish life, his father sent him to school in England, first to Sherborne, and then to Marlborough College. All his life, MacNeice was troubled by his mixed Irish and British cultural inheritance.

Despite his father’s calling, MacNeice’s faith seems not to have been strong, and his education at the English schools seems to have confirmed in him a lifelong skepticism that scarcely ever showed signs of thawing. At Marlborough, he knew Anthony Blunt and the later poet laureate, John Betjeman. While there, his interests in literature were ignited, and with his schoolmates he plunged eagerly into the works of T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and William Butler Yeats. He was also introduced to Marxism, but although he found many of its arguments compelling, he was...

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Louis MacNeice was born one generation after Eliot and Pound, and his early poetry reacts against these figures by being less concerned with aesthetics and more with social problems. He wrote both long and short poems with considerable technical skill. After World War II, he concentrated on radio plays, but he also wrote some of the most finely etched poetry of the twentieth century. He never ceased believing that poetry was a gift for the community and that the job of the poet was to be the community’s conscience.