Frederick Louis MacNeice was born on September 12, 1907, in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where his father was rector of Trinity Church. Less than a year later, the family moved to Carrickfergus, a town situated about ten miles from Belfast. The move proved difficult because St. Nicholas’ Church had just lost its revered rector and could not agree on the nomination of his successor. John MacNeice arrived as the bishop’s man, resented by a community that had not been consulted on his selection. Although he offered to withdraw if that was the bishop’s wish, John MacNeice would not bow of his own accord to the campaign for his resignation. In time, the community came to accept its new rector, who never wavered in his mission.
If Jon Stallworthy dwells on these events surrounding Louis MacNeice’s birth, it is because he wishes to show the parlous conditions in which the young Louis would develop a strength of character that rivaled that of his father. Although Louis never felt his father’s religious vocation, there was a solid core of integrity and fortitude that stood him well in trying conditions and drew support from other men of integrity, such as Professor E. R. Dodds, who became MacNeice’s literary executor and biographer. (Stallworthy took up the task after Dodds’s death.)
Louis’ mother had given birth to a Down’s syndrome son, Willie, and the consequences left her so mentally unstable that she would eventually have to be institutionalized. Along with his sister Elizabeth, Louis suffered through a succession of eccentric and sometimes cruel servants—some Catholic and some Protestant—who gave him an early taste of the warring sides of Irish culture and tested his intrepid character to the limit. He responded with a vivid imagination—at the age of four writing a precocious letter to his sister to invite her to run away with him on a raft, which would have a watchtower and a fort, heaps of ammunition, and a sleeping place for her beside the stoves, he promised. There would be plenty of provisions for their trek into the interior of North America—an exciting journey complete with lions howling at night. Louis planned to disguise himself in an Indian suit, and he was writing to his sister to give her time to design her own suitable costume.
It is one of the great pleasures of this biography that Stallworthy quotes such letters in full and reproduces them in facsimile, so that Louis’ childish scrawl and his concluding line of x’s and o’s, which forms a border at the bottom of the letter, render the feel of the documents the biographer has consulted. Throughout the biography, Stallworthy provides such access to his primary sources. As much as possible, he allows his subject to speak in his own charming, rugged voice. This approach makes for a leisurely biography. Most contemporary biographers take a much brisker attitude toward documents, quoting only snippets. Yet with MacNeice, copious quotation works well, because his style is so much the man and because MacNeice, although a recognized genius of his generation, has been overshadowed by fellow poets such as W. H. Auden and Stephen Spender. His words need to be surveyed at some length, and an image of him and his world built up page by page. (Stallworthy’s publisher has opted for an unusually large number of photographs, which are not merely inserted by sections but rather appear as part of the narrative.)
MacNeice began to discover his vocation as a poet during his school years. He won a classics scholarship to Marlborough, a prestigious public school (the English term for private schools) and began to associate with schoolmates such as Anthony Blunt, later to become an important art historian and a Communist spy. As a way of marking his new identity, MacNeice dropped the name Frederick (he had been called Freddie as a child) and signed himself Louis in letters to his father.
"Louis" proved to be a high-spirited boy, occasionally getting in spots of trouble, yet always righting himself by performing at the very highest levels. This was a pattern that would also mark his adult life as poet and writer for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). He did well in institutions, yet he was not an institution man. He married twice, yet he also strayed with other women. He had a most sober sense of reality and responsibility, yet he was a prodigious drinker, sometimes going days without taking any food. There was always a spirit that broke through societal restraints, good breeding, and proper form, yet MacNeice always returned to his obligations, trying to be a good son, not just a wayward poet, a good husband, not just a philandering rogue. These tensions in his character, Stallworthy implies, grew out of...
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