Louis MacNeice World Literature Analysis
Louis MacNeice is probably best known for his friendship and poetic collaborations with Auden, Spender, and Day Lewis. These poets reacted against the so-called elitist and metaphysical themes of Eliot and Pound and instead supported, in different degrees and in different ways, the socialist and Marxist movements of that time.
MacNeice’s poetry lacks the hard brilliance of Eliot at his best and tends toward a conversational tone and looser rhythms, sometimes showing the influence of the jazz rhythms popular at the time. Some criticize his longer poems for being perhaps too commonplace, too journalistic. For example, the long poem Autumn Journal is often simply a diary in verse. MacNeice, however, felt that his personal feelings and opinions were valid material for poetry. Perhaps this conviction is part of his contribution to the thematic range of modern poetry.
On the other hand, MacNeice is not a carbon copy of any of the other poets of his day. He was never as enthusiastic about Marxism as Spender and Auden, and his poetry is less formal than that of Day Lewis. He called his own book on poetry a plea for impure poetry. He believed that too strong an emphasis on form makes poetry irrelevant to life, but that poetry with too strong an influence on content ceases to be poetry. The poet is neither a pure entertainer nor a propagandist. He or she should be, instead, a conscience for the community.
MacNeice, as a poet, lives up to such standards. He gathered his subject matter from the concerns of common men and women, and his images came from what people see about them. Often he wrote of the Irish peasants, though he admits to idealizing them. He tended to contrast the “real” life of work and family with the “artificial” life of the intellectual. In walking this tightrope between subject and form, he tried to find the form within the subject.
Unlike Auden and Spender, he did not quite trust Marxist solutions to the problems of the 1930’s. He believed that comradeship was a socialist substitute for romance and that in extremes it led to an idealization of homosexuality.
MacNeice’s poetry up to 1942 tended to revolve around a dream, if not an ideal, of a satisfactory society. Being a classical scholar, he seems to have had the Greek city-state as a model: In the Greek city-state the poet is seen as the person who, by his reflective ability and imaginative insight, acts as the guide for humane community policy. The poet, then, must write about politics and human relations but not neglect topics that befit a higher civilization: beauty, love, entertainment, and the life of the intellect.
After 1945, his poetry became more formal and less conversational. He performed dazzling formal maneuvers with rhythm, alliteration, rhyme, and the cross-relationships of imagery. In addition to his usual interests in politics and love, his subject matter began to deal with death and religion. It is almost as if he had become less a commentator and more a seer and prophet, though he would never have used such names to describe himself. He still wrote, after 1945, long poems of social commentary. In 1954, he published Autumn Sequel: A Rhetorical Poem in XXVI Cantos, a sequel to Autumn Journal. The later collection is about the same length as the previous one and deals with many of the same topics. The latter poem, however, is written in a rather strict terza rima, whereas the former uses a rather loose approximation of the form.
MacNeice, unlike many writers of serious literature, was long involved in a new kind of writing, the radio script. The advent of television in the early 1950’s almost totally doomed this form of writing. MacNeice quickly became a master of this form after being hired by the BBC in 1941. He understood that a play without a stage or any visual elements had to use the conventions of radio drama to communicate to a listener. He knew that every visual image had to exist in the words and that any dialogue had to immediately identify the characters. His first complete effort was a rousing success. His most celebrated radio play is probably The Dark Tower (pb. 1947), based broadly on the Robert Browning poem. In the introduction to this drama, MacNeice defended the parable play as a viable form, maintaining that pure realism was almost finished, and that even works with a realistic surface like Franz Kafka’s Der Prozess (1925; The Trial, 1937), or Thomas Mann’s Der Zauberberg (1924; The Magic Mountain, 1927), were valued for their symbolic core rather than for their realism.
All in all, MacNeice fares better when one reads large amounts of his work; the quality of his verse is more or less constant. His short poems are neatly and cleverly structured. His long poems, with the exception of a few early ones, are engrossing and rhythmical. In all his work he followed what he himself preached to other poets: Be neither an elitist, sitting in the corner weaving aesthetic fancies, nor a propagandist, selling to one’s readers a prefabricated dogma.
“The Sunlight on the Garden”
First published: 1937 (collected in Poems, 1937)
Type of work: Poem
The poem says that nothing can save the beauty of a moment.
“The Sunlight on the Garden,” published in the collection Poems, is one of MacNeice’s earlier...
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