Louis MacNeice 1907-1963
(Full name Frederick Louis MacNeice; also wrote under the pseudonym of Louis Malone) Irish poet, playwright, translator, and critic.
A member of the influential 1930s group of poets collectively referred to as the “MacSpaunday” poets—an acronym derived from the names of MacNeice, Stephen Spender, W. H. Auden, and C. Day Lewis—MacNeice is best known for verse in which he examines social concerns and the complexities and contradictions of human existence. Envisioning the poet as an extension of the common individual, MacNeice often combined colloquial speech, irony, experimental meters, lyrical verse, and vivid descriptions to universalize the everyday experiences of life. Contemporary Irish writers including Derek Mahon, Michael Longley, Patrick Kavanaugh, Seamus Heaney, and Tom Paulin, laud MacNeice's lasting influence on Irish poetry.
MacNeice was born on September 12, 1907, in Belfast, Ireland. He spent his early childhood in Carrickfergus, a village north of Belfast, where his father was rector of an Anglican church. MacNeice's mother died when he was only six, and shortly thereafter he was sent away to England for his schooling. He attended Malborough College, and then Oxford, where he studied Greek, Latin, and Philosophy. While attending Oxford, MacNeice first met Auden, then an aspiring poet. He also met Mary Ezra, whom he married in 1930, on the eve of his graduation. In 1934 his first child was born, a son named Dan; the following year Mary left MacNeice and their child for another man. MacNeice left Birmingham, where he had a teaching position, and relocated to London in 1936. Surrounded by the influence of Auden, Day Lewis, and Spender, MacNeice wrote poetry and plays, and worked on translations until 1940, when he moved to America—partly because of World War II and partly because of his infatuation with American writer Eleanor Clark. His feelings for Clark were not returned and MacNeice wanted to be a part of the war effort, so he returned to London in 1941. He attempted to enlist in the navy but was denied for health reasons; therefore, he began working for the BBC, a job he retained for the rest of his life. In 1942 he married Hedli Anderson, a singer with the Group Theatre and in 1943 they had a daughter. In 1963 MacNeice became ill after recording sound effects in a mine shaft for his radio play Persons from Porlock (1963). He contracted pneumonia and died on September 3, 1963, a few weeks before The Burning Perch, his final poetry volume, was released.
Major Poetic Works
The poems in MacNeice's first collection, Blind Fireworks (1929), center on childhood experiences and reveal his faculty for striking imagery and diverse stanzaic forms. His second volume, Poems (1935), helped establish him as one of the most promising poets of the 1930s. In Poems, which was accepted by T. S. Eliot for the publishing firm of Faber & Faber, MacNeice comments on contemporary social and political issues from an aloof, ironic perspective. In the collaboration Letters from Iceland (1937), MacNeice and Auden blend travel poems and prose with light verse to recount their adventures in Iceland, as well as their lives and homelands. The Earth Compels (1938) focuses on the pain and betrayal of his first marriage. Autumn Journal (1939) which many critics consider his most ambitious work, documents in impressionistic verse MacNeice's observations of personal and political events of the late 1930s, while weaving memories of childhood, education, marriage, family, and travel. MacNeice's poems embrace love again in The Last Ditch, (1940)—which was dedicated to Eleanor Clark—and Springboard (1944) and The Revenant (written 1942; published 1975)—both written for Hedli. MacNeice's later work is marked by a renewed vitality of form, yet a darker outlook. In Visitations (1957), Solstices (1961), and The Burning Perch, MacNeice ruminates on death, ponders the end of love and ambition, and laments the debasement of the spirit in hostile situations.
MacNeice is admired for his ability to capture the specifics of time and space with cinematic imagery, economic form, lively rhythms, and inventive language. Most observers praise the musical meter and form of his poems, though a handful maintain that MacNeice's experiments with classic meter are jarring and difficult to follow. Many of MacNeice's contemporary critics faulted his lack of definitive direction and the seemingly paradoxical images in his poems—poems of that time were expected to convey a certain feeling or unambiguous message, and MacNeice's poems focus on his disorientation, mixed feelings for his homeland, agnostic ponderings, and his bewilderment over life. Many modern scholars, when appraising these same traits, applaud MacNeice's candor for illuminating the confusions and irresolvable issues that people endure. In evaluating MacNeice's honest and direct approach, Peter McDonald has suggested that MacNeice's poetry “provides an example of ‘a living language’ that can exercise the posterity represented by subsequent poets: in Northern Irish poetry alone, the work of Mahon, Longley and Paul Muldoon has responded at deep levels to MacNeice's artistic example and impetus.”