Louis MacNeice MacNeice, Louis - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Critical Reception

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.”

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

Blind Fireworks 1929

Poems 1935

The Earth Compels: Poems 1938

Autumn Journal 1939

The Last Ditch 1940

Selected Poems 1940

Plant and Phantom 1941

Springboard: Poems, 1941-1944 1944

Holes in the Sky: Poems, 1944-1947 1948

Collected Poems, 1925-1948 1949

Ten Burnt Offerings 1952

Autumn Sequel: A Rhetorical Poem 1954

The Other Wing 1954

Visitations 1957

Eighty-five Poems 1959

Solstices 1961

The Burning Perch 1963

Round the Corner 1963

The Revenant: A Song Cycle for Hedli Anderson 1975

Selected Poems [edited by Michael Longley] 1989

The Agamemnon of Aeschylus [translator] (play) 1937

Letters From Iceland [with W. H. Auden] (poems, essays, and letters) 1937

Out of the Picture: A Play in Two Acts (play) 1937

Station Bell (play) 1937

I Crossed the Minch (prose) 1938

Modern Poetry: A Personal Essay (essays and criticism) 1938

Zoo (prose) 1938

The Poetry of W. B. Yeats (criticism) 1941

Christopher Columbus (radio play) 1942

He Had a Date (radio play) 1944

Sunbeams in His Hat (radio play) 1944

The Dark Tower (radio play) 1946

Enter Caesar (radio play) 1946

Goethe's Faust [translator] (radio play) 1949

The Queen of Air and Darkness (radio play) 1949

Prisoner's Progress (radio play) 1954

The Waves (radio play) 1955

Traitors in Our Way (play) 1957

East of the Sun and West of the Moon (radio play) 1959

They Met on Good Friday (radio play) 1959

The Administrator (radio play) 1961

The Mad Islands (radio play) 1962

Persons from Porlock (radio play) 1963

The Strings Are False: An Unfinished Autobiography (autobiography) 1965

Varieties of Parable (lectures) 1965

One for the Grave: A Modern Morality Play (play) 1966

Eamon Grennan (essay date 1981)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Grennan, Eamon. “In a Topographical Frame: Ireland in the Poetry of Louis MacNeice.” In Facing the Music: Irish Poetry in the Twentieth Century, pp. 192-207. Omaha: Creighton University Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, which was originally written in 1981, Grennan analyzes the complex emotions in MacNeice's poetry about Ireland. Grennan notes that these poems contain a mixture of apprehension, love, nostalgia, distrust, and appreciation for Ireland's natural beauty.]

                                                                                                              That we were born
Here, not there, is a chance but a chance we took
And would not have it otherwise.
I cannot deny my past to which my self is wed.

That Louis MacNeice is an Irish poet is a fact his critical commentators do not ignore. Mostly, however, reference to the fact is of an incidental kind and tells us little about the poetry itself or about the nature and importance of MacNeice's relationship with Ireland.1 Terence Brown's comment on MacNeice's exile from his own country may, in fact, be the most revealing of all such comments: “exile from Ireland left him … a stranger everywhere.”2 My purpose in the present essay is to concentrate upon the Irish dimension in the poetry, but in order to examine the part MacNeice's varied response to Ireland plays in his work, the effect his relationship with his country has on his verse and on what might be called his poetic identity, that sense of the self emerging out of the poems. MacNeice's friend John Hilton once sent a telegram to the poet's parents which, because of a clerical error, read “Vouch for Louis' nationality.”3 What he had actually written was “Vouch for Louis' rationality,” but as far as MacNeice as poet is concerned the mistake contains a truth which I hope will be usefully illuminated by the end of this essay.


Apart from his half-humorous claim to be descended from Conor MacNessa, MacNeice himself often reiterates the importance to his work of Ireland and things Irish.4 First among the things that “conditioned my poetry” he placed “having been brought up in the North of Ireland”;5 his very last radio talk was about his childhood in Carrickfergus;6 and he began a late unfinished autobiography with biblical gravitas: “In the beginning was the Irish rain.”7 While MacNeice spent most of his working life outside Ireland, and while the poems with an explicitly Irish subject matter or setting are comparatively few in number, I would nonetheless argue that these poems and the experience they contain comprise a most important feature of MacNeice's work. They compose in outline a sort of allegorical autobiography of MacNeice's poetic identity, honestly if often obliquely keeping pace with his life.

If MacNeice's world were to be seen in eschatological terms, its heaven and its hell would be located in Ireland.8 Metaphorically, Ireland represents ecstatic emancipation and dreadful damnation, a spiritual dialectic MacNeice cannot resolve in any simple way. When fused with his childhood, the country becomes a kind of paradise lost elegiacally recalled by the poet bound to the purgatorial experience of time. Such an emblematic design, of course, over-simplifies the complex variety of MacNeice's career as a poet, but may be defended as a means of learning something about the importance of one particular aspect of his poetry.

As far as its social and political realities were concerned, Ireland was from very early on a demonic place in MacNeice's eyes. As a child he saw Belfast as “The city of smoke and dust.”9 It impressed him as being “essentially evil … grey, wet, repellent, and its inhabitants dour, rude, and callous.”10 The mill girls frightened him and he feared the men lounging and spitting on street corners, waiting for the pubs to open. Violence is endemic in this society, a social, sectarian, and sexual violence that hardens the realities of living into petrified mockeries of themselves. In an early poem, “Belfast,” the poet's horror transmogrifies the city into a wasteland: a chapel is “a cave of gloom,” the sea is “salt carrion water,” the ship-yard gantries “like crucifixes.”11 Life freezes into the frightening postures of nightmare, people stiffen into inanimate objects (a man is made of basalt and mica, a catholic woman is “shipwrecked … before the garish virgin”), and even the ordinary joys of life are “harsh attempts at buyable beauty.” This repulsive violence infects life at its cosmic and human sources: “The sun goes down with a banging of Orange drums,” and “the male kind murders each its woman.” Beyond the “mother-city” the whole North is an equally nightmarish place, a “country of cowled and haunted faces.” In another poem he sees Belfast (“devout and profane and hard”) in a similar way, a place where the benign juices of life have stopped flowing (“country of callous lava cooled to stone”), a frozen wasteland where even time itself is a solid and solidifying object:

Time punched with holes like a steel sheet, time
Hardening the faces, veneering with a grey and speckled rime
The faces under the shawls and caps.

(“Valediction,” 52)

Such imagery turns MacNeice's North into something like Dante's Hell, a place petrified in history, with no outlets channeled by redeeming time. Here the expectation endures “That Casement would land at the pier / With a sword and a horde of rebels,” and here too “the voodoo of Orange bands” draws “an iron net through darkest Ulster” (Autumn Journal, in CP, 31-2). Historical paralysis is mirrored in social immobility, a terrible inability to change:

And the North where I was a boy,
          Is still the North, veneered with the grime of Glasgow,
Thousands of men whom nobody will employ
          Standing at the corners, coughing.


In this unalterable hell of perfect opposites, eternal antagonisms achieve an exquisite, ridiculous equilibrium:

Up the Rebels, To Hell with the Pope,
          And God Save—as you prefer—the King or Ireland.


This infernal immobilising of history is not confined to the North. In MacNeice's eyes the rest of Ireland is also subject to an equivalent corruption of spirit. The important and sufficient cause is that “history never dies, / At any rate in Ireland, arson and murder are legacies” (“Valediction,” 52). Historical paralysis, which drives MacNeice away as it drives his persona Ryan (in “Eclogue from Iceland”) into even more melodramatic exile, is rooted in the fact that Ireland is “a nation / Built upon violence and morose vendettas” (41). Here in Ryan's Dantean vision of political hell is the curse of history at a violent standstill: “My diehard countrymen like drayhorses / Drag their ruin behind them.” What repels MacNeice, as it does Ryan, is the saturation of historical time by mindless, bloody repetition. The poet fastens our attention to this by a recurrent imagery of metal and stone, of inanimation. History is an economic treadmill (“They make their Ulster linen from foreign lint / And the money that comes in goes out to make more money,” AJ [Autumn Journal], 133) and, socially, a vicious circle:

A city built upon mud;
A city built upon profit;
Free speech nipped in the bud,
The minority always guilty.


What language and rhythm insist on here is a changeless, unchangeable condition, a non-democratic status quo.

The brute, impenetrable primitivism of the peasant and the cultural sentimentality of the Irish middle classes complete MacNeice's picture of Ireland as an infernal wasteland. By birth and upbringing he is cut off from the peasantry, from the “country of cowled and haunted faces.” His persona Ryan bitterly calls up

Those eyes which hang in the northern mist, the brute
Stare of stupidity and hate, the most
Primitive and false of oracles.


From this negative perspective MacNeice understands the peasant as a sensibility suspended in time, a fossilised malevolence infecting historical time with its hate and stupidity. The almost inchoate opening of “Valediction” strikes the same note of speechless terror:

Died by gunshot under borrowed pennons,
Sniped from the wet gorse and taken by the limp fins
And slung like a dead seal in a bog-hole, beaten up
By peasants with long lips and the whiskey-drinker's cough.


Animal roughness translates the dead man into mere heavy flesh, his murderers into mindless automata, extensions of a landscape that has nothing to do with the more humane possibilities of historical time.

At the opposite extreme to this brutish, mindless malevolence is Irish cultural sentimentality (mainly in the South). It, too, however, is an important element in MacNeice's negative vision of Ireland. For cultural sentimentality also immobilises history, congealing the past into vulgar, outmoded icons of artificial piety, “the trademarks of a hound and a round tower, / … Irish glamour … sham Celtic crosses … souvenirs / Of green marble or black bog-oak” (53). Infecting the historical present with a plastic sentimentalised version of the past, cultural vulgarity draws from MacNeice a stinging denunciation: “Ireland is hooey, Ireland is / A gallery of fake tapestries” (52). He castigates the complacency that will, in spite of the tragedy of emigration, “Take credit for our sanctity, our heroism,” those “accepted names” that are only gilded replicas of the qualities they signify. His intense antipathy to ethnic and national complacency fuels his outburst against “Your drums and your dolled-up virgins and your ignorant dead” (54). What he rejects is frozen time, the constricting to a tiny repertoire of repeated gestures the infinite variety of human and historical possibility. In order to escape this wasteland and restore himself to a more human and humane relationship with historical time, in order not to “have my baby-clothes my shroud” (53), he chooses exile, fluency in time and space, as his only chance of holding onto his own soul.

The poems from which I have been quoting belong mostly to the Thirties. Corresponding to MacNeice's most actively ‘political’ period, they show one aspect, perhaps a fundamental one, of his need to feel in touch with history. He says of being in Galway when war broke out in 1939, “As soon as I heard … of the outbreak of war, Galway became unreal.”12 And elsewhere he tells us that in 1940 he left America to return to a war-time England because “I thought I was missing History.”13 From such a perspective it seems natural enough that certain aspects of Ireland should represent a hell from which he must escape to the fluent historical process of life in England. At the same time MacNeice's view of Ireland was never one of simple rejection. Bitterly negative as some of his feelings were, they were complicated by an intense love for the landscape of the country. Paralleling his rejection is a broad embrace of all that is free of history and time—the simple asocial and apolitical fact of space. Seen through this lens Ireland becomes a paradise, the delights of which MacNeice never tires of naming and celebrating.

This visionary tendency predates the poetry. As a child, in order to protect himself against the more unpleasant aspects of his existence, MacNeice was in the habit of constructing “various dream worlds,” the first of which was “the West of Ireland.”14 Even the name ‘Connemara’ “seemed too rich for any ordinary place.” What the summoned landscape gives him is a freedom that is at once imaginative and sensual, a place of exuberant generosity and spiritual emancipation:

It appeared to be a country of windswept open spaces and mountains blazing with whins and seas that were never quiet, with drowned palaces beneath them, and seals and eagles and turf smoke and cottagers who were always laughing and who gave you milk when you asked for a glass of water.

Such an epiphanal sense of freedom and perpetuity also rewards his first actual glimpse of the Atlantic, fulfilling the imaginary pattern his dreams had composed. It was, he says, the “biggest thing this side of God,” brimming with a sense of “infinite possibility” and “eternity.”15

Throughout his life and in different parts of Ireland he was to rediscover this ecstatic freedom in the Irish landscape. He describes, for example, a trip to Dublin from England just after the birth of his first child: “I felt I was born again, to be able to go to Dublin on my own. Dodds and I walked up the Wicklow mountains and, as I looked down on Dublin Bay, I felt that the world was open.”16 Here the factual sensation of release verges on the mystical (“born again”), turning the landscape into an occasion of near paradisal release; as he pursues the memory, MacNeice's style rises in lyrical intensity to match the experience: “I was wearing citified suede shoes and finding them afterwards soaked and scratched by heather had a sense of having cut loose; a great wild star of space was smashed in the hot-house window.”

The poems themselves everywhere testify to this felt sense of emancipation in the Irish landscape, which they render in approximate but unambiguously paradisal terms. And as the infernal aspects of Ireland are marked by images of mechanical petrifaction, paralysis and immobility, the images that express his paradisal version of the same place are naturally fluent, free, and sensually immediate. In a life constricted by “the monotony of fear” it is in his experience of the Irish landscape that MacNeice finds an occasional, precious freedom:

For during a tiny portion of our lives we are not in trains,
The idol living for a moment, not muscle-bound
But walking freely through the slanting rain,
Its ankles wet, its grimace relaxed again.

(“Train to Dublin,” 27)

This sense of freedom anchors a metaphysical idea in physical phenomena, releasing MacNeice's imagination into gestures of expansive liberality:

I give you the disproportion between labour spent
And joy at random; the laughter of the Galway sea
Juggling with spars and bones irresponsibly.


Granting him in the same poem a freedom at once child-like (“the toy Liffey”), clownish (“irresponsibility”), and visionary (“the vast gulls”), his beloved sea springs him from the dutiful imperatives of history into the timeless, ecstatically contradictory domain of myth. From a world in which history is too much and too unalterably with us, he is released into one where history hardly exists at all. Clonmacnoise, site of the famous monastery, is a fitting emblem for this counterpoint of history and landscape, being “A huddle of tombs and ruins of anonymous men / Above the Shannon dreaming in the quiet rain.”17

From the vantage point of his delight in landscape MacNeice often translates history into a dynamics of pure sensation:

I give you the smell of Norman stone, the squelch
Of bog beneath your boots, the red bog-grass,
The vivid chequer of the Antrim hills, the trough of dark
Golden water for the carthorses, the brass
Belt of serene sun upon the lough.


Experience in this realm is fluent: hard Norman stone becomes subtle smell; the bog, elsewhere a murderous place, is merely the sound and sensation of boots sinking into its softness, the colour of its vegetation. Metal imagery is purged of its inimical associations, so water is richly golden and the lough's “brass belt” is only the benevolent serenity of sunlight. All the senses come to involuntary ecstatic life in this paradise of ordinary pleasures made extraordinary by the poet's vividness of apprehension:

Fuchsia and ragweed and the distant hills...

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Michael Kirkham (essay date summer 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Kirkham, Michael. “Louis MacNeice's Poetry of Ambivalence.” University of Toronto Quarterly 56, no. 4 (summer 1987): 540-56.

[In the following essay, Kirkham argues that MacNeice's poems expertly shed light on the insecurities and confusions inherent to daily life. Kirkham further follows this theme throughout the stages of MacNeice's life and career.]

‘MacSpaunday,’ a satirical acronym formed from the names MacNeice, Spender, Auden, and Day Lewis, was Roy Campbell's label for the group of poets who dominated the English literary scene in the 1930s and whose work, in the foreshortening perspective of literary history, has been taken to be not only the...

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Edna Longley (essay date summer 1988)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Longley, Edna. “MacNeice and After.” Poetry Review 78, no. 2 (summer 1988): 6-10.

[In the following essay, Longley addresses how MacNeice's structuring and arrangement of poetry has evolved over the course of his career, noting that MacNeice experimented with classic form and focused on the change and unrest in life.]

One day, I dream, there will be books with titles like The MacNeice Generation, Thirties Poets—The MacNeice Group, MacNeice and After. To turn the tables is not to deny Auden's eminence—only his pre-eminence. Auden's role in English cultural history, supported then and now by the Auden groupies, distorts the aesthetic history of the...

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Ross Skelton (essay date July-August 1989)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Skelton, Ross. “Threads & Strands: Louis MacNeice, Freud, Lacan.” Encounter 73, no. 2 (July-August 1989): 55-7.

[In the following essay, Skelton psychoanalyzes the recurring themes of threads, wires, and trains in MacNeice's poetry. Skelton asserts that these repeating images cannot be interpreted solely by using Freudian subconscious representation theories; interpretation must be balanced with Jacques Lacan's idea of purposeful, selective symbolism.]

In recent times the psychoanalytic perspective in literature has been uncomfortably poised between the old Freudian reductionism and the new “punning algebra” of Jacques Lacan. It seems that we have...

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John Pikoulis (essay date spring-summer 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Pikoulis, John. “Louis MacNeice in the Thirties: The Minute after the Minute after the Minute after.” Irish University Review 21, no. 1 (spring-summer 1991): 130-46.

[In the following essay, Pikoulis surveys the poems written by MacNeice in the 1930s, observing that they contain numerous uses of alliteration, follow a rhythmical and repetitive syntax, and incorporate themes of life, Christianity, and humanity's purpose.]

Louis MacNeice wrote very consciously at the end of an era. “We shall go down like palaeolithic man / Before some new Ice Age or Genghiz Khan,” he predicts in “An Eclogue for Christmas”; “It is time for some new coinage, people...

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John Whitehead (essay date 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Whitehead, John. “Chapter Seven” and “Chapter Twelve.” In A Commentary on the Poetry of W. H. Auden, C. Day Lewis, Louis MacNeice, and Stephen Spender, pp. 80-7; 134-42. Lewiston, N.Y.: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1992.

[In the first excerpt below, Whitehead describes Out of the Picture as a collection of poems with diverse themes and rhythms, and regards The Earth Compels as strongly influenced by MacNeice's wife Mary, who abandoned him and his son. In the second excerpt, he explores MacNeice's pre-war poems in The Last Ditch and Plant and Phantom—poems that were largely written in America—and the poems he wrote during World War II that are...

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Alan Peacock (essay date 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Peacock, Alan. “Received Religion and Secular Vision: MacNeice and Kavanagh.” In Irish Writers and Religion, edited by Robert Welch, pp. 148-68. Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire: Colin Smythe, 1992.

[In the following excerpt, Peacock compares MacNeice's poetry with that of the classical Roman poet Horace, noting the thematic similarities of agnosticism and man's evanescent existence.]

Louis MacNeice was never a flag-bearer for any wave of technical innovation in poetry; in his ideas he avoided extremes; and his subject-matter is often everyday, urban and based on observations and impressions which are not obviously outside the scope of anyone's intelligent...

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Jonathan Hufstader (essay date July 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Hufstader, Jonathan. “MacNeice's Critic Jailed in the Mind.” Essays in Criticism 44, no. 3 (July 1994): 190-212.

[In the following essay, Hufstader provides an in-depth study of the poetic and journalistic aspects of Autumn Journal and praises MacNeice for admitting ignorance instead of posturing and feigning understanding of the tumultuous events that unfold around him.]

From the summer of 1938 to the following January, Louis MacNeice composed Autumn Journal, a long poetic reflection on both the events of the day (especially the Munich crisis and the Spanish Civil War) and those of his own life (his attempt to begin again after his first...

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Christina Hunt Mahony (essay date autumn-winter 1995)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Mahony, Christina Hunt. “London Meets Laredo, a Nightmare: Louis MacNeice's Irish War.” Irish University Review 25, no. 2 (autumn-winter 1995): 204-14.

[In the following essay, Mahony interprets MacNeice's Holes in the Sky as reflecting the poet's reaction to and conflicting emotions concerning World War II. Mahony pays particular attention to the mood and theme of “The Streets of Laredo” and gauges public reception of MacNeice's rendition and other versions of this ballad.]

In 1948 the British edition of Louis MacNeice's Holes in the Sky was published. It was his first volume of poetry to appear after the war, and his reviewers were...

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Steve Ellis (essay date 1998)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Ellis, Steve. “Dante and Louis MacNeice: A Sequel to the Commedia.” In Dante's Modern Afterlife: Reception and Response from Blake to Heaney, edited by Nick Havely, pp. 128-39. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Ellis attributes the form, content, and inspiration of MacNeice's Autumn Sequel to Dante's Inferno, James Joyce's Ulysses, and MacNeice's own Autumn Journal.]

The revival of interest in Louis MacNeice's work in the last fifteen years or so has not extended to any discussion of his interest in the poetry of Dante. Dante is, however, present both near the beginning and at the end of...

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Jon Stallworthy (essay date 1998)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Stallworthy, Jon. “Louis and the Women.” In Louis MacNeice and His Influence, edited by Kathleen Devine and Alan J. Peacock, pp. 68-84. Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire: Colin Smythe, 1998.

[In the following essay, Stallworthy admits that MacNeice's romantic loves influenced his poetry, yet maintains that the two strongest loves that appear in his poems are his love for his mother and his love of Ireland.]

Louis MacNeice loved women, and women loved MacNeice. We need no ghost from the grave to tell us that, but I want to suggest that we do need a ghost to lead us back into the heart of his darkness, the mystery at the heart of his life and work.


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Peter McDonald (essay date 2001)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: McDonald, Peter. “Louis MacNeice: The Burning Perch.” In A Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry, edited by Neil Roberts, pp. 491-99. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2001.

[In the following essay, McDonald appraises the poems collected in The Burning Perch, MacNeice's last collection. McDonald states the poems are filled with images of death, birth, the past, the future, and social concerns.]

The Burning Perch was published in 1963, a matter of weeks after Louis MacNeice's death at the age of fifty-five. It was an early death, and at the time of writing this volume MacNeice can have had little notion that it would be his last; indeed, the...

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Peter McDonald (essay date 2003)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: McDonald, Peter. “Louis MacNeice: Irony and Responsibility.” In The Cambridge Companion to Contemporary Irish Poetry, edited by Matthew Campbell, pp. 59-75. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

[In the following essay, McDonald provides an overview of MacNeice's life and career and examines the conflicting images in his poems that represent the emotional, personal, and political aspects of his life.]

In an uncollected poem of 1995, ‘MacNeice's London’, Derek Mahon imagines Louis MacNeice in wartime, in ‘A bunker of civilised sound, / A BBC studio’:


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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Thwaite, Anthony. “Memories of Rothwell House.” Poetry Review 78, no. 2 (summer 1988): 11-13.

A BBC associate recalls his impressions of MacNeice, personally and professionally.


Brearton, Fran. “Louis MacNeice: Between Two Wars.” In The Great War in Irish Poetry: W. B. Yeats to Michael Longley, pp. 116-150. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Explores MacNeice's life and works prior to World War II and centers on the conflicting emotions and loyalties felt by MacNeice due to his Irish-English heritage.

Brown, Richard Danson. “‘Your...

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