MacNeice, Louis 1907–1963
Irish-born English poet, Classical scholar, and translator.
[Louis MacNeice] has cultivated a deliberately ironical dry flatness of statement which can be most effective in poetry of social comment or urban observation (as in 'Sunday Morning', 'Morning Sun' and 'Birmingham'). Like Day Lewis, he lacks the burning centre, but he never sounds Victorian, as Day Lewis sometimes does, and of the new elements brought into English poetry by the anti-romantic revolution he has deliberately selected the colloquial-ironical rather than the complex-metaphysical. A carefully controlled melancholy underlies much of his poetry; he has a sombre sense of modern life, of its tragi-comedies and futilities, and above all of the sadness that underlies all modern attempts to recapture, in memories of youth or by sudden emotion when listening to a street singer or watching a landscape, a sense of significance in daily living. His best poetry has always been fairly low-pressured, sardonic in a subdued manner; with an occasional burst of wild Celtic irony.
David Daiches, in his The Present Age in British Literature, Indiana University Press, 1958, pp. 51-2.
No one else of [MacNeice's] generation has raised common sense to such eminence, has turned it on so many areas of contemporary experience, has drawn such lucid and thoughtful conclusions by means of it. He has not Auden's large implications and penetration, but within his limits he is masterful. His loose, conversational idiom is in fact severely classical in structure, deliberately slangy as much of it is; it never means more than what it says, and never less. On the other hand, there is a certain breeziness that I find more and more irritating as I reread MacNeice, for it comes to seem the breeziness not only of the disillusioned intellectual, but of a rather patronizing superiority; it often seems that MacNeice could not have the attitudes that make his poems unless the world furnished him objects to contemplate at an uninvolved, somewhat disdainful distance from which he always, somehow, still manages to talk as though he were in the thick of things. Again, he inclines too much toward fashionable jargonizing which dates quickly, though it always seems timely and even prophetic at the time it is written….
MacNeice has been and is always well informed and readable, and he is an authentic master of the committed, noncommitted, ironic tone which has been passing with us for the true voice of twentieth-century man.
James Dickey, "Louis MacNeice" (1961), in his Babel to Byzantium (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968 by James Dickey), Farrar, Straus, 1968, pp. 152-54.
Many reviewers manifested a divided response to this collection [The Collected Poems of Louis MacNeice], an apparent conflict between heart and head, as if they privately harboured an affection for the poetry which, being unable to justify in critical terms, they were ashamed publicly to acknowledge. This dilemma seems to be associated with a refusal to face the self-evident fact that—occasional flashes apart—the quality of the poetry underwent a marked deterioration after the end of the War, a process that reached its nadir with Autumn Sequel (1954), which comprises a turgid fifth part of the whole collection. It was MacNeice's misfortune that the nature of his talent was such that, when the circumstances which had created the tensions necessary for its fullest expression altered, he was unable to adapt it to new conditions….
[If] even at his best, MacNeice's poetry may with some justification be called superficial, its conspicuous merit is...
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the very reverse of dullness. On the contrary, it is immediately and vividly attractive: anyone familiar with it retains permanently a ragbag of felicitous images…. His poetry is instantly accessible and gives the impression—however erroneous, for he seems to have been a complex person—of being the voice of the sensual man-in-the-street, easy-going, dog-loving, unheroic, a bit of a cad; delighting in the surfaces of things, resenting the War for disrupting his private life, wryly deploring the onset of middle age; suddenly, towards the end, afraid of death. He has a special place in the affection of his contemporaries, because—with no obvious bees in his bonnet, agnostic, politically uncommitted—he seemed to represent their everyday values and to a large extent to echo their private response to the intrusion of public events into their lives.
John Whitehead, "The Cad with the Golden Tongue," in Essays in Criticism, July, 1969, pp. 240-43.
What is there still to say about MacNeice?… [His] poems need no explicator, and they need no testimonials. His strength: a laconic truth-telling which sees the encroachments of disaster without revelling in the apocalypse….
His failing: a loquacity whose very skill meets too little resistance from what it treats of. This is what enfeebles "Autumn Sequel," sentimentalizes "The Kingdom," and even makes for longueurs in what is still a remarkable documentary, "Autumn Journal." MacNeice's command of the personal tone was unremitting, with none of that sly cant about a "persona." His poems could say that he was ordinary, or agree that "This all sounds somewhat priggish," without priding themselves on their humility.
Christopher Ricks, "Authority in Poems," in The Southern Review, Vol. V, No. 1, Winter, 1969, pp. 203-15.
Much, no doubt, of MacNeice's nature, and possibly the greater part of his pose, is to be explained by the familiar pattern of the only son's rebellion against the family gods. And as these family gods were the figures of the Trinity, understood in terms of Low Church theology according to the worship of the Church of Ireland, and as the poet's father was a dignitary of that institution—albeit a provincial dignitary—MacNeice's attitude to formal Christianity was negatively crystallized from the start…. Yet for all MacNeice's contrived escapism (a cult which the poet maintained throughout his life, but which never proved successful because of his powerful analytic intellect, ready to "rip the edge off any ideal or dream"), he still feels his "debt to God" unrescinded….
[Aestheticism], an attitude developed by MacNeice as a gesture of revolt but which also corresponded with something indigenous to his temperament,… became his living and thinking pattern…. Poem after poem bears out [an] emotional responsiveness to color as the object not only of optical experience but as the stimulator of atmosphere and moods….
MacNeice's "aesthetic hedonism" sprang from an intelligence naturally sceptical and a temperament innately elegiac and despairing. Nothing in his poetry is more surprising than the fund of imagery, the wealth of words, the sensuous vividness of texture, expended on what is finally, in most cases, a negative point of view.
Derek Stanford, in his Stephen Spender, Louis MacNeice, Cecil Day Lewis ("Contemporary Writers in Christian Perspective"), Eerdmans, 1969, pp. 24-8.
[MacNeice has done] subtle interpretations of the ballad tradition. The full possibilities of MacNeice's technique of contrasting a modern viewpoint with an older, naive romanticism are realized in "The Streets of Laredo," a poem in which MacNeice imitates the surface form of the original to help establish and enrich the irony in his view of modern London. In imitating a sound pattern or a syntactic construction, MacNeice can recall a particular line of the cowboy ballad and its meaning and at the same time make a direct reference to some other literary work or historical fact. That is, a single line in MacNeice's poem can contain two allusions simultaneously; one of the allusions comes from the cowboy ballad by a simple imitation of surface form, the other from literature or history by direct reference. Not only does this process double the possibilities of poetic allusiveness, but the connection which is established between a portion of the folk ballad and some other literary text allows the two passages to interact and form a meaning related to, but significantly larger than, the explicit meaning of the MacNeice line in which they were joined. The result is that with extreme economy MacNeice can establish a complex network of reference and association for his poem and in the space of only forty lines can handle a difficult theme with extraordinary richness and subtlety.
John T. Irwin, "MacNeice, Auden, and the Art Ballad," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 11, No. 1, 1970 (© 1970 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), pp. 58-79.