Louis MacNeice Analysis

Other literary forms

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Although he was a poet first and foremost, Louis MacNeice (mak-NEES) published a number of important works in other genres. His only novel, Roundabout Way (1932), not very successful, was published under the pseudonym Louis Malone. MacNeice’s only other venture into fiction was a children’s book, The Penny That Rolled Away (1954), published in England as The Sixpence That Rolled Away.

An area in which he was no more prolific, but much more successful, was translation. The combination of his education in classics with his gifts as a poet led him to do a successful translation of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon in 1936. E. R. Dodds, an eminent classics professor at Oxford and literary executor of MacNeice’s estate, calls the translation “splendid” (Time Was Away, 1974, Terence Brown and Alec Reid, editors). W. B. Stanford agrees that in spite of the almost insurmountable difficulties of Aeschylus’s text, MacNeice succeeded in producing an eminently actable version, genuinely poetic, and generally faithful to the original. MacNeice’s translation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust: Eine Tragödie (pb. 1808, 1833; The Tragedy of Faust, 1823, 1838) for radio presented very different problems—in particular, his not knowing German. The radio medium itself also produced problems in terms of what the audience could follow. MacNeice collaborated with E. L. Stahl on the project, and on the whole it was successful. According to Stahl, MacNeice...

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(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Louis MacNeice is most notable as an exemplar of Socrates’ maxim that the unexamined life is not worth living. The major question surrounding his reputation is whether he ranks as a minor or a major poet, whether his poems show a progression of thought and technique or an essential similarity over the years. No one would deny that his craft, his mastery of prosody and verse forms, is of the highest order. Most critics agree that in his last three volumes of poems MacNeice took a new point of departure. Auden asserts in his memorial address for MacNeice (Time Was Away) that posterity will endorse his opinion that the later poems do advance, showing ever greater craftsmanship and intensity of feeling. Auden claims that of all his contemporaries, MacNeice was least guilty of “clever forgeries,” or dishonest poems. This honesty, combined with an ingrained temperamental skepticism, is at the root of both his major contributions to poetry and what some people see as his flaws. MacNeice is a philosophical poet, Auden says, without a specific body of beliefs, except for a fundamental sense of humanitas as a goal and standard of behavior. He is a harsh critic of general systems because he is always faithful to the complexity of reality.

MacNeice’s achievements as a poet are paradoxical: He combines an appeal to large audiences with highly learned allusions, and he focuses on everyday events and political issues while also exploring ultimate metaphysical questions. Most interesting is his transition from the 1930’s view that the poet is chiefly a communicator, almost a journalist, to the belief that poetry should operate on two levels, the real and the allegorical. It is these contradictory qualities, along with the literary-historical value of recording a thoughtful person’s ethical responses to the trials of modern life, that will ensure MacNeice’s poetry a lasting reputation.

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

What was the basis of Louis MacNeice’s concern about his “mixed Irish and British cultural inheritance”?

How relatively socialist was MacNeice with respect to his literary friends?

What has been lost in the virtual end of radio drama as practiced by MacNeice?

How does the form of “The Sunlight on the Garden” support its thesis?

Does MacNeice supply or suggest positive answers to the questions raised by “The British Museum Reading Room.”

Assess MacNeice’s success as his “community’s conscience.”


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Brown, Terence. Louis MacNeice: Sceptical Vision. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1975. Concerned with the themes in MacNeice’s poetry. Argues that the poet’s real contribution is as a proponent of creative skepticism. The result is a dependable, authoritative study. Contains a good bibliography and notes.

Brown, Terence, and Alec Reid, eds. Time Was Away: The World of Louis MacNeice. Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1974. A collection including personal tributes, reminiscences, and evaluations of MacNeice’s work. Several pieces are of interest, including one by MacNeice’s sister that contains personal biographical information. Other selections look at MacNeice’s Irishness, his poetry, and his reaction to his mother’s death. Includes W. H. Auden’s “Louis MacNeice: A Memorial Address.”

Devine, Kathleen, and Alan J. Peacock, eds. Louis MacNeice and His Influence. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Essays by leading experts on MacNeice’s work examine the range and depth of his achievement, including his influence on Michael Longley, Derek Mahon, Seamus Heaney, and Paul Muldoon. Includes bibliographical references and index.

Longley, Edna. Louis MacNeice: A Study. London: Faber & Faber, 1988. The first complete study after MacNeice’s death. Explores the dramatic nature of MacNeice’s...

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