Louis MacNeice was associated in the 1930’s with Stephen Spender and W. H. Auden and, like them, directed his poetry to recording, and lamenting, the contemporary, metropolitan scene and the breakdown of older values. MacNeice’s poems, published steadily since 1929, in recent years become more and more preoccupied with the past, the poet’s lost youth and, at times, his sense of having lost his freshness as a poet.
At his best, he succeeded in mingling the commonplace and even trivial with an ironically acute insight to produce a memorable portrait of the modern industrial society. The rather forlorn and wistful attempts of metropolitan man to achieve some satisfaction in a generally treadmill life were chronicled by MacNeice in tones of mild sympathy, more detachment and, sometimes, of condescension. The rhythms are very close to prose or speech, the rhyming is often deliberately banal in order to achieve a caustically comic effect, and, occasionally, doggerel is used to express something of the tired, cheapened quality of a wasteland society. One of his best poems is “Sunday Morning,” in which his coupling of the once-valued expanding heart of man and the newly banal, vulgar substitution of working with his car on a Sunday morning illustrates a typical kind of rhetoric as well as MacNeice’s sense of how the romantic ambitions of the previous, prewar generations have become cheapened and empty of anything but momentary and shallow diversion. Disillusionment is everywhere, but the poet maintains a detached, resigned pose most of the time. In the poem, the car is readied, and the weekenders speed to Hindhead, trying to recapture something of the past and hold firmly to it in the flow of time measured by dull days and dragging weeks. Life thus becomes escape from boredom, meaninglessness, and a march of time which only destroys old dreams. There is no escape.
While, especially in his poems of the 1930’s, MacNeice is often highly successful in expressing the sadness and wistful regret of modern men caught between two wars, his verse becomes increasingly tired itself, even boring, as the rhythms grow stale and prosaic or...
(The entire section is 881 words.)