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The Legacy of Louis MacNeice

Louis MacNeice, who died in London September 3 at the age of 55, spent a good portion of his later poetical career avoiding some of the melodramatic excesses of diction that first typified his fame. Sometimes he chose bare statement. At other times, he was a poet of wit and ingenuity, a parodist who spoke to be ironic and who seemed compelled to describe all experience obliquely, occasionally parodying himself, and usually avoiding direct iambic movement, or using it only to make a mockery of it.

MacNeice believed poets should be articulate about a wide range of human experience. He was a “modernist”who alternated between poems of private sensibility and public subject matter during nearly all of his career, but he did not limit himself as to methods, and he was not afraid of making and then publishing his mistakes. If so few of his first lines are memorable in the way that some modern poets have sought to make initial reverberations, it was partly because he did not like to court the Apocalypse (a characteristic theme is embodied in the title to an early poem, “Homage to Cliches”), and partly because nearly all his best poems are either playful or else they make rigorous use of very ordinary language—something which many modern poets choose to avoid.

MacNeice, a gifted and skillful translator of Goethe and the classical poets, could often seem as urbane as are most English literary journalists, but what is surprising in his case is that so much of what was once considered chic still lives. English literary fashions would seem to have a far more coherent and literate base than their American counterparts; MacNeice, to stay alive, had to argue well. He was imitated; later he was even parodied; or he was attacked straight on; yet he survived and continued writing, and was one of the few poets that I know of to have made a relatively successful use of accentual meters in English—sometimes at the expense of great awkwardness and flatness, but often with surprising results, especially in the shorter lyrics where his sense of the speech of the moment is not something put on but something quite real, contemporary, unique, since it is merely a refinement of his own cultivated human voice.

I stress MacNeice's poetical accomplishments because they have been rarely stressed by others, and because they were—to judge from the work itself—a more or less deliberate effort to break with a kind of writing that was fast becoming anomalous. MacNeice began his career as part of a well-publicized triumvirate of English lyricists who, at the very moment of England's and Europe's greatest crisis, attempted to create a new style—mainly out of borrowings—that would be reflective of some of the elements of that crisis. Such a style was compounded out of various idioms: it parodied the dying echoes of upper- and middle-class speech, was bitter about the working classes in the language of the working classes, attempted to use the argot of technology, the diction of Marx and Freud, and the journalese of the anti-Fascist movement—it did all these things so as to make a relevant statement about the crisis which, as viewed by people like MacNeice, seemed to have its roots in the failure of a whole civilization, although it could perhaps be confronted most directly through the English industrial landscape.

Reading through the early poems and manifestoes of Auden, Spender, and MacNeice, I was struck more than once by the enormous dissimilarities of talent and sensibility in these three poets while, at the same time, I was quite aware of echoes of one another from page to page. Lines such as “Your drums and your dolled up virgins and your ignorant dead,” or the phrase “significant living and decent dying,” or this couplet from an early eclogue: “The excess sugar of a dying culture/ Rotting the nerve of life and literature”—such lines could decently pass as Audenesque or as early C. Day Lewis, but they are characteristic of the early MacNeice. The impact of such a group of precocious and, presumably, virtuoso poets on one another has been described intimately by Stephen Spender in his autobiography. If they all wrote too much (and if it was sometimes difficult to distinguish their commitments from mere fashions), they were also entirely self-conscious artists, genuinely in a ferment. Spender later became a visionary, Auden a flashy professional with many styles, but MacNeice kept some of his original purposes. Very early he seems to have set himself the task of remaining steadfast, of purifying the ground-breaking efforts of his fellows. Eventually he went so far as to purge his style of a good deal of agitprop, without casting aside concerns and commitments. Remarkable, too, is the fact that as he became less glib and mannered he did not become inept or even defenseless. Rather it was as if his cultivation was being given an opportunity to show itself. MacNeice was to become a far more distinguished poet in later life than he might have ever imagined as a bright young Left undergraduate.

MacNeice's published work is large. His Collected Poems 1925-1948, reissued this Spring by the Oxford University Press, reprints even some juvenilia of interest, although, when he made a later selection in 1959 for the volume Eighty-Five Poems he tended to be rather arbitrary about what he left in and what he left out. Two slim volumes followed the publication of Eighty-Five Poems, and this month a posthumously published volume entitled The Burning Perch has been issued by Oxford. Given his self-stated role as a professional poet who wrote verse dramas and eclogues for the BBC and who was often addicted to the occasional poem, the topical poem, one can be impressed by MacNeice's relatively high standards for his own work. He was a dilettante but he was never dilletantish about his poetry. And since much of the charm of it is as a kind of record of dally living, of travels, adventures, conclusions, and observations, all arrived at from day to day but with a certain consistency of reasoning, one cannot fault him for publishing as much as he did. Sometimes MacNeice's themes were little more than the expression of certain commonly shared sentiments (private and political) but, given his credo of the poet as the educated ordinary man, that form of engagement was a little less willful than some of his earlier moods.

And the results were interesting, if not always important. The business of being a minor poet didn't seem to bother MacNeice; he wrote some poems about it. His later poems are the work of a widely read man of wit and perception who tried to make the necessary connections between what he wrote, the way he lived, and what he read, and who often chose deceptively modest forms and a pellucid idiom of language to comment upon himself as a part of the commonweal. Sometimes this language was deliberately flattened out to serve notice on the audience to respond without romantic excess. Occasionally the masculine rhythms of Old English and Icelandic verse forms were used. And there are even times when the lucidity seems to be about his own confusions, and when a poem seems to proceed lucidly enough toward a point of emotional and intellectual obscurity, a vagueness. But MacNeice never denied there were mysteries. An early poem begins “the familiar rhythms but the unknown implications,” and in another poem of the same period entitled “Nature Morte” he made a characteristic observation about the painter Chardin:

... The appalling unrest of the soul

Exhudes from the dried fish and the brown jug and the bowl.

I think it should be pointed out that the charm of such a poetry can only be momentary; it is essayistic, discursive, not incantative. Rarely can the poet call upon hallucination to do his work for him. MacNeice had to articulate without too much spiritual noise-making. In his case this was apt to cause a certain monotony of tone. It also made it possible for certain formulary sentiments to displace profound feeling. Being so matter-of-fact could be an excuse for shoddiness. And since one of his primary modes of satire was to imitate the inanities and jingles of others to excess, he was often not as flexible and precise in that mode of writing as he was in his lyrics; it is hard, after all, to make doggerel seem attractive. But such instances are still rare enough in The Collected Poems so that one has trouble in choosing the best examples of his mature manner from the multitude of likely candidates. Certain descriptions of the sea, of Irish city and countryside, and of travelling on trains, come to mind immediately. In all of these relatively short poems observation and evocation have a cumulative effect; MacNeice rarely tried to overpower his readers as did a Dylan Thomas. The primitive style of the poems reminds one a little of Hardy but they have their unique qualities, being so particularized and accurate, compassionate but always scrupulously objective.

The obituary writers tell us that MacNeice often drew on classical models, especially Horace. The most obvious example of that kind of inspiration is to be found in The Autumn Journal which consumes nearly 60 pages in The Collected Poems. Autumn Journal was composed at the time of Munich. To get through it today, exactly 25 years later, is an effort of will. It is part sentimental Left journalism (not without its disillusioning charms) and part a summing up of his and a generation's experiences. Vast acres of dullness are interrupted by only occasional moments of personal illumination. After rereading the work (which I read first in a Freshman English survey after having been exposed in high-school to a diet of Norman Corwin, Ogden Nash and Wordsworth's Preludes) I can sympathize with the late Roy Campbell's witticism about “some South African novelists”:

You praise the firm restraint with which they write-

I'm with you there, of course:

They use the snaffle and the curb allright.

But where's the bloody horse.

Defenders of Autumn Journal may point out at this stage that what seems prosaic to my ear can be explained by my unfamiliarity with classical movements. True enough perhaps. But when poetry only differs musically from prose by seeming more awkward and inverted, then I think one can honestly maintain that it may be good classicism but it is bad prose.

In his later poems Louis MacNeice was to revisit some of his favorite themes: love, memory, childhood, riddles, London life and the London landscape, the classical moods newly observed, history. The Burning Perch contains nearly forty short lyrics, many of which appeared first in familiar places like The New Statesman and Encounter. There is a series of riddles about certain personalities of our time, obviously drawn from life, but rather obscure as a result. There are a couple of adult nursery rhymes, and the usual poems of general wisdom that one expects from an aging English poet. There is a Coda in the form of a love poem that falls flat because one never knows for sure who is saying what to whom on what occasion. There are also several curious examples of his extremely civilized nostalgia for the ordinary which are competent enough, but seem not particularly inspired. In fact, that is how one could be forced to judge this entire final volume were it not for an unusually witty piece in somewhat recognizable iambics which, though unassuming and plain spoken, may be one of MacNeice's masterpieces. The subject matter is mortality; the tone is didactic. It is called “The Birthright”:

When I was born the row began,

I had never asked to be a man;

They had never asked if I could ride

But shouted at me “Come outside,”

Then hauled the rearing beast along

And said: “Your charger right or wrong.”

His ears went back and so did I,

I said “To mount him means to die,”

They said “Of course”; the nightmare neighed.

And I felt foolish and afraid.

The sun came up, my feet stuck fast.

The minutes, hours, and years went past.

More chances missed than I could count.

The stable boys cried: “Time to mount!”

My jaw dropped and I gaped from drouth:

My gift horse looked me in the mouth.