- Louis MacNeice: A Biography by Jon Stallworthy
Faber, 538 pp, £25.00, February 1995, ISBN 0 571 16019 0
Why did Louis MacNeice have to wait thirty years for a biography? He died comparatively young – aged 55 – and was outlived by almost everyone he knew: wives, girlfriends, classmates, colleagues. He led an active public life, had two careers – in universities and with the BBC – and was well known as a poet from quite early on. He was a pub-dweller, he travelled a lot, and through his radio work was in contact with many talkative celebs: actors, musicians, singers as well as literary types. For a quick-off-the-mark chronicler, there might have been rich pickings.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 17 No. 6 · 23 March 1995
In his review of Jon Stallworthy’s biography (LRB, 9 March), Ian Hamilton begins by asking, ‘Why did Louis MacNeice have to wait thirty years for a biography?’ and then doesn’t sufficiently go into the tangles of this search for a biographer, as well as being less than fair to Stall worthy in his account of Stallworthy’s supposed ‘reverential’ attitude to E.R. Dodds (MacNeice’s first literary executor) and the project itself.
After MacNeice’s death in September 1963, some assumed that Dodds himself would write a biography. Initially, though, his work was taken up, rightly, with editing, first, MacNeice’s fragmented autobiography, The Strings Are False, and then the Collected Poems. At various times over the succeeding years, however, Dodds and MacNeice’s widow, Hedli, approached and invited Goronwy Rees, Michael and Edna Longley and Dan Davin, each of whom spent some time exploring the possibilities, but in each case not getting very far – partly because of the vague difficulties which seemed to present themselves through MacNeice’s sister, Lady Nicholson.
Dodds himself felt it was too late for him not only to take on such a task, but also that his successor as literary executor should be appointed. I have a letter to me (dated 18 November 1976) from Hedli MacNeice, in which she wrote: ‘Louis in his last unsigned will nominated you to be his Literary Executor. Therefore I infer that he must have spoken to you about this – Is this so? I would like this to be settled before my very dear friend Professor Dodds moves on. He has indicated more than once that I must put forward his successor.’ At this time Dodds was eighty-three.
MacNeice had indeed approached me, early in 1963, saying that he was drawing up a final will, that Dodds was now too old, and asking me whether I would be his literary executor (having, he said, havered between Ted Hughes and myself, but coming to the – it struck me – faintly damaging conclusion that I was ‘more businesslike’). This last will was never properly executed, and MacNeice died within the year. Dodds died in 1979. All the other people who were variously involved are also now dead (Hedli MacNeice, Goronwy Rees, Dan Davin, Lady Nicholson) – with the exception of myself, Stall worthy and Michael and Edna Longley. I wonder whether the Longleys can throw light on this long-drawn-out story.
As things turned out, I feel glad not to have been landed with two complex executorships: one (Philip Larkin’s) has been quite enough. But I also feel that Ian Hamilton, whose Keepers of the Flame entertainingly explored the whole historical matter of literary executors and their actions and responsibilities, has in his review of Stallworthy’s Louis MacNeice cut a few corners and hasn’t properly acknowledged what lay behind the time-lag between MacNeice’s death and Stall worthy’s book.
Incidentally, it isn’t true that Dodds ‘introduced MacNeice to Auden’: they had met independently, in 1928 or earlier, in Oxford.
Ian Hamilton writes: ‘Introduced’ was the wrong word perhaps. On page 157 Jon Stallworthy writes: ‘Wystan and Louis had, of course, been acquaintances at Oxford. Louis had since given Auden’s Poems (1928) a respectful review, and meeting again under the Dodds’s hospitable roof, they became friends.’
Vol. 17 No. 7 · 6 April 1995
Ian Hamilton makes a mystery out of a molehill when he asks: ‘Why did Louis MacNeice have to wait thirty years for a biography?’ Anthony Thwaite (Letters, 23 March) also worries unnecessarily. There was no censorship. Some delay was certainly due to the sensitivities surrounding a once-divorced, once-separated man, who died prematurely and had a child by each marriage. Indeed, Jon Stallworthy still skirts around MacNeice’s relationships with women, not by concealing facts, but by tending to represent him as a commonplace philanderer: ‘The old lion was soon back at the BBC watering-holes … looking for another lioness.’ This diminishes the marvellous love poet who needed women deeply, suffered much pain in love, and was by no means solely responsible for the breakdown of his second marriage.
As for my own and Michael Longley’s share in the delay, the story is simply told. After taking on the biography (in 1976), we found that, with two jobs and no sabbaticals or finance forthcoming, we were moving too slowly. Soon after E.R. Dodds’s death we apologetically resigned, and later gave Stallworthy any help we could. Subsequently I wrote a critical study and Michael edited the Selected Poems (1988).
I welcome Thwaite’s invitation to ‘throw light’, since it prompts me to throw something else at Hamilton’s mean-spirited article. His stress on MacNeice’s ‘self-absorption’ is a characteristic English misreading of this Anglo-Irish poet. English criticism, conditioned by Wordsworth, often fails to understand the dramatic function, and public dimensions, of the self in lyric poetry that takes its cue from Yeats. As Yeats’s closest Irish successor, both aesthetically and culturally (the significance of his book on Yeats remains underrated), MacNeice grasped how to use elements of autobiography to explore the nexus linking individual lives with history. Autumn Journal is not ‘self-absorbed’ in any subjective or introverted sense. If it were, it would not be such a brilliant summa of the Thirties. When Hamilton sneers, ‘he was of the swim … but never in it,’ he ignores all the naive English Marxist poetry that was left gasping on the strand in 1939. What he terms MacNeice’s ‘dispirited self-scrutiny’ was always a metaphysical odyssey into dark places of the 20th century.
Secondly, reading the reviews of Stallworthy, I notice that English literary chaps only take the word of other English literary chaps. Thus Humphrey Carpenter, in the Sunday Times, relied on testimony about MacNeice from a bitchy and jealous John Betjeman. Unreliable, too, are Hamilton’s informants ‘who had social dealings with MacNeice … and recalled his lack of warmth, his silences, his impenetrable moods’. This is not the witness of his true friends – who went in for friendship, rather than ‘social dealings’. People whom MacNeice ignored were generally careerist bores lacking what he meant by ‘warmth’. Then Hamilton wheels on Geoffrey Grigson to complain about his dirty fingernails and ‘almost squalid appearance’. ‘ “Squalid” seems a bit extreme. What was Grigson hinting at?’ asks Hamilton keenly. I thought everyone knew that Grigson was himself ‘a bit extreme’. Hamilton also notes MacNeice’s ‘ramshackle private life’ and wonders whether ‘there is a wish to smarten [him] up a bit, to cut down on his drinking’. Once again, MacNeice’s behaviour has not been censored, nor does it require Hamilton’s shallow patronage. But I like this implied ideal of a chatty, teetotal poet with immaculate fingernails and a tidy life.
From his Anglocentric viewpoint, Hamilton thinks that MacNeice never quite made it. One conspicuous fact about MacNeice’s afterlife is how variously he has fertilised poetry from Northern Ireland. Poets such as Derek Mahon, Paul Muldoon and Ciaran Carson have assimilated his central importance in modern poetry. It might be argued that no poet was better placed to combine influences from Yeats and Eliot in a period when poetry was being tested by heightened political consciousness (a legacy not only relevant to Northern Ireland). Hamilton, however, does not mention MacNeice’s Northern Irish posterity. Is it because recent English achievement has been rather less distinguished, that – with subtextual racism – he paints MacNeice as a dirty, drunken, whingeing Irishman? By a strange coincidence, I remember taking Hamilton to task many years ago for a review of Seamus Heaney in which he referred to ‘muddy fingers in Russell Square’.
Vol. 17 No. 9 · 11 May 1995
Ian Hamilton’s review (LRB, 9 March) of Jon Stallworthy’s biography of Louis MacNeice is enjoyable and informative. However, he makes only one passing comment on MacNeice’s plays: ‘numerous, now unreadable verse plays’. Few have read them all, and few are in verse. Omitting ‘numerous’ radio features (some of merit), there are 41 plays: two verse play translations (Agamemnon and Faust), six original stage plays (with two farces), 25 original radio plays (most very readable), eight radio adaptations. Verse is scattered through some prose plays; but most plays are entirely in prose, whether for stage or for radio. Further, an ‘auditory imagination’ helps in reading radio drama, by ear, to listen to the sounds of voices in dialogue, quite different from stage and TV drama, where the visual component is of equal or more importance. ‘Performance poetry’ has been recognised as such. Perhaps ‘performance drama’ might be recognised in radio plays written for actors’ voices? As co-editor of MacNeice’s Selected Plays(1993), I failed to make a point of an ‘auditory imagination’ in reading the plays; therefore, I may have discouraged potential readers from reading some very readable MacNeice plays – by ear.