Seamus Perry: Welcome to Close Readings, the latest in a series of LRB podcasts about modern poets who wrote in English, drawing on the rich back archive of reviews and essays and other pieces published in the pages of the London Review of Books. My name is Seamus Perry, and I teach English literature at Balliol College, Oxford, and I'm talking to Mark Ford, poet, critic and professor of English at University College, London, and our subject today is the poet Louis MacNeice. One of the contributions to the London Review of Books about MacNeice is by Marilyn Butler, and she says in that piece that in one way or another MacNeice was always autobiographical. Do you think that's true, Mark?
Mark Ford: I think his best poems all reveal that the pressures of his autobiography in terms of the effect on him of his fairly disastrous early childhood is something which features in poem after poem of the ones which we still read today. MacNeice wrote enormous amounts, given the fact he died in his mid fifties. His Collected Poems is some six hundred pages, and there were all the radio plays, enormous amounts of criticism as well. He was a reviewer. He really lived the literary life. But in his most powerful moments he does seem to always be returning to the bleakness of his childhood and the kind of divisions which had inculcated in him. I think MacNeice is one of those poets who is often figured as divided, obviously between England and Ireland is the most obvious geopolitical division, and there rages in the LRB pages when people discuss MacNeice, to what extent he was English and to what extent he was Irish – Irish poets tend to claim him very much as the precursor for Northern Irish poetry that developed in the 1970s. Poets like Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon, Michael Longley, Paul Muldoon, Tom Paulin, all reverence MacNeice as the great Irish poet after Yeats. Whereas English contributors tend to see him as going back to Ireland for rugby matches now and again. But he’s basically a product of Sherborne, where he went to school, Marlborough, where he went to school, Oxford, and the BBC, where he worked most of his life. So there is an interesting division there, but those divisions go back to really primary psychic divisions that tore him apart, you could say, in his first seven years.
SP: And these are, we should say, divisions of which he was entirely and even acutely self-aware. We're not doing any kind of ingenious piece of psychoanalysis by spotting these divisions. They are very often his main subject matter.
MF: Yes. To fill in readers who aren't familiar with the biography, he was born in 1907 in Belfast, a Protestant. His father was rector of a place called Carrickfergus, where he moved soon after he was born, about ten miles outside Belfast. And his mother, who seems to have been – he describes her in his autobiography The Strings are False as a very lively and imaginative and exciting person – suffered terrible health problems, and a full breakdown when he was five, and she went to an asylum. It was in Dublin, I think.
SP: In Dublin, that's right. Some sort of nursing home.
MF: She died not long after. And he was bequeathed then a series of fairly ferocious nannies, who put the fear of God into him. One of them was extremely religious-minded, as of course was his father. And it's probably worth mentioning that he had an older brother who had Down's syndrome, and that, as he mentioned in a letter to his friend John Hilton, also cast a tremendous pall over his childhood. There’s this extraordinary poem ‘Autobiography’, which was actually written in 1941, but we may as well start with that, since that seems to encapsulate in the most haunting of terms the legacy of his childhood.
SP: Yes. It's a very beautiful intermingling, isn't it, of fond memories of childhood, fond memories of the garden, of the rectory. And MacNeice will return in lots of poems to the enclosed, precious, threatened, but delightful space of the garden. That played against what he calls the ‘black dreams’. We know from the memoirs, don't we, that he genuinely did have the most terrible haunting nightmares that seem wrapped up not only in his own childish feelings of guilt about his mother's ill-health, which he and indeed she blamed on the difficulties of his birth, but also the severities of the kind of religion to which he was exposed, not only in his father's church, but also at the hands of the fearsome Miss MacCready, who was looking after him most of the time.
MF: Yes. And I think you mentioned the garden. It's interesting, the ways in which this poem, which I'll read in a minute, connects with the nonsense poetry of the mid- Victorian era, and he was a great fan of Edward Lear. There's a letter which Nick Laird quotes in his piece in the LRB talking about cats, and a couple of the cats’ names derived from Edward Lear, so he was clearly an Edward Lear fan. But there is a kind of Lewis Carroll-like, dreamlike quality to much of MacNeice's best poetry, a kind of delirium almost which connects with the nonsense verse traditions of the mid- to late 19th century as developed by Lear and Carroll. Anyway, here is ‘Autobiography’. And also I should just say: it makes use, like Yeats often does, of a refrain. I think he probably got from Yeats this use of an italicised refrain, which nails the poem, and is a kind of return. And that's very much what happens in poem after poem by MacNeice, that he seems to be getting away from something but he ends up returning to it, as if acting out some kind of compulsive psychic configuration.
In my childhood trees were green
And there was plenty to be seen.
Come back early or never come.
My father made the walls resound,
He wore his collar the wrong way round.
Come back early or never come.
My mother wore a yellow dress;
Gently, gently, gentleness.
Come back early or never come.
When I was five the black dreams came;
Nothing after was quite the same.
Come back early or never come.
The dark was talking to the dead;
The lamp was dark beside my bed.
Come back early or never come.
When I woke they did not care;
Nobody, nobody was there.
Come back early or never come.
When my silent terror cried,
Nobody, nobody replied
Come back early or never come.
I got up; the chilly sun
Saw me walk away alone.
Come back early or never come.
SP: The poem beautifully exemplifies what Ian Hamilton says about MacNeice in his piece, that he has a disposition to self-scrutiny, or what Hamilton calls a kind of authoritative fretfulness. And there is that mixture, isn't there, of the exploration of something which is deeply damaged and neurotic, but at the same time a poetic voice, which is completely in control.
MF: It is in control, but it's a silent terror. It looks forward to confessional poems. This is a kind of pre-Sylvia Plath-style poem in terms of the dramatisation in an expressionist way of the most extreme state. And like something like ‘Daddy’, it does use the nursery rhyme refrain as a way of plumbing and enacting these very primary terrors. He uses a pseudonym. I was thinking of the last line, ‘saw me walk away alone’. One of his pseudonyms was Louis Malone, Louis M-alone, and I think that loneliness is a characteristic of much of his persona, that however much he participated in thirties get-togethers and was convivial at the pub in the BBC years, there was a kind of aloneness about MacNeice which drives his poetry. And that sense of solitariness, of never being able to connect, of having been abandoned in some fundamental way when he was a child and feeling partly responsible for it, but also obviously the victim of it, is what creates the twisting, turning, supremely sophisticated and clever and intelligent idiom that one would read in poems like this, or the late poems collected in The Burning Perch, that seems to be probing very dark bleak inhospitable places in the psyche.
SP: Let's follow him through the next few years. So as he says in his early poem called Carrickfergus,
I went to school in Dorset, the world of parents
Contracted into a puppet world of sons
Far from the mill girls, the smell of porter, the salt mines
And the soldiers with their guns.
That last reference is to the growing disquiet in Irish politics, which he witnesses before heading off to Sherborne school in 1917. So it's very unlike the other poets that were often associated with MacNeice in the minds of literary journalists in the 1930s, whose backgrounds were extraordinarily middle-class, peaceful, unpoliticised. Auden claimed he never even opened a newspaper until he'd left Oxford. MacNeice already as a boy has seen soldiers on the streets. So he goes off to Sherborne. And then as you say, he wins a scholarship to Marlborough, which is a pretty sadistic and brutal school at the time. He makes best friends with Anthony Blunt, who is of course later most famous for becoming a Soviet spy, and he's reading all the sorts of things that an ambitious young intellectual would be reading in the mid-twenties. He's reading the Sitwells and Aldous Huxley and Eliot and he's disliking Tennyson, and all that kind of stuff. And then he goes up in 1926 on a scholarship to Merton College in Oxford. And in Oxford, he doesn't fit in any more than he fits in anywhere else, does he. He's got a nice account in his memoirs of experiencing Oxford as a place – almost exclusively male, needless to say – where you were either gay and an aesthete or you were straight, and all you wanted to do was play rugby. And MacNeice finds himself in neither of these categories. He's straight and he's an aesthete, so he doesn't fit in. It's the story of his life, really.
MF: He likes rugby and he likes sport,and quite often uses sporting metaphors, understanding them, and experienced them. And he's obviously a brilliant scholar, he got a good First. He studied Classics, and I think the importance of his classical education to his poetry is an interesting one. He did a lot of translations from Latin, but the ways in which his syntax works often seems to have the complexity of the Latinate, but combined with a diction, which is insistently up to date, as Auden insisted the thirties poetic diction should be up to date. So I think something of the dialectic that you get in a poet like Eliot between the past and the present is operating in MacNeice, not in a showy way through allusions, but through the complexity of his verbal formulations, which do seem to me to somehow have been shaped by this very rigorous classical education.
And when he went to Birmingham, it was as a lecturer in Latin and Greek, and he taught that for a lot of the thirties. He taught at Birmingham and then in London. But he was brilliant at catching the flavour of urban life, and Birmingham is different from London. There's a poem called ‘Birmingham’, which has a kind of documentary quality. We talked about the dark places that MacNeice’s poetry goes to, but like many thirties poets, there's also a journalistic, or that should rather be documentary, aspect to his poems. And the opening lines of ‘Birmingham’ give you that sort of description of the modern city, with no particular bias around it. He's not lamenting the modernity in the way that Eliot does. There's a bleak sense that capitalism is delusory, that people buy into capitalism, and then end up disappointed. But mainly you just note the observing eye and the extent to which he's fascinated, his ability to describe the way a modern city like Birmingham looks in the thirties:
Smoke from the train-gulf hid by hoardings blunders upward, the brakes of cars
Pipe as the policeman pivoting round raises his flat hand, bars
With his figure of a monolith Pharaoh the queue of fidgety machines
(Chromium dogs on the bonnet, faces behind the triplex screens).
Chromium dogs would be Jaguars, wouldn't it? No…I forget which car has a chromium dog on its bonnet! But that's an example of the really microcosmic attention to detail that you get in MacNeice, that he really gives you the particulars of a scene, and really builds it up so that it could almost be filmed in the original.
SP: I think Edna Longley, who's one of his very best critics, in her book about MacNeice makes a comparison between this kind of urban poetry and Larkin. Do you think there is a kinship in a way between MacNeice’s Birmingham and Larkin's Hull? Which is also lovingly described, but at the same time held at a bit of an arm’s length.
MF: Definitely. Larkin was a great admirer of the early MacNeice. He reviewed a few of the later volumes, not particularly admiringly, but he wrote a terrific obituary, and he talks about MacNeice as being the poet whose poetry presented everyday life – ‘his poetry was the poetry of our everyday life, of shop-windows, traffic policemen, ice-cream soda, lawn-mowers, and an uneasy awareness of what the news-boys were shouting.’ As a thirties poet, there's always in MacNeice some sense of impending disaster, ‘waiting for the end, boys’, as Empson put it in his poem ‘A Smack at Auden’, that sense of some doom. But Larkin goes on to talk about MacNeice displaying a ‘sophisticated sentimentality about falling leaves and lipstick cigarette stubs’ – you do get lipstick cigarette stubs in ‘Autumn Journal’ quite often! And I think that really nails the appeal of MacNeice's poems. That while they have a hard-edged, journalistic, politically-aware quality to them, underlying it is a kind of enacting of a sentimentality that it's OK to feel about these things. And that's the balance you get in Larkin between the caustic observer and the romantic poet who's suddenly overwhelmed by feeling, contemplating the everyday. And you can see how that line goes through to Larkin from MacNeice’s poetry, particularly that of the thirties.
SP: And mixed up with that, as we've already said, this background sense of historical doom, this background sense of an inevitable progress towards some kind of political catastrophe, which he can sometimes touch in a very lightened and subtle way, can’t he. So in that poem ‘Birmingham’, for example, he has a lovely Larkin-like description of the sky:
Into the sky, plum after sunset, merging to duck's egg,
barred with mauve Zeppelin clouds
Just slipping in the mention of Zeppelin is a very witty way of insinuating trouble on the horizon, isn't it.
MF: I think he does, like Auden, give you these politicised landscapes, these landscapes which are pregnant with disaster or a history which is perhaps not explicable, but which is full of some kind of failure or disaster. But I think he's different in that from his Irish background they were prevalent, he was aware of them to a much greater extent. And a number of his greatest poems are depictions of Irish landscapes. And they're not Irish landscapes which are idyllic, or there is an idyllic element to them in that he sometimes figures the west coast of Ireland, Connemara, as a kind of pastoral, and his father traced his ancestors to that, so he does see the west of Ireland in some utopian terms occasionally. But he's also very aware in poems like ‘Valediction’, which is from the same period as ‘Birmingham’, of the extent to which Ireland was riven by sectarian murder even back then. This is from ‘Valediction’:
Died by gunshot under borrowed pennons,
Sniped from the wet gorse and taken by the limp fins
And slung like a dead seal in a boghole, beaten up
By peasants with long lips and the whisky-drinker’s cough.
And it's great the way he moves from the cataclysmic to the precise again, that whisky- drinker’s cough.
Park your car in the city of Dublin, see Sackville Street
Without the sandbags in the old photos, meet
The statues of the patriots, history never dies,
At any rate in Ireland, arson and murder are legacies
Like old rings hollow-eyed…
And so on, so that he's not only responding to the doom that was about to engulf Europe. He's also inflected all the time with the cataclysmic history of Ireland. That's, I think, what allows him to maintain this resolute scepticism about all solutions to political events. Whereas Auden flirted with far left politics – and there were many who believed that communism would sweep Britain, and we'd all live in a communist utopia – MacNeice was never caught up in those kinds of political beliefs.
SP: Yes, we should say something about that, shouldn't we, because it does make his position within what literary journalists were soon calling the Auden group or the Auden generation, it does make his position within that group an unusual one, because for MacNeice, it isn't really a matter of deciding which ideology you wish to support – which side are you on in Spain? He was on the side of the Republic, but not in a militant card-carrying way – it's more a distrust of ideology at all. One of the themes that runs through his poetry from beginning to end really is a mistrust of all big ideas as things that are going to distort the reality of your experience and take you away from the concrete and the lived, and remove you to a realm of the abstract and theoretical. And he sees these things as the greatest threats to human decency, doesn't he.
MF: Yes. In a way it's a sort of liberal humanist position, if you had to characterise it. But I think going back to the thirties, you've got to keep in mind the context in which people were being drawn either to far right or far left solutions, so there was a kind of courage in MacNeice’s refusal to write lines like Cecil Day Lewis: ‘Look out, bimbo, we’re learning to shoot!’ which causes much hilarity now, the idea of these poets shooting. Of course, some did shoot, went to Spain and were killed, and MacNeice did lose friends in the Second World War, a number of friends for whom he wrote elegies. But I think you're really right in stressing the power of his poetry to connect to the concrete and to the actual, and that is something that he's grasping onto as a way of not only dealing with political dilemmas, but also escaping the black dreams which are haunting him. And his most famous poem, which celebrates exactly this aspect of life is ‘Snow’, from 1935. It’s probably his best known poem. And it's one which can be read… if it's a manifesto poem, it's a manifesto of commitment to the contingent and to the textures of the contingent and also to stressing their incomprehensibility and our inability to control them. So again, there's a sense of MacNeice to some extent as the victim of what's happening around him, that as an agent he's never particularly able to present himself as someone who can find solutions. Much more he's good at registering the ways in which we experience, and also of tapping into the incomprehensibility of that experience. How do you interpret ‘Snow’ anyway, what's your line on it?
SP: I think very much as you've just said, I thought you put it beautifully. There's something saving about it being incomprehensible, isn't there. It's an odd kind of secular mysticism of the ordinary or something that he's on about. The lines that we ought to read, I suppose are
World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.
There are little hints and tips in various bits of MacNeice that he liked Whitman a lot, or admired Whitman, and you can see a kind of Whitmanian delight in variousness as an existential good in itself here, but quite unlike Whitman in the sense that this delight in variousness, this delight in the incorrigible plurality of things, is hedged around with a pervasive melancholy, that this particular kind of diversity and worldview is doomed because politics and history and ideology and various forces are going to come along and crush it. So it's like a sort of melancholy Whitman, which is to say not very much like Whitman!
MF: Absolutely. And the way in which in the next stanza, the final stanza,
And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes
the spitefulness…he was pretty disillusioned, as all of the thirties poets were. And it was a question for MacNeice of ways of registering that resistance to belief systems that promised salvation, and the final two lines capture beautifully what you've been talking about in terms of his commitment to the concrete and the senses:
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one's hands -
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.
SP: So the poems we've been talking about so far all come from his volume which is simply entitled Poems, which was published in 1935. By this stage he's been teaching classics in Birmingham for five years. He's met Auden and has formed a friendship with him, which didn't really exist when they were at Oxford together. It's not his first book, is it. In 1929, he published a book called Blind Fireworks, which is full of the influence of Sitwell and so on, but in 1935 I suppose most people would think it was a great advance on Blind Fireworks.
MF: And it was published by T.S. Eliot at Faber and Faber. So this was MacNeice’s debut in the serious grown-up poetry world. He joined the stable. Eliot had an extraordinarily good eye for the young poet, even poets who had different political belief systems to his. I think one of the LRB pieces refers to Eliot slightly complaining about MacNeice supporting a Labour candidate in Oxford, because Eliot was himself by no means in favour of a Labour government. But MacNeice admired Eliot enormously, and I think his poetry is powerful. One index of its power is the way it has absorbed the lessons of Eliot without ever sounding like Eliot. And Yeats as well. He wrote a book on Yeats published in 1939, and Yeats he admired enormously. But he did pilot away towards an idiom that shows his reading of those poets, but he never sounds in their debt in any particular way.
What he particularly, I think, excelled in both in the early poems and then again in his late poems was these weird parables, which one can't quite make sense of, but which somehow capture intensity, without being specific about what it is that's troubling him. What I like particularly is again a short poem from the 1935 volume Poems ‘Wolves’, which has all the fear and threat of the mid-thirties zeitgeist without offering any solutions to it.
I do not want to be reflective any more
Envying and despising unreflective things
Finding pathos in dogs and undeveloped handwriting
And young girls doing their hair and all the castles of sand
Flushed by the children’s bedtime, level with the shore.
The tide comes in and goes out again, I do not want
To be always stressing either its flux or its permanence,
I do not want to be a tragic or philosophic chorus
But to keep my eye only on the nearer future
And after that let the sea flow over us.
That again is a kind of credo, the idea of keeping your eye on the near future, and renouncing any kind of claim to understanding or control of events beyond that.
SP: He's got a nice line in an essay he writes in the mid thirties called ‘Modern Poetry’, hasn't he, where he says the poet's first business is mentioning things. And I think that poetic of mentioning things is absolutely what you can see in those great poems and in some of the poems that we'll come on to from the later thirties, too. In the meantime, we should catch up with his life. His first marriage had broken up disastrously, very quickly, leaving him with a young boy to look after. You mentioned the presence of Eliot in his life. And one of the things that Eliot does for him is to commission a book from MacNeice and Auden, all about Iceland. Now this book is described by MacNeice himself as a hodgepodge, and it's very difficult to characterise the volume Letters from Iceland to someone who hasn’t actually seen it. How would you seek to describe this odd book?
MF: Well, it’s got ‘Letter to Lord Byron’, Auden's hilarious long poem! They weren't great camping companions, were they. MacNeice wasn't very well-prepared for this particular trip.
SP: He didn’t take a tent, that was the problem! So he had to share Auden’s.
MF: And Auden didn't like that. But it initiated what was actually a strand of MacNeice’s writing which is really prominent in terms of his oeuvre overall, that is his travel writing, that he was, like Auden, a travel poet. And he wrote a lot of poetry out of his travels. And there was this vogue for travel books which included poetry in the thirties. And he wrote another one about the trip to the Hebrides, the Western Isles in Scotland, which was called I Crossed the Minch which he did with a woman he was involved with at the time, Nancy Coldstream, whom he was in love with. And some of these books were potboilers, getting some money into the coffers, but they did occasionally inspire really fantastic individual poems. Probably the most famous is ‘Bagpipe Music’, which is probably the first MacNeice poem that I ever came across when I was at school, and it's to be read in a Scottish accent, which I don't think we're going to attempt! But it's a brilliant summation of thirties doom combined with a rollicking verse form, which keeps it ticking along like a metronome.
SP: Give us a verse or two…
It's no go the merrygoround, it's no go the rickshaw,
All we want is a limousine and a ticket for the peepshow.
Their knickers are made of crepe-de-chine, their shoes are made of python,
Their halls are lined with tiger rugs and their walls with heads of bison.
John MacDonald found a corpse, put it under the sofa,
Waited till it came to life and hit it with a poker,
Sold its eyes for souvenirs, sold its blood for whisky,
Kept its bones for dumb-bells to use when he was fifty.
It's no go the Yogi-Man, it's no go Blavatsky,
All we want is a bank balance and a bit of skirt in a taxi.
I slipped into Scottish there…
SP: I knew you’d slip! So why is that so good? The use of the off rhymes is brilliantly inventive and funny. And he said himself somewhere that it was meant to suggest the wheeziness of Scottish bagpipes, these kind of off rhymes. But it's a great raucous poem, of rejection, isn't it. It's another valediction poem, like the valediction poem to Dublin, but what is he saying goodbye to? He seems to be saying goodbye to a complete phantasmagoric kaleidoscope of different aspects of western life. Is that right?
MF: I suppose he's being sceptical about the idyll of a rural escape from modernity, that modernity and capitalism have invaded everywhere, so there's no point in harking back to some nostalgic past. But it segues towards the end into one of the most evocative of pre-war threats.
It's no go my honey love, it's no go my poppet;
Work your hands from day to day, the winds will blow the profit.
The glass is falling hour by hour, the glass will fall for ever,
But if you break the bloody glass you won't hold up the weather.
Which is surely as good as any of Auden's waiting for the war poems.
SP: That quality of panoramic observation that you get in ‘Bagpipe Music’, things seen from all over this land that he is rejecting, that impulse then goes on to stir in his next major work, doesn't it, in a much, much bigger way. The next major work is ‘Autumn Journal’, from 1939, which is a sort of a portrait of England, of MacNeice, of Europe in the last few months of 1938. And he described it himself as both a panorama and a confession of faith. So the aspects of a poem like ‘Bagpipe Music’, which is a sort of a catalogue poem, are then re-imagined in ‘Autumn Journal’, which brilliantly weaves together his personal situation, thoughts of his marriage that went wrong, thoughts of his current romantic entanglements, but also thoughts about what's happening in Spain – there were two visits to Spain recounted in the poem – what Chamberlain is doing in Munich, the famous Oxford by-election that you referred to earlier on, where T.S. Eliot supported the other candidate.
What are we to make of ‘Autumn Journal’? It is a great, as he says, panoramic list poem.
MF: It has lasted really well. I think that's one of the surprising things, that it's full of the contingent and it captures the zeitgeist with a fullness and attention to detail which is unrivalled in the thirties poems. It might have just seemed like a series of diary entries, but it re-emerged for poets of the seventies and eighties as somehow a really important template, as a way of writing poetry that could be political without being propagandistic and without excluding the personal. I think Ian Hamilton in one of his pieces called it ‘intensely self-absorbed’. I'm not quite sure I agree with that, in that the self that MacNeice is exploring in the poem is not an everyday person, it's MacNeice, obviously, he's writing a journal or a diary, but he's not presenting himself as being particularly brilliant or sophisticated. He's to an extent an everyman figure, he's not that different from an average person. And I think again, his scene painting, his journalistic ability to recapture places, textures, details, and to make them resonant is helped by the rhyme scheme, which is kept up throughout. It's not obtrusive, but it keeps the poem connected and rolling on, and there is a kind of sprawl to it, but it's a welcoming sprawl. I hadn't thought of him in relation to Whitman, but now you mention that, there is that sense of writing a poem in which anything can find its place, which you get in ‘Song of Myself’. And that includes all aspects of MacNeice’s own life. He recalls in section six his trip to Spain with Anthony Blunt. And it's a brilliant, again, poem about a place on the eve of destruction.
And I remember Spain
At Easter ripe as an egg for revolt and ruin
Though for a tripper the rain
Was worse than the surly or the worried or the
With writings on the walls —
Hammer and sickle, Boicot, Viva, Muerra
and so on. You get this really detailed account of his trip to Spain and all the different kinds of tribulations of the tripper. They loved the notion of the tripper, didn't they! What are the resonances of that particular word for MacNeice and Auden?
SP: Well, I think it's something that's a little bit less indirected than the quest, isn't it. You go out and you wander about, and things happen to you. And I think that's absolutely at the heart of the way that MacNeice often thinks about himself, as someone to whom things happen rather than, as you were saying earlier on today, someone who is full of a kind of self-directing agency of his own.
MF: They're quite derogatory about the tripper though. The tripper is a sign of modernity not to be admired particularly. But he's very honest, and one of the things that he prides himself on and dramatises in this poem and many others is his honesty. And that was obviously a crucial virtue for thirties poems, and the honesty involved all sorts of things, as in ‘Bagpipe Music’, honesty about the end of empire. I think MacNeice and Auden can be categorised, if you like doing these kinds of things, as the first two major poets of post-imperial Britain, or the archipelago, if you want to use that term, that the empire is over, and they are trying to find ways of living within the remnants of empire, the tiger skins that you find in ‘Bagpipe Music’ and so on.
And ‘Autumn Journals’ starts with a rather withering look at the old colonel who's retired in Hampshire, and the spinster sitting in a deck chair, picking up stitches and so on. So a rather withering take on these relics of empire who have retired to Hampshire.
SP: John Kerrigan in his LRB piece talks nicely about the way that MacNeice's poetry revolves around what Kerrigan calls an ‘ethic’ of honesty, to pick up on that word that you used. And the honesty communicates itself in ‘Autumn Journal’, doesn't it really, partly through the way that the poetry is so open to contingencies. Of course it is entirely directed by MacNeice, but the feel of the poem is that it's open to sheer circumstance, to what happens to happen. And the way that so much of the poem is strung along strings of the word ‘and’, as though it's simply about the consecutiveness of what chanced to occur.
MF: Like when he loses his dog.
SP: Yes, I was going to read the dog bit. It always stuck in my mind
... and I found my dog had vanished
And thought ‘This is the end of the old regime,’
But found the police had got her at St. John’s Wood station
And fetched her in the rain and went for a cup
Of coffee to an all-night shelter and heard a taxi-driver
Say ‘It turns me up
When I see these soldiers in lorries’
The amount of emotional and indeed, for that matter, the amount of political ground that is covered in those six or eight lines is extraordinary. It's gone from a shaggy dog story through to premonitions of war!
MF: Yes. And I suppose if you were alive in 1938, living in London, you would see all around you signs of war. And there's a bit when he talks about listening to the news, and on the one hand you're worried about the cricket scores, but the next thing you're hearing about is Hitler on the radio, so these juxtapositions of the everyday and the global catastrophe that's threatening. And in the same one, number seven in ‘Autumn Journal’, he sees that they've chopped all the trees down on Primrose Hill they want the crest of it for anti aircraft:
And searchlights probe the heavens for bacilli
With narrow wands of blue.
The kind of lyricism that you get in MacNeice in something like ‘Autumn Journal’ is a very sophisticated kind, it's unobtrusive and yet very effective often. He doesn't startle you in the way that Auden can startle you, but there is something juste, to use a French term, about many of his metaphors. They seem to carry the right kind of appropriate charge, and to dignify the everyday without showing off too much, which is why I don't like the ‘self-absorbed’ tag because MacNeice I don't think is showing off particularly. There's a genuine historical urgency to the poem, which I think is what drives it and gives it the tension and the vitality and the reach that it has. And although it's tangled up in his own life, there's a kind of honesty in that as well, that he's not pretending that he's an objective observer, that he is subjectively experiencing these things and putting them down for posterity as they occur to him. But with a lyric grace, which is extraordinary in some ways. I do think it’s a poem that stands up really well.
SP: And it's attractive, isn't it, partly because of the way in which MacNeice often doubts his own motives for doing things, which is another aspect of the honesty that you were talking about. When he goes to Oxford to campaign for the anti-Lord Hailsham candidate in the by-election, he stops and asks himself,
what am I doing it for?
Mainly for fun, partly for a half-believed-in
Principle, a core
Of fact in a pulp of verbiage
It's an extraordinarily unheroic, not principle really, but half-believed-in principle that's motivating him to act in this way.
You couldn't think of a rhetorical act that's different than saying ‘I am for Spain’ or something like that.
MF: Yes. He did always cast a cold eye on those who were caught up in utopian politics, but he does go back to Spain, doesn't he, during the war and he has a trip to Barcelona, which is recorded towards the end of the poem. He was always in two minds about things, wasn't he. He didn't fight in Spain, but he goes there. He almost settles in America as Auden and Isherwood had done, he goes there in I think 1941.
MF: 1940, and stays there ten months and almost dies there, doesn't he, of peritonitis. But in the end, while he could have stayed and got in on the university bandwagon, which Auden was about to get onto, he comes back to do his bit in war-torn Britain. And that involves taking a job with the BBC and working in mediums that made him write what could be construed as propaganda almost, that he was doing his bit for the BBC and the country.
SP: Working alongside Empson and the Liars’ School, as they cheerfully called it. And he does do a whole range of programmes of one kind or another. Some, as you say about the United States army and other morale-boosting topics like that, but he also starts writing radio plays, which I guess is a fairly new genre, for obvious reasons. He writes one about Christopher Columbus, doesn't he, which is quite popular in its day, and one towards the end of the war called The Dark Tower. And these are obviously taken seriously enough by himself as well as by his publisher to appear as books with the Faber imprint. They must be amongst the first radio plays ever to be printed in a poetry list.
MF: It was a new genre, wasn't it? The radio play. And he was in on the ground floor.
They tie in a bit with that attempt to reach a popular audience that Eliot's plays exemplify, and Auden's plays. He had had plays put on by the group, hadn't he, before as well.
SP: Yes. There’s a translation of Agamemnon, isn't there, that they direct.
MF: It was through the theatre that he met his second wife, didn't he, Hedley Anderson, who was a crucial figure for him as well. She was a singer and Auden wrote poems for her. And she was crucial for MacNeice's survival for the next twenty years. I think we should probably mention that ‘the drunkenness of things being various’ wasn't entirely a metaphor for MacNeice. From the forties onwards he was often drunk. And there are lots of anecdotes about working with him at the BBC by such as Anthony Thwaite and co. He used to hang out in the pubs with Dylan Thomas, he was a great admirer, though it seems Thomas didn't return the compliment. But his alcoholism, while not as extreme as that of some such as John Berryman or Elizabeth Bishop, it certainly features, I think, perhaps, in the dip in quality of his output for the late forties and fifties. And what is so extraordinary to me about MacNeice's later career is the incredible return to form. In fact not to form, but to a whole new kind of poetic idiom in his last few books, particularly in The Burning Perch, which was his last book, which contains many of his very best poems and some of the most influential and powerful poems of the century. And I don't think you would have predicted that if you were reading ‘Autumn Sequel’, which alas is nowhere near as interesting or good as ‘Autumn Journal’. And he was becalmed. He did a lot of travelling in this time. He's writing his BBC plays. He was propping up the bar in some Fitzrovia pub quite often. And there was a kind of directionlessness, or he himself felt he was suffering… in some ways had betrayed himself by doing a nine to five job, though clearly the Features department were very far from nine to five. It's extraordinary. Anyone working in radio or TV since will be amazed at the amount of free time they had. He did write a lot of plays, but Marilyn Butler is rather rude about them in the piece in the LRB. And I quite enjoy The Dark Tower, that seems to me the best of them, but they don't stack up when one looks at them in comparison with a late volume such as The Burning Perch.
SP: So he finally after twenty years leaves the BBC in 1961. In his biography Jon Stallworthy recounts the story of his final interview with the BBC bureaucrat who's been brought in to audit the department in which MacNeice is working. The story, apparently, according to Stallworthy, became a BBC legend, because the bureaucrat says to MacNeice that he's looked at his output for the last six months and MacNeice seems to have produced one short programme. ‘What have you been doing the rest of the time?’ And MacNeice says, ‘thinking’! Anyway, that was a sign that it was time for him to go, so he goes freelance at the BBC in 1961. And whether it's coincidence or whether it's a result of being able to direct all his attentions back onto poetry again, he does have this extraordinary late flourishing, doesn't he, which also coincides with his last great love. The marriage with Hedley breaks up, and he meets a woman called Mary Winbush, who's been acting in the BBC company. So lots of things going on in that way. But imaginatively, slightly different things are happening, aren't they, in these later poems. There's an increasing interest in what you mentioned earlier on as an aspect of the earlier poems, but an increasing interest in these later poems in parable and the idea of parabolic narratives that like all good parables are actually rather mysterious and difficult to crack.
MF: Yes. Parable and repetition. And in these poems you really get the full MacNeice delirium or the sense in which some emotion is driving the poems rather than him being in control of them. And that's often the theme of the poems. One of the brilliant ones is called ‘Soap suds’, which exemplifies this use of repetition, which I think is one of his great innovations in these late poems. And he's washing his hands in the soap. Well, I'll read it.
This brand of soap has the same smell as once in the big
House he visited when he was eight: the walls of the bathroom open
To reveal a lawn where a great yellow ball rolls back through a hoop
To rest at the head of a mallet held in the hands of a child.
And these were the joys of that house: a tower with a telescope;
Two great faded globes, one of the earth, one of the stars;
A stuffed black dog in the hall; a walled garden with bees;
A rabbit warren; a rockery; a vine under glass; the sea.
To which he has now returned. The day of course is fine
And a grown-up voice cries Play! The mallet slowly swings,
Then crack, a great gong booms from the dog-dark hall and the ball
Skims forward through the hoop and then through the next and then
Through hoops where no hoops were and each dissolves in turn
And the grass has grown head-high and an angry voice cries Play!
But the ball is lost and the mallet slipped long since from the hands
Under the running tap that are not the hands of a child.
There's a real Alice in Wonderland aspect to that poem, isn't there. You can see the rectory that he grew up in modelled in it, and this kind of dissolving return to it. A lot of these poems are about what Ian Hamilton once put in a preface to a volume, ‘somehow getting to be 50’! And these poems are looking back on the past and saying, how did I get here? And returning to a past moment and marvelling at the difference between then and now. And the imagery returns on itself as in a nightmare or some kind of distorting dream effect, and the croquet obviously to some extent derives from Alice in Wonderland. We're obviously in Ireland, aren't we, in the big house. I think ‘dog-dark hall’ is just a brilliant formulation and the kind of thing that only MacNeice could do.
SP: It has a kind of dream logic to it, doesn't it. And part of the dream quality of it is the oddly intense visual power of certain things that it mentions. And I think it's Hugo Williams who said of the poem that the greatest touch in it is the fact that the ball is yellow. There’s something absolutely vividly intense about the yellowness of the ball, like something which is so unshakably lodged in your memory from childhood that you can't shake it out.
MF: And the great gong, which is obviously the gong for lunch or dinner, but also reminds you of the gongs in Yeats’s ‘Byzantium’ and so on, so the ways in which those literary allusions get buried in this tremendous onward pulse of the poem. The thrust of all these poems is irresistible, and many of them have this returning quest-like, but also returning quality to some moment. This one in an essence is a Proustian moment, isn't it? It's like the madeleine. It returns him to this moment in childhood, but it's delivered with incredible idiosyncrasy and vividness. Which others of The Burning Perch ones are you drawn to?
SP: Well, I thought we might just say a word about ‘The Taxis’, which has always struck me as, again, a poem that only MacNeice could have written. He's very interested in transport, isn't he. He's very interested in buses and trains and taxis and cars and that sort of thing throughout his writing life. Lots of people are interested in trains in the thirties because they seem to be a symbol of modernity, whether that's a good thing or a bad thing. But by this stage, the 1960s, taxis are fairly humdrum, they don’t seem to have any particular epochal resonance, but MacNeice in this poem turns taxis into agents of hell!
MF: Yes. And buses as well in ‘Charon’, which is another brilliant poem. And ‘The Taxis’ is really fantastic if you are of a certain age, and you are thinking, how did I get here? Because it's a brilliant parable about growing old and death. Death haunts MacNeice from ‘Autobiography’ onwards, or from his very earliest times. And he's finding parables which somehow compress a life and its inevitable end in a way which is hilarious as well as terrifying. ‘The Taxis’'s use of ‘tra-la’, connecting to, again, the nursery, is again the kind of thing you might find in a Sylvia Plath poem.
In the first taxi he was alone tra-la,
No extras on the clock. He tipped ninepence
But the cabby, while he thanked him, looked askance
As though to suggest someone had bummed a ride.
In the second taxi he was alone tra-la
But the clock showed sixpence extra; he tipped according
And the cabby from out his muffler said: ‘Make sure
You have left nothing behind tra-la between you’.
In the third taxi he was alone tra-la
But the tip-up seats were down and there was an extra
Charge of one-and-sixpence and an odd
Scent that reminded him of a trip to Cannes.
As for the fourth taxi, he was alone
Tra-la when he hailed it but the cabby looked
Through him and said: ‘I can’t tra-la well take
So many people, not to speak of the dog.’
SP: There’s the dog again! I think it's terrific, the way that ‘tra-la’, as this token of lyricism or token of oral poetry or something, gets converted in that last verse into a euphemism for ‘bloody’, or some other swear word. It's such a wonderful gesture on MacNeice's part, a kind of attitude towards poetry summed up in that tiny little lexical joke.
MF: And it's just taking the metaphor of, as you say, somebody's got baggage, somebody has got emotional baggage with them as they get to a certain age, and this is the emotional baggage, but also the specificity of that ‘odd scent that reminded him of a trip to Cannes’. Again, that's the lipstick cigarette butts which Larkin referred to, that sentimentality about a doomed love affair, which yet lingers in the mind. The poems in The Burning Perch have extraordinary compression, although their language is not difficult, they don't seem obscure in any way, but they compress into these microcosmic spaces a whole life and do it with a kind of jauntiness. MacNeice didn't know he was going to die. He died of pneumonia caught going down a cave, and then not getting dressed from his wet clothes, going straight to the pub. And that's what did for him. And he died when he was only 55, which was a great shame. But these poems do seem death-haunted, don’t they.
SP: They do, and they also seem wonderfully inconsequential. In a way, some of the qualities of the earlier MacNeice that we've been talking about have persisted through to this, but have been turned into this new, as you say, rather jaunty sort of comical tragical manner. So, for example, one of the things about ‘The Taxis’ that's so striking is that he is emphatically alone, he's alone in every stanza, and the kinds of narrative pattern that you expect from a story that begins ‘in the first taxi’, ‘in the second taxi’, ‘but in the third taxi’, but you never get a ‘but’, you just get more ‘and’. This is one taxi after another taxi after another taxi! And you're not actually obviously progressing anywhere.
MF: It’s replaying childhood stories as well. I think that the link to the childhood has come full circle, and he's able to tap into all those memories. The book ends with one called ‘Coda’, which does look like an ending, and again it uses repetition as a way of configuring the past. He uses the line ‘maybe we knew each other better’ in a different position in each of its very short three-line, three stanzas, and that is a kind of patterning which is what makes these poems work, I think.
SP: It's a lovely poem, isn't it. I think we should end with ‘Coda’, it's a lovely poem about that same loneliness, that same isolation, but also it's written through with a beautiful tenderness of address, isn't it. Loneliness in MacNeice very rarely turns into misanthropy, which I think is one of the greatest things about his verse. Do you want to end by reading ‘Coda’?
Maybe we knew each other better
When the night was young and unrepeated
And the moon stood still over Jericho.
So much for the past; in the present
There are moments caught between heart-beats
When maybe we know each other better.
But what is that clinking in the darkness?
Maybe we shall know each other better
When the tunnels meet beneath the mountain.