SIR: During his lifetime Louis MacNeice often had to put up with reviews by Englishmen who complained that he wasn’t Auden, and reviews by Irishmen who complained that he wasn’t Irish. Denis Donoghue’s patronising response (LRB, 23 April) to the long-awaited Selected Literary Criticism of Louis MacNeice is the last straw. And despite Donoghue’s concession that ‘it is time to … acknowledge’ that MacNeice ‘had his own voice’ independent of Auden’s (the time for this was fifty years ago), his review throws the same bucket of cold water over MacNeice’s literary and ethnic credentials.
MacNeice’s complex imaginative negotiations with ‘my far-near country’ are evident to most people who read his work with attention, and critical discussion of the matter has advanced beyond Time was away (cited by Donoghue). In 1941 he offered himself as an example not of ‘exile’ but of ‘uprootedness’: ‘Born in Ireland of Irish parents, I have never felt properly “at home" in England, yet I can write here better than in Ireland. In America I feel rather more at home than in England (America has more of Ireland in it), but I am not sure how well I would work if I settled there permanently.’ On ‘Carrick Revisited’, MacNeice’s poetic rendering of ‘uprootedness’, Donoghue comments: ‘he makes more of a fuss about this than it appears to warrant.’ In his recently published collection of essays and reviews, We Irish, Donoghue thinks that James Joyce also made too much fuss about leaving Ireland: ‘I have never felt inclined to lose much sleep over Joyce’s exile.’ But whereas the unfussed critic may indeed sleep, art consists in making a fuss, self-dramatisation, mythologising. It is because MacNeice did dramatise his cultural coordinates that he has become a key figure on the literary wing of current debates about ‘identity’ in Northern Ireland. This follows on from his importance to poets of a later generation who, in different ways from MacNeice and from each other, have experienced the tension of Belfast-Dublin-London. When Donoghue congratulates himself on being more Irish than MacNeice, he simply betrays that his own Irishness is of a kind that does not – will not? – admit MacNeice’s: ‘He had no interest in the Irish Literary Revival or the provocations which issued in it, he thought the attempt to revive the Irish language was daft – an error of judgment, in my view – and he deplored, as I do not, Ireland’s neutrality in the war.’
Instead of contradicting the poet with his own judgments, the professor might have explored the reasons why MacNeice’s background and relationships made him deplore neutrality:
to the west off your own shores the mackerel Are fat – on the flesh of your kin.
MacNeice lost a close friend in the North Atlantic, but the issue goes deeper than that and its unresolved ambiguities are now surfacing in a referendum about Irish sovereignty within the EEC. ‘No interest in the Irish Literary Revival’? References to Yeats occupy a column and a half of the index to Selected Literary Criticism; and not only reviews, but the prominence of Yeats in MacNeice’s general essays about poetry, valuably amplify his pioneering study, The Poetry of W.B. Yeats (1941). This is still the first book I would recommend to students for its vitality as the work of a younger poet who engages with Yeats partly in order to define his own aesthetic. MacNeice’s fascination with Yeats requires no loyalty test towards the Revival (itself under suspicion, as Donoghue knows, of being non-national), but it goes deeper than Auden’s because of an inescapable cultural identification: ‘Like Yeats I was brought up in an Irish middleclass Protestant family. I allow for the difference that he spent his childhood in the primitive west, whereas I spent mine in the industrial north.’ He did not think Ireland ‘beautiful but dumb’, he thought it beautiful but deadly: ‘Built upon violence and morose vendettas’. Donoghue misses the irony of the passage he quotes from Section XVI of Autumn Journal, and passages he does not quote show how MacNeice’s understanding of Ireland’s political introversion feeds into his critique of the conditions and attitudes which produced Munich. Where his analysis reaches Ulster it remains as fresh as ever:
I envy the intransigence of my own
Countrymen who shoot to kill and never
See the victim’s face become their own
Or find his motive sabotage their motives …
And one read black where the other read white his hope
The other man’s damnation:
Up the Rebels, To Hell with the Pope,
And God Save – as you prefer – the King or Ireland.
This is not the writing of a man whose ‘work touches Irish history and sentiment only occasionally and opportunistically’ or who ‘wasn’t sufficiently interested in what was going on’. MacNeice knew all too well what was going on, north and south. As ever, it all depends what you mean by ‘Irish history and sentiment’.
Donoghue’s morose vendetta against MacNeice extends to younger poets who have been influenced by him. We Irish includes no detailed consideration of contemporary Irish poetry except for the work of Seamus Heaney, and even in Heaney’s case he misunderstands how influence operates. For the creator, influence is not a matter of seeking an imprimatur from the critic’s often frigid and belated pantheon: ‘Seamus Heaney … has written of Kavanagh in terms which I can’t see justified by anything Kavanagh has written, so I assume that Heaney’s debt to him must be personal.’ Personal? As with MacNeice and nationality, so with Heaney and Kavanagh: what Donoghue doesn’t see doesn’t exist. He also doesn’t see the superiority, certainly the greater adventurousness, of Paul Muldoon’s Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry as compared with Kinsella’s New Oxford Book of Irish Verse. Muldoon’s copious opening selections from Kavanagh and MacNeice seem fundamental to what follows.
I hope that potential purchasers of the Selected Literary Criticism will trust Peter Forbes’s enthusiasm in the Listener rather than Donoghue’s dismissiveness. Donoghue obscures the book’s sparky intelligence by hunting down the feeblest sentences he can possibly find. MacNeice’s statement about ‘Prufrock’ (‘I saw no form in it, and, with the exception of the mermaids at the end, got little kick from it’) comes from an essay called ‘Eliot and the Adolescent’, and deserves no sneer as an unconsidered ‘first reading’. In the long essay ‘Poetry Today’ (1935) MacNeice says: ‘For me the history of post-war poetry in England is the history of Eliot and the reaction from Eliot.’ The Selected Literary Criticism consistently illuminates the history of poetry since 1930, and especially clarifies MacNeice’s crucial perspective on the literary-political arguments of his own generation. It is, above all, a poet’s criticism. MacNeice disliked the jargon and caution of many academic critics, particularly with regard to contemporary literature. Thus he warmed to Randall Jarrell’s Poetry and the Age in ‘a world where most of the sceptics are cold pike and most of the enthusiasts are melting jellyfish’. Fortunately, he is himself too big a fish to perish in Professor Donoghue’s jaws.
Queen’s University, Belfast
SIR: A question for your readers. What do the following poets have in common: R.L. Barth, Edgar Bowers, J.V. Cunningham, Janet Lewis, N. Scott Momaday, John Peck, Timothy Steele and Alan Stephens? I can think of four answers. All of them have spent at least part of their lives in California. All of them at one time or another have been nourished on the poetry and teaching of Yvor Winters. All of them have written marvellous poems (though not all those poems, I hasten to add, were or would have been approved by Winters). And not one of them appears in Helen Vendler’s Faber Book of Contemporary American Poetry. (Anyone who doubts the seriousness of this omission should take a look at the selection from Bowers’s work in Donald Hall’s Penguin Book of Contemporary American Poetry.) One could draw up a still more impressive list of poets in the ‘open’ tradition indebted to Pound and Williams who are similarly excluded from Vendler’s book – Thomas Clark in the latest issue of Agenda lists some twenty such.
John Kerrigan, in his interesting review of the anthology (LRB, 2 April), draws attention to other misjudgments and omissions, but is altogether too kind. Vendler’s selection is so partial as to be virtually sectarian. Anyone who can manage the stylish neuroticism favoured by the Sixties or the formless solipsism of the Seventies and Eighties is in – provided they are recognised in New York. This last seems to be the key to the book, which is in fact the Harvard Book of Contemporary American Poetry slapped between Faber covers. It seeks to promote the assumption that contemporary American verse is anything from New York that confirms the literary theories of Harvard professors. That assumption has now received the Faber imprimatur: which means in effect that it has been endorsed by the similarly powerful London-Oxford axis that holds sway over here. The tragedy is that, whatever objections are made to it in reviews, it will possess for years to come an authority it does not begin to deserve. The real sufferer will be poetry itself, if poetry is concerned, not with elegant fantasy, but with accuracy – of thought, feeling, perception, form and rhythm.
SIR: The Art of Edward Thomas, a collection of critical essays edited by Jonathan Barker, has recently been published by the Poetry Wales Press. I am one of the contributors. In the course of his Introduction, Mr Barker has the following remarks to make: ‘Several contributors mention Thomas as a poet involved in World War I; especially John Pikoulis, whose closely argued psychological and passionate approach is at variance with the tone of the other essays. He alone in this anthology thinks that Thomas at one time considered divorce: I remain unconvinced by the meagre evidence for this view and dissociate myself from it while allowing John Pikoulis his opinion.’ I find the tone of these remarks offensive. It is not often that an editor seeks to detach himself from one of his contributors so conspicuously. Indeed, when I first read Mr Barker’s words, I felt that, in registering his disagreement with me (about which I would have had no complaint), he had impugned my scholarship. At the same time, he appeared to have rallied his other contributors against me, with or without their knowledge – a considerable act of discourtesy. Certainly, there could be no mistaking his attempt to isolate me both in respect of my views about Edward Thomas’s wish to divorce his wife, Helen, and of my general mode of address, which he labels ‘psychological’ and ‘passionate’. What might have passed as a description of the qualities of my contribution shades into a limiting judgment of it.
I was particularly uncertain what to make of Mr Barker’s appeal to my fellow contributors to isolate me on the question of the divorce. Had he actually gone around canvassing their views and received their permission to be quoted against me on the issue? Or had he taken the absence of their mention of the issue to signify disagreement with me? There seems to be no reason why a contributor on, say. Thomas and Modernism or Thomas’s prose or Thomas’s literary criticism should feel obliged to mention the divorce, yet I cannot believe that Mr Barker acted with the deviousness necessary to the first hypothesis. The fact remains: the other contributors have been quoted against me. I only hope they all knew about it beforehand.
I am also unhappy that Mr Barker should have said that my grounds for asserting that Thomas had wanted to divorce his wife are ‘meagre’. By putting it in this way, he has called my scholarship into question and obliged me to defend it. The reader might well want to know why the editor should want to print the views of one whose standards were so unreliable. The evidence comes from Robert Frost as related by his biographer, Professor Lawrance Thompson of Princeton University, in his Robert Frost: The Early Years 1874-1915. There is general appreciation of Frost’s nearness to Thomas, and it was to him that he obsessively confessed his wish to divorce Helen in the winter of 1913-14 and afterwards. (Mr Barker’s ‘Thomas at one time considered divorce’ is a particularly disingenuous way of putting it, misrepresenting my views even as he condemns them.) That Thomas made his confession to no one else is hardly surprising. Who else would he have turned to in these distressing circumstances but to his closest friend? In the present collection of essays, John Bayley has this to say about Frost: ‘the influence and inspiration of Robert Frost’s visit to England was more important even than had been previously supposed. Thomas found he could unburden himself entirely to Frost, as an American, a poet, a man of understanding and sympathy unique in this context, as he could not to any of his friends, or to his wife.’ Frost’s ‘sympathy and intuition were remarkable.’ How could evidence from such a source be thought to be ‘meagre’? It is only that no one has taken it seriously before, thanks to Helen Thomas.
Worse follows. In his closing remarks, Mr Barker says he has ‘allowed’ me to state my views when, in fact, he has not done so. (I pass over the view that an editor is the licensee of the opinions of his contributors rather than one who facilitates their emergence and acts as an advisor.) On page 120 of the book the following pair of sentences appears: ‘That year, he [i.e. Thomas] decided to leave home and stayed away from October until the following February. When that failed I think he decided to divorce Helen.’ These are not my words but Mr Barker’s, though they appear to be mine. My text has been altered without my knowledge and without my consent. Mr Barker had sought to make me add the words ‘I think’ to the last sentence but I declined, both because I had presented the evidence in my ‘closely-argued’ essay and because I felt readers would not be in any doubt that the views I was advancing were my own and nobody else’s. If we all had to add ‘I think’ to every contentious statement in our essays, there would be no end of thinking in them. I may have been wrong; Mr Barker may have been right to press for the change. The fact remains I did not want it and that Mr Barker has altered it against my wishes. All this despite an assurance I had received that the essay would appear precisely as I wished it after all proposed alterations and excisions had been considered and accepted or rejected. Our view of Thomas as a man and as a poet has been heavily influenced by his wife and it was against that influence that I wrote my essay. What I wished to say on the divorce was therefore crucial. The qualifying phrase inserted by Mr Barker robs it of its force. It is an intervention in favour of the romanticising, self-deluding (though at the same time powerfully persuasive) views of As it was and World without End, though no one could guess so from the apparently generous condescension of Mr Barker’s remarks and my only too apparent readiness to ‘think’ in my essay. ‘Get the guest’ was one of the games played in Albee’s Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? I now know what he meant after my treatment at the hands of Mr Barker.
University College, Cardiff
SIR: The old wisdom is to ignore stupid reviewers. Now and then, however, it serves to post quarantine signs. So a brief note about John Sutherland, who managed to misquote, mis-attribute intentions, misuse the language and mistake the very title of the book he was reviewing, all within three hundred and fifty-odd words – cf., his review of The Position of the Body, LRB, 2 April. Sinners usually wear their scarlet letters somewhere. So Sutherland singled one piece out for his thin venom. I wondered why, checked up and read the sentence which revealed him: ‘The writer was one of those critics who … conceals spite behind stupidity and always interrupts to deform or silence intelligence.’
University of Chicago
SIR: In charging that my book the Interrupted Moment avoids ‘dangerous junctures’ your reviewer ignores, ironically, its most radical intention: namely, to illustrate how anarchist ideology informs Virginia Woolf’s aesthetics. If, as Gillian Beer states (LRB, 23 April), she was surprised by my concluding chapter, she cannot have read my book very carefully. From its inception I argue that interruptions serve in the novels to de-centre existing structures of art and society, to loosen a dependence upon all species of authoritarian leadership and to inspire, instead, both mutuality and discernibly libertarian impulses. The explications of The Years and Between the Acts repeatedly anticipate my final analysis of Woolf’s liberated society of Outsiders in Three Guineas, organised without ‘leaders or any hierarchy’. So I find Ms Beer’s claim that my discussion of anarchism is ‘generalised’ and ‘muted’ especially perplexing. I suspect that in her impatience to get to Alex Zwerdling’s fine book, she chose largely to ignore my essential argument.
President, Virginia Woolf Society,
For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.