Denis Donoghue writes about Louis MacNeice, and the thrusting of Shakespeare into touch

  • Selected Literary Criticism of Louis MacNeice edited by Alan Heuser
    Oxford, 279 pp, £19.50, March 1987, ISBN 0 19 818573 1

This is the first of two volumes in which Alan Heuser is making a selection of Louis MacNeice’s occasional writings. The first is mainly his reviews of Classical and modern literature; the second will bring together his fugitive pieces on philosophy, history, travel and autobiography. The currently renewed interest in MacNeice arises from two considerations: one, that he deserves better than to be regarded as merely one of Auden’s acolytes; two, that he may be seen as precursor to the young poets in Northern Ireland who have been making a stir, if not a Renaissance, since 1968. The first reason is cogent. MacNeice’s work didn’t issue from Auden’s overcoat; it is time to remove it from the simplifications of literary history and acknowledge that he had his own voice. The second reason is dubious. I agree with Thomas Kinsella’s view, in his Introduction to The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse (1986), that a ‘Northern Ireland Renaissance’ is ‘largely a journalistic entity’. Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon, John Montague, Paul Muldoon, Seamus Deane, Michael Longley and their colleagues are from the North, and they are poets: but they are individual poets, not a school. They are not even two rival schools, though some of them have started fabricating a split, presumably in the hope of establishing that there are real forces at war.

The attempt to make MacNeice a precursor seems to have begun in 1974 in Time was away: The World of Louis MacNeice, edited by Terence Brown and Alec Reid, but at that stage it was a tentative thing. Indeed, Derek Mahon’s essay in that book, ‘MacNeice in England and Ireland’, mentioned the matter only to set it aside. ‘He had no place in the intellectual history of modern Ireland,’ Mahon argued, ‘his place was in Oxford, Hampstead, or Broadcasting House, among Englishmen who had had the same sort of education as himself.’ Still, the question of MacNeice as Irish poet hovered over the book. It is my impression that some of the Northern poets still hope to present MacNeice, not indeed as their Yeats or Joyce, but as their Kavanagh – a poet who seemed inspiring to his juniors, and available to them as Yeats and Joyce never were. Seamus Heaney, for instance, 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 is personal.

MacNeice was born in Belfast ‘between the mountain and the gantries’. But his place in the North, for the few years he lived there, was the Protestant rectory at Carrickfergus. When he was ten, he was sent off to school, Sherborne in Dorset. In the poem ‘Carrick Revisited’ he makes more of a fuss about this than it appears to warrant:

Torn before birth from where my fathers dwelt,
Schooled from the age of ten to a foreign voice,
Yet neither western Ireland nor southern England
Cancels this interlude; what chance misspelt
May never now be righted by my choice.

But I have seen no evidence that the move to England amounted to exile. (Jon Stallworthy is writing the Life of MacNeice and may have evidence in hand.) After Sherborne, MacNeice went to Marlborough, well enough described in his unfinished and posthumously published autobiography, The strings are false (1965). One of MacNeice’s closest friends at Marlborough was Anthony Blunt: ‘He considered it very low to talk politics.’ Then to Oxford, and the rest is literary history, of a sort. He often went back to Ireland for vacations or to see rugby matches in Dublin; his poems about Ireland present the place as beautiful but dumb. 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. Indeed, what disables MacNeice from consideration as a precursor is that his work touches Irish history and sentiment only occasionally and opportunistically. He wasn’t sufficiently interested in what was going on. In Section XVI of Autumn Journal he gives the usual explanation for the defeated charm of the country:

Such was my country and I thought I was well
   Out of it, educated and domiciled in England,
Though yet her name keeps ringing like a bell
   In an under-water belfry.
Why do we like being Irish? Partly because
   It gives us a hold on the sentimental English
As members of a world that never was,
   Baptised with fairy water;
And partly because Ireland is small enough
   To be still thought of with a family feeling,
And because the waves are rough
   That split her from a more commercial culture.

Yes, I suppose so – and I have to concede that Yeats gave poets the lead in this kind of sentiment, good enough for Portland Place. But it’s unworthy matter, after all, and too slack to be taken seriously.

MacNeice’s sustained work in literary criticism is three books: Modern Poetry: A Personal Essay (1938), The Poetry of W.B. Yeats (1941), and the Clark Lectures at Cambridge in 1963, published as Varieties of Parable (1965). The new Selected Literary Criticism reprints material from 1931 to the year of his death, 1963: mostly reviews of Yeats, Eliot, Auden, Dylan Thomas, Robert Frost, a few cultural pronouncements, comments on translations of Greek tragedies – he was happy schoolmastering Gilbert Murray, R.C. Trevelyan, Robert Fitzgerald, and Christopher Logue – and some lively words on Spenser, George Herbert and Norse sagas.

These pieces are interesting, but it’s a pity he didn’t take his journalism seriously. I think he was damaged by a theory he held about ‘double-level poetry’, as he called it in Varieties of Parable. He would rather write verse than prose, and he vaguely divined that he could write a kind of poetry which, apparently concerned with surfaces and references, would somehow at the same time gain reverberation by touching patterns of feeling more fundamental than anything specified. He thought Wordsworth’s ‘Resolution and Independence’ a good example of double-level poetry. He thought, too, that he could achieve this doubleness by going in the other direction, starting with parable or allegory, as in folk ballads of the ‘True Thomas’ kind or George Herbert’s little allegories like ‘Redemption’, and letting the second level, this time a matter of contingency and ordinariness, establish itself mainly because it couldn’t be kept out. The Clark Lectures failed to make much of the theory, and they were a mess in other respects, but at least they show what he was after. They show, too, why he couldn’t take reviewing seriously enough: it moved only on one level, it didn’t have access to the second level, of symbolism and allegory, it was merely news that doesn’t stay news.

So he was content to strike attitudes. He scorned Surrealism, for the wrong reason – because Surrealists didn’t keep their promises. He was high-toned about the Movement: ‘As individuals then, we must welcome some of these New Liners, but as a group or a Movement, let them go.’ Analogies from rugby occurred to him so readily that I assume his mind strayed to Lansdowne Road: ‘Virgil, Shakespeare, Dickens and countless others were thrust into touch in their time.’

Many of his sentences are lazy. Of Auden: ‘What cannot be repeated too often is that he is a poet who has something to write about.’ (That can easily be repeated too often.) ‘Zanies as heroes of fiction have by now, I suggest, had their day. Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men was the ne plus ultra.’ Wrong: there are zanier zanies than Steinbeck’s Lennie, and it says something good about Lennie that he wouldn’t know what MacNeice’s Latin tag is saying. Of Eliot: ‘So we got hold of Eliot and, though at a first reading he seemed unheard-of heavy going, we sensed straight away that he filled the bill.’ ‘Sensed’, indeed. Of ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’: ‘At a first reading I saw no form in it and, with the exception of the mermaids at the end, got little kick from it.’ If that was your first reading, Mr MacNeice, could we please hear your second? Of Dylan Thomas: ‘I never knew the slim and faunlike figure which was painted by Augustus John and which, when he was barely grown up, had swept through literary London rather like a forest fire.’

The best, most energetic piece in the collection is MacNeice’s Introduction to The Golden Ass, William Adlington’s translation (1566) reprinted in the Chiltern Library (1946). In the presence of a Greek or Latin text, MacNeice took the rare pleasure of subduing himself. Without making a theory of it, he makes much of the fact that Apuleius in turning a man into an ass never forgets that he has a double level on his hands: it is a man, indeed, as turned into an ass. MacNeice weir quotes the passage in Marius the Epicurean in which Marius and Flavian read Apuleius’s book and relish his ‘unmistakably real feeling for asses, with bold touches like Swift’s, and a genuine animal breadth’. Distinguishing between Apuleius’s syntax and Cicero’s, MacNeice doesn’t quite explain what the difference means. Peter Levi’s recent comments, in the Times Literary Supplement, on parataxis, and now MacNeice’s on Apuleius’s way of making sentences ‘often without conjunctions, just adding up and adding up’, suggest to me that there’s more to the undifferentiating syntax than meets the bewildered eye. But in any case this is the prose MacNeice I care for.