Vol. 9 No. 10 · 21 May 1987
SIR: It is reassuring to know that Denis Donoghue, reviewing Louis MacNeice’s Selected Literary Criticism (LRB, 23 April), shares enough of the ‘currently renewed interest’ in that poet to admit that it is time his reputation was allowed to escape from Auden’s shadow. It is more puzzling, however, to read Donoghue’s protests against MacNeice’s status as a ‘precursor’ of contemporary Northern Irish poets: the root of his objection (and certainly its implication) would seem to be that MacNeice had little claim to be called ‘Irish’ in the first place. This issue, as Donoghue admits, is an old one, and was active while MacNeice was alive: since his death, though, one would have thought that it had been effectively decided by the poet’s pervasive and vital presence in the best work of poets such as Mahon, Longley, Paulin and Muldoon. Donoghue’s reiteration of the old slurs on MacNeice (‘his work touches Irish history and sentiment only occasionally and opportunistically’, ‘he wasn’t sufficiently interested in what was going on’) reads like a last-ditch attempt to purge Irish writing of a foreign virus. Are we to assume that the Northern poets have been poisoned, made less ‘Irish’, by their contact with MacNeice?
It is wrong to assume that MacNeice dealt with Irish material ‘opportunistically’, as though such material was good copy and nothing more. Isn’t most poetry, in any case, to some degree opportunistic with regard to its subject? And might not Yeats be considered the supreme Irish opportunist in this respect? MacNeice always thought of himself as an Irishman, and considered that he had a right to deal with Ireland personally and honestly in his writing: the most cursory reading of ‘The Closing Album’ (1939) or ‘A Hand of Snapshots’ (1957) reveals an involvement far in excess of the opportunistic. Is an Irishman only an Irishman when he is analysing the Literary Revival, endorsing wartime neutrality or singing the praises of the Gaelic League? Is, for example, the bitter poem ‘Neutrality’ a piece of Anglicised opportunism on MacNeice’s part?
The assertion that MacNeice had little interest in Irish affairs is simply incorrect. One example in particular seems pertinent: in 1960 it was MacNeice who, in a review written at his own request for the Observer, brought to the attention of a British audience the issues raised by Sam Thompson’s Belfast play Over the Bridge. MacNeice emphasised the reality of ‘religious bigotry, primarily Protestant bigotry – but this is only because the Protestants in Ulster are in the majority’. The play was to have far-reaching effects on the Unionist status quo, which had attempted to prevent its being staged: MacNeice’s review is hardly the work of a man with little interest in his own country.
As for the contemporary poets of the North, Donoghue cannot possibly mean, in the face of so much evident indebtedness, that MacNeice is not their precursor: what he seems to mean really is that MacNeice is the wrong sort of precursor for them to have. It would be interesting to hear in more detail the reasons for this. Too Northern? Too much influenced by the English? Too Protestant? MacNeice learnt a great deal from being at the centre of the poetic culture of Thirties England; arguably, recent Northern Irish poets have profited from those lessons. At any rate MacNeice’s poetry, deliberately impure and uncomfortable as it may seem to some kinds of Irish taste, is now a crucial imaginative resource for Irish writers. Professor Donoghue’s objections have come too late to make much difference in that respect.
Christ Church, Oxford
Vol. 9 No. 11 · 4 June 1987
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
Vol. 9 No. 12 · 25 June 1987
SIR: May I reply briefly to Peter McDonald (Letters, 21 May) and Edna Longley (Letters, 4 June) on the question of Louis MacNeice. I have never congratulated myself ‘on being more Irish than MacNeice’, or even adverted to the felicity alluded to. I’m not at all interested in Irishness (or Russianness or Americanness) if it is regarded as a metaphysical essence more or less inadequately embodied in writers A, B and C. I am concerned with the condition of being Irish only if it is construed as a consequence of forces historical, social, religious, economic and so forth which one might hope to understand.
As for MacNeice’s ‘claim to be called “Irish” ’, I didn’t mention that he had made one. I quoted, as evidently bearing upon the question of MacNeice’s relation to the poetry of Northern Ireland, Derek Mahon’s statement that MacNeice ‘had no place in the intellectual history of modern Ireland; his place was in Oxford, Hampstead, or Broadcasting House, among Englishmen who had had the same sort of education as himself.’ If Edna Longley and Peter McDonald dispute that, they have a quarrel with Mahon rather than with me. I suggested that the project of using MacNeice as precursor of contemporary poetry in Northern Ireland is dubious, if only because his interest in Irish life was occasional, opportunistic and (I would now say) picturesque. It seems to me absurd to compare MacNeice with Yeats in this respect. There is a real argument about the quality of Yeats’s engagement with Ireland, the local acts and contingencies, mythological impulsions, and the imputed destiny, all of these exacerbating his poetry, but there is no argument about the passion with which he confronted these issues. MacNeice’s interest in such matters seems to me a far more tepid sentiment. The fact that he wrote a good book about Yeats is not in dispute, but it doesn’t refute anything I’ve said.
The most interesting part of Edna Longley’s letter is her reference to ‘the tension of Belfast-Dublin-London’ felt, she says, by contemporary poets of Northern Ireland. That is their problem, but not mine. Belfast-Dublin is enough for me. I don’t feel any obligation which may be indicated by a reference to London, a foreign city I visit with pleasure. If Edna Longley feels this triangular tension, well and good. I would hope to understand her sentiment, too, in historical terms.
Vol. 9 No. 13 · 9 July 1987
SIR: Denis Donoghue argues that Louis MacNeice’s claim to be a ‘precursor’ of the contemporary Northern Irish poets is ‘dubious’, because his interest in Irish life was ‘occasional, opportunistic’ and ‘picturesque’ (Letters, 25 June). It may be due to the very fact that MacNeice’s identity as an Ulster and Irish writer is complex or problematic that Ulster poets today find him interesting as an example. It is possible that his blend of belonging and not belonging, of complicity and estrangement, is felt by Ulster poets to be a version of what they feel about their town, province or nation. Donoghue’s reasons for doubting MacNeice’s validity as such a precursor seem to rest on a simplistic notion of how poets read their predecessors, as though poets are like relay runners who will only accept the baton from an athlete wearing the same colour of shirt as their own. MacNeice’s anger at his homeland, as expressed in ‘Autumn Journal’, XVI, an anger directed at both sides of the border, sounds a note of estrangement which has influenced the work of Mahon, Paulin and Muldoon. Furthermore, his earliest poem about Ulster, ‘Belfast’ (1931), would seem to have proved a rich source work for Seamus Heaney in his writing of ‘Docker’ and ‘Poor Women in a City Church’ (1966). None of which necessarily makes MacNeice as grand a thing as a ‘precursor’, but his profound influence should be recognised.
If it is doubtful that MacNeice’s interest in Irish life was ‘occasional’ and ‘opportunistic’, it is plainly wrong to say that that interest was, as Donoghue ventures, ‘picturesque’:
And the North, where I was a boy,
Is still the North, veneered with the grime of Glasgow,
Thousands of men whom nobody will employ
Standing at the corners, coughing.
(Autumn Journal’, XVI)
In his review of the Selected Criticism of MacNeice (LRB, 23 April), Donoghue writes that MacNeice lived in Ulster for a ‘few years’ (which we might take to mean at most four), but in the next sentence he reveals it was ten. And this is not counting his holidays at Carrick from school and from Oxford; nor is it acknowledging the times when he ‘often went back to Ireland for vacations or to see rugby matches in Dublin’. Donoghue wishes to deny MacNeice’s Northern background and upbringing, for the purpose of his argument that he was deracinated and thus not possibly a ‘precursor’. He claims that MacNeice ‘thought the attempt to revive the Irish language was daft,’ that he ‘deplored’ Irish neutrality: but this is no evidence that MacNeice was not interested in ‘what was going on’ in Ireland. Such attitudes were common in the North, and still are, and are held by people who care very much about what is going on the country.
It seems absurd, also, to say that MacNeice’s poems present Ireland as ‘beautiful but dumb’. There is nothing beautiful about thousands of unemployed men, living in grime, nor about
The bullet on the wet
Streets, the crooked deal,
The steel behind the laugh,
The Four Courts burnt.
That is beauty of a strictly terrible kind. MacNeice disowned both Orange ‘voodoo’ and Republican violence, and he presented these forces as eloquent and vicious.
SIR: Like Denis Donoghue, I am interested in Irishness ‘only if it is construed as a consequence of forces historical, social, religious, economic and so forth’. Unfortunately, because ‘Irish’ as a political term is narrower than ‘Irish’ as a descriptive term, construers often neglect the particular combination of forces which acted on Louis MacNeice and his poetry. Thus essentialism may sneak in by the back door. Similarly, I have never understood why hobnobbing with the English intelligentsia in London is regarded as more of a defection than hobnobbing with the intelligentsia in Paris or New York.
What MacNeice’s poetry has to say to Ireland is not only measurable as subject-matter, but is also a question of images, structures, vision. His autobiography The strings are false and his essay ‘Experiences with Images’ indicate just how thoroughly his Ulster childhood ‘conditioned’ – a favourite word – his imagination. Many of the striking differences between MacNeice and Auden can be referred back to ‘smoky Carrick in County Antrim’, and to the fact that MacNeice was, in his own words, ‘an Irishman of Southern blood and Northern upbringing whose father was a Protestant bishop and also a fervent Home Ruler’. For instance, MacNeice’s poetic treatment of politics and religion is influenced by forces which never touched Auden. But of course MacNeice does not belong exclusively to Carrickfergus any more than he does to Oxford (which he detested) or Hampstead. His cultural complexities helped his poetry to transcend the parochialisms of Belfast-Dublin-London. And when I mentioned the current pressure of this triangle, I simply meant that no writer from the North, unlike his counterparts in the Republic, can ignore a British literary dimension whatever his attitude to it. I agree with Donoghue that I have a quarrel with Derek Mahon, whose poetry I would put in evidence rather than his statements. But Mahon’s statements quarrel with themselves. Talking to Terence Brown (Poetry Ireland, Autumn 1985), he first of all repeats his view, quoted by Donoghue, that MacNeice is ‘not really part of the intellectual history of modern Ireland’. Then, to Brown’s suggestion, ‘Yet in a way you made him part of it, ’ Mahon replies: ‘My generation did.’ Earlier, Mahon has significantly linked MacNeice with another literary expatriate: ‘I responded to Beckett, whom I read in my last year at Trinity, in the same way I responded to MacNeice, whom I read in my last year at school. I felt in each case, here was a familiar voice whispering in my ear.’ (MacNeice felt himself akin to Beckett, whom he was among the first to call ‘an Irish playwright, far nearer to Synge than to Sartre’.) I have no doubts that the Irish relevance of MacNeice, invisible to some of his Dublin contemporaries and perhaps still to a city he said ‘will not/Have me alive or dead’, is being increasingly proved by his posterity.
Queen’s University, Belfast