Like the trees on Primrose Hill

Samuel Hynes

  • Louis MacNeice: A Study by Edna Longley
    Faber, 178 pp, £4.95, August 1988, ISBN 0 571 13748 2
  • Louis MacNeice: Selected Poems edited by Michael Longley
    Faber, 160 pp, £4.95, August 1988, ISBN 0 571 15270 8
  • A Scatter of Memories by Margaret Gardiner
    Free Association, 280 pp, £15.95, November 1988, ISBN 1 85343 043 9

In ‘The Cave of Making’, his elegy for MacNeice, Auden describes his friend as a ‘lover of women and Donegal’. The geography seems a bit wrong – the Irish counties in MacNeice’s heart were surely Antrim and Galway – but the terms are apt enough for the man in the poems: a lover, certainly, and of both women and the land of his birth. A full list of his loves would have to be longer than Auden’s, though. It would go on to include many other affections that composed his life: for friends, London, rugby, drink, Classical languages, fast cars, idle talk, clichés, pubs, and not most of all, perhaps, but most of the time – poetry.

MacNeice commonly presented himself in such terms, as a lover of ordinary pleasures, as in this passage from his book about the London Zoo:

The pleasure of dappled things, the beauty of adaptation to purpose, the glory of extravagance, classic elegance or romantic nonsense and grotesquerie – all these we get from the Zoo. We react to these with the same delight as to new potatoes in April speckled with chopped parsley or to the lights at night on the Thames of Battersea Power House, or to cars sweeping their shadows from lamp-post to lamp-post down Haverstock Hill or to brewer’s drays or to lighthouses and searchlights or to a newly cut lawn or to a hot towel or a friction at the barber’s or to Moran’s two classic tries at Twickenham in 1937 or to the smell of dusting-powder in a warm bathroom or to the fun of shelling peas into a china bowl or of shuffling one’s feet through dead leaves when they are crisp or to the noise of rain or the crackling of a newly lit fire or the jokes of a street-hawker or the silence of snow in moonlight or the purring of a powerful car.

This is a catalogue of the sensory pleasures that any Londoner might know (and note how carefully all five of the senses are brought into it). But it is also an act of self-definition, MacNeice claiming a role for himself, the Poet as Ordinary Bloke.

The particulars in the Zoo passage sound ordinary enough, but the telling of them is highly poetical, from the allusion to Hopkins’s sonnet at the beginning to the swirl of romantic images at the end – so poetical, indeed, that one might almost construct a new MacNeice poem out of the details. Almost, but not quite. To give it the true MacNeice flavour you’d have to heighten those features of the images that are not unambiguously pleasureable – that the movements are fleeting, the lights flickering, every sensory detail momentary, and that behind them lies a world of darkness, cold and death. The characteristic MacNeice poem has both elements: the naming of pleasurable things, and the recognition of their swift passing – loving, and the inevitable end of loving. Yeats, who was MacNeice’s master, put it all in two lines:

Man is in love, and loves what vanishes,
What more is there to say?

In Yeats’s case there was a lot more to say, but in MacNeice’s not much.

Because there was nothing more to say, MacNeice’s poems have an insistently dark side to them. In his critical writings he repeatedly affirmed the fidelity that a poet owes to his physical world – that his first duty is to mention things, that he must be content to live in the world of appearances, that he has a duty to the present moment. It was a faith that he kept, and it made his poems vivid and alive. But there was another truth to be told, too: that, for the sensual sceptic who feels his moments of pleasure intensely, there must also be fear – fear of time and loss and death, the nightmare against which scepticism provides no defences. MacNeice put that fear into his poems too; early and late, it never left him.

MacNeice described in a poem how the dark nightmare entered his own life in childhood:

When I was five the black dreams came;
Nothing after was quite the same.
Come back early or never come.

The poem is entitled ‘Autobiography’, but there is little in it of what one usually means by that term; the immediate occasion of his terror, the death of his mother, is not even mentioned. It is rather, a narrative of discovered isolation, a kind of fable of fear, like one of the frightful tales of the Grimms, powerful to move us because it isn’t personal. Powerful too, one must add, because of the consummate skill with which it is told – the economy of the child-language, the dark resonance of the imagery, and the haunting refrain. It is a disturbing poem, but it is also an elegant one.

One could construct a fairly convincing psychological profile of a lonely, isolated man, starting with that five-year-old boy’s loss, adding that he was born in Ireland but was not really an Irishman, was the son of an Anglican bishop but could not share his father’s beliefs, was educated and then employed in England but never became an Englishman, lived through the Thirties without the consolations of political ideology, married but lost his wife to another man. And so on, and so on. A classic case, you could say, of Alienated Man. You could, but you shouldn’t. First of all, because MacNeice would have hated being so labelled. Auden remembered how he and MacNeice:

once at a weird Symposium
exchanged winks as a juggins
went on about alienation.

And who would want to be a juggins? It wasn’t that MacNeice didn’t know about alienation, or didn’t feel it in his own being: but he didn’t go on about it. He mistrusted the windy big abstractions, and the academic jugginses who made their livings by them – and still do.

But there is another, stronger reason for not going on about MacNeice and alienation: that his poetry is full of loving celebration of the world and its multitudinousness, of all those things that it was the poet’s first duty to mention. He put that feeling brilliantly into his poem ‘Snow’:

World is suddener than we fancy it.

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 is no alienated sensibility in those lines, surely. But the roses in the poem are seen against snow outside, and there is usually that sort of juxtaposition working in a MacNeice poem – inside/outside, warmth/cold, life/death, light/darkness – so that you have a sort of object/ground optical illusion, the things made more actual and physical by their contrast with the flux and the darkness; or the figure the other way round, the darkness dominant and seeming all the darker because of the bright and transitory things that are set against it.

Autumn Journal is MacNeice’s fullest and finest expression of this dual vision. It is a poem that is stuffed with objects and events, with everything that existed or happened in his life in the autumn of 1938: a personal crisis and an international crisis, an Oxford by-election, air-raid preparations, the slow death of Barcelona. But also with the small particulars of living: pigeons and shop-window shutters and frock-coated statues, the kettle singing and the bacon sizzling and the morning’s first cigarette, ‘all our trivial daily acts’. And with memories, the contents of the mind’s museum, Ireland and school and Oxford. Everything is there. But precariously there, momentary, passing, coming to an end: in his own life the end of a marriage, in the world the end of a fragile peace. Everything exists in time, so everything falls, like the trees on Primrose Hill. Like most of MacNeice’s poems, Autumn Journal is a barricade built of transitory things, to hold back for a moment the flood of time.

But only for a moment; the flood will win. That is a melancholy truth, but it’s one that MacNeice never doubted: it lay at the deep, despairing centre of his sensibility (what else is melancholy, after all, but despair that has been lived with?). Sometimes it issued in wry self-irony, sometimes in sentimental sadness – the quality that Philip Larkin was noting when he said that MacNeice might have written the lyrics to ‘These Foolish Things’ – but never in self-pity, and never in confession. From first to last, his favourite pronoun was ‘he’ not ‘I’ – the Self observed, but distantly, ironically, elegantly.

These qualities – the celebration of things, the melancholy, the irony, the sentiment, the elegance – are everywhere visible in MacNeice’s lyrics, from the very early ‘Happy Families’ to the very late ‘Goodbye to London’; they come together most copiously in Autumn Journal, the one long poem MacNeice wrote that has survived its occasion. Virginia Woolf thought it feeble, and MacNeice was apologetic about its topical, personal, rambling journal-form: but now it seems not only the fullest expression of the poet’s sensibility, but also the truest expression of its moment in history – the indispensable poem of the Thirties.

Poetically speaking, the Thirties were good years for MacNeice, and so were the Forties. He was stimulated by the war, which seemed to provide a vast confirmation of his view of the transitory, mortal, physical world, and the poems that he wrote then are strong and moving. He was not in the services, but like anyone who lived in London during those years he was in the war, and his war-poems – ‘Débâcle’, ‘Refugees’, ‘Brother Fire’, ‘The Trolls’ – belong to the poetic history of that time as much as those of Keith Douglas or Sidney Keyes. He had, you might say, a Good War.

But after the war, in the early Fifties, something went wrong. He tried long poems in two volumes – Ten Burnt Offerings and Autumn Sequel – but the wit and vigour of Autumn Journal was gone; the poems are dull and garrulous, like the conversation of someone you might meet in a pub, though even in dullness MacNeice did not lose his elegance and craft – the poems are, as Auden put it, ‘beautifully carpentered’.

Perhaps the problem was MacNeice’s old antagonist, Time. Melancholy attitudes that a young man wears gracefully become tedious in the middle-aged. Or perhaps it was history. The Fifties were every bit as low and dishonest as the Thirties had been, but less interestingly – the Korean War, the fall of Dien Bien Phu, McCarthyism in America, the Suez Crisis were all dark enough, but perhaps not dramatic enough, not tragic, not materials, in any case, for MacNeice’s kind of meditative verse.

And then, in the final six years of his life, his poetry splendidly renewed itself. Auden thought that the three books of those years – Visitations, Solstices and The Burning Perch – were MacNeice’s best, and it is certainly true that the old gifts, the irony and the wit and the elegance, seemed to have returned, the same again but different. The difference is mainly, I think, in the way that time appears in these poems – as memory, the lived life recalled, rather than as flux. Perhaps because of that change, many of these last poems have a new, calmer tone. MacNeice himself recognised that new note. In a comment on Solstices he wrote: ‘I would say of myself that I have become progressively more humble in face of my material ... I have also perhaps, though I venture this tentatively, found it easier than I did to write poems of acceptance (even of joy).’ And certainly that acceptance is there, in poems for example, like ‘Country Weekend’, which ends:

                                   This world
Ingrown, outgoing, soon outgone,
Stays ours. We are ready now as then.

Acceptance is not the right word, though, for MacNeice’s last book of poems, The Burning Perch. MacNeice said he was taken aback by the high proportion of sombre pieces, ranging from bleak observations to thumbnail nightmares, and certainly that darkness is visible, in poems like ‘Another Cold May’, ‘The Suicide’, ‘The Grey Ones’, and ‘Charon’. But may not a gloomy poem be a positive act? MacNeice thought so, thought that ‘a poem in praise of suicide is an act of homage to life.’ So did that other great melancholy poet, Philip Larkin: ‘the most negative poem in the world,’ he said, ‘is a very positive thing to have done.’ Well, they would, wouldn’t they? But surely they were right: a man writing a poem about suicide is not contemplating suicide, he is contemplating poetry, and if he gets it right, there is one more good poem added to the world’s store, and a man can’t feel suicidal about that.

The darkness of MacNeice’s last poems cannot be taken as premonitory. He was a relatively young man, in his mid-fifties, when he wrote them, and he had every right to expect many years, and many poems yet to come. And then, swiftly, his time ran out and he died, a week short of his 56th birthday. No doubt he would have found his death appropriately ironic – the gifted poet dead of a chill caught on a routine BBC job, one last ordinary event.

For a time after his death his reputation sagged, perhaps because the myth of the Auden Gang was growing in the academies, and he had never really been a full-time gang member, or perhaps because High Modernism dominated criticism, and he had never been a member of that gang either. It was never a serious decline, never what one would call a real neglect; his poems went on appearing in anthologies, books were written about him, the Collected Poems appeared and was praised. But he seemed to have won no secure status in the poetic history of his own time, he didn’t quite fit – as he never had.

That this situation has altered in recent years is due in large measure to the way in which MacNeice has been adopted as an ancestor by the present generation of Northern Irish poets. You find him in collections like Frank Ormsby’s Poets from the North of Ireland, and poets like Derek Mahon and Michael Longley praise him. The praise doesn’t come because he wrote about Northern Ireland – there are a few fine Irish poems, but not many. No, MacNeice’s importance for current Northern Irish poets must have more to do with the kind of poetry he wrote, the way he placed himself in the life of his time, than it has to do with geography. MacNeice attended to the world around him, his reality was what was happening, and he made his poetry out of all that – Munich and the war, love and loneliness, pubs and holidays, the West of Ireland, London, everything that was immediate and urgent and deeply felt, whether public or private. It all went in, to be transformed by his extraordinary gifts into memorable poetry. It seems entirely reasonable that the younger Irish poets, in their own urgent time, should look to him as a model of how to engage the history of the present moment, and yet remain a maker, as he did.

Edna Longley established herself as a strong critic of modern poetry in her Poetry in the Wars in 1986. Her new study of MacNeice confirms that reputation. If she begins with the Irish MacNeice, one can’t blame a Belfast critic for that, and what she says is valuable; but she moves beyond the provincial in later chapters to discuss MacNeice’s England, his war, and his post-war poems. In all this she is a historical critic of the best kind, moving carefully and chronologically, linking the poet’s life to the life of his time. But she is also a keen reader of individual poems, staying close to the texts, and citing an extraordinary number of them (by my quick and probably inaccurate calculation she either quotes or refers to two-thirds of all MacNeice’s poems). The serious reader of criticism should not be put off by the line on the title page of the book that identifies it as a ‘Faber Student Guide’. That can only mean that it is lucid and readable and free from jargon – anti-juggins criticism, you might call it. If it is for students, then we are all students. MacNeice would be pleased.

Michael Longley’s Selected Poems of MacNeice comes as a valuable companion volume to Edna Longley’s study. He offers the reader more than a hundred poems, and that seems to me a decent minimum. For MacNeice is not a poet who reveals himself truly in a few anthology choices. His best poems are not the much-quoted show-pieces, like ‘Bagpipe Music’ and ‘Prayer before Birth’, but the quieter, more subtly made ones, and these are best read together. I don’t mean that poem-by-poem they are not beautifully carpentered, but simply that the rich quality of MacNeice’s imagination comes slowly and cumulatively, out of many small instances. So a hundred poems is a reasonable beginning.

There is no point in a reviewer second-guessing an editor, and telling him which poems he should have included, but didn’t. The only useful question is what sort of sampling has he made, how true is the version of the poet that he offers us? Michael Longley’s MacNeice is a Northern Irishman (like his editor); Longley makes that clear in his introduction, and his selection of poems confirms it. And he is primarily a lyric poet, though Longley dutifully includes a good part of Autumn Journal, and bits from Autumn Sequel and Ten Burnt Offerings. He agrees with Auden, and with Edna Longley (and with me) that MacNeice’s last years were poetically rich ones, and gives an ample selection of poems from the last three books. It is an intelligent, sympathetic selection – an act of homage from a gifted younger poet to a master.

Edna Longley calls MacNeice ‘a central poet of the 20th century’, and that is certainly correct, if ‘central’ means that his concerns were the concerns of his time, and that his poems spoke to his contemporaries. Whether that makes him a major poet, or the top of the minors, is of no importance, except to the jugginses, who will go on turning the canon into a league-table. As for the rest of us, we would do well to follow MacNeice’s own advice: ‘I would ask my readers not to be snobs,’ he wrote in the foreword to his first Collected Poems; ‘I write poetry not because it is smart to be a poet but because I enjoy it, as one enjoys swimming or swearing, and also because it is my road to freedom and knowledge.’ That is MacNeice in his role as ordinary bloke again. All right, then let his readers be ordinary too, reading his poems for the enjoyments they offer – but also for the freedom (from cant, from ideology, from modish nonsense), and for the knowledge (of things, of feelings, of life-in-time). To be ordinary in such company is our privilege.

The MacNeice who appears in Margaret Gardiner’s memoir reminds us of how extraordinary that Ordinary Bloke was. Miss Gardiner is the sort of woman for whom the old social clichés were coined: she knew everybody, she had a genius for friendship, and so on. But she is clearly far more than the clichés: a highly intelligent and perceptive woman, and a fine observer of her own time-which is the whole of the 20th century. The people she knew, and remembers in her book, were gifted and often difficult – Lawrence, Auden, MacNeice, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson – and you don’t become the friend of such people merely by being social. Miss Gardiner’s MacNeice is an odd mixture of qualities: a charming, restless, hard-drinking, scholarly man, careless enough to go out to dinner without any money, yet sniffily critical of Auden for getting his quotations wrong. Most of all, he is a man obsessed by death. There is a moving account of his response to the death of his friend Dylan Thomas, and remembered passages of death-ridden poetry that he was fond of reciting. One anecdote sums up his life – and perhaps his poetry too. MacNeice had been on an all-night binge, ostensibly to prove that you could drink round the clock in London if you knew where to go. ‘How idiotic,’ Gardiner said. ‘What on earth was the point of it?’ ‘It was a gesture of defiance against death,’ he replied.