- Louis MacNeice: A Biography by Jon Stallworthy
Faber, 538 pp, £25.00, February 1995, ISBN 0 571 16019 0
Why did Louis MacNeice have to wait thirty years for a biography? He died comparatively young – aged 55 – and was outlived by almost everyone he knew: wives, girlfriends, classmates, colleagues. He led an active public life, had two careers – in universities and with the BBC – and was well known as a poet from quite early on. He was a pub-dweller, he travelled a lot, and through his radio work was in contact with many talkative celebs: actors, musicians, singers as well as literary types. For a quick-off-the-mark chronicler, there might have been rich pickings.
Certainly, MacNeice himself would not have objected to a prompt post-mortem. In 1940, anticipating a biography, he sent his friend and mentor E.R. Dodds a list of what he called ‘the best authorities’ on his life so far, ‘though each only from a certain angle’. He was 33 at the time and half-joking but a year earlier he had begun work on an autobiography, The Strings Are False. He had also recently won fame with Autumn Journal, which – for all its documentary vividness – is hugely self-absorbed.
The letter to Dodds was sent in wartime, when everybody was writing a will, but with MacNeice the disposition to self-scrutiny ran deep. He called it his ‘personal fixation’ and from time to time he tried to shake it off, or rise above it, but ‘the pulse keeps thrumming.’ ‘None of our hearts are pure,’ he would lament, his grammar gone, ‘We always have mixed motives.’ Autumn Sequel (1954) is tirelessly preoccupied with the day-to-day climate shifts of the MacNeice interior, and even in his oblique and metaphoric pieces we can usually detect an underlying – and sometimes undermining – interrogation of the Self: what kind of human being should I/could I be? How much, if any, virtue has my self-questioning laid waste? Is the quest for honesty in truth – in all honesty – a cover-up for never quite knowing what to do? But then ‘if you analyse it, public-mindedness itself can be a form of escapism,’ can it not? The Strings Are False, we notice, opens with the words: ‘So what?’ We also notice that that book was shortly set aside, and never finished.
And perhaps this authoritative fretfulness has been part of the problem for would-be MacNeice biographers: they may have felt that the territory had already been well-mapped by its original proprietor. They may also have feared, from consulting the one or two memoirs put out by MacNeice’s acquaintances, that there was too daunting a gap between MacNeice the poet and MacNeice ‘as we remember him’. Those who had social dealings with MacNeice tended to scratch their heads and remember nothing very much. They spoke of him as a ‘dark horse’ and recalled his lack of warmth, his silences, his impenetrable moods. He was forever in the pub, they’d say, but not really of the pub. He kept himself not just to himself but for himself. For, that’s to say, the poems.
It has also been observed, though, that his aloofness in fact carried over into the way he proceeded as a poet; he was always to one side of the fashionable drift – he was of the swim, it might be said, but never in it. Thus he was a Sitwellian sparkler in the Twenties but, being Irish and dark-visioned, could never settle for the merely jewelled phrase. At Oxford he was an apprentice dandy but too ‘irredeemably heterosexual’ (in the words of his schoolfriend Anthony Blunt) to fully enjoy the jokes that mattered. In the Thirties, he tried hard to turn himself into a socially-conscious poet but was too riven by self-doubt, by the awareness that ‘If it were not for Lit. Hum. I might be climbing/A ladder with a hod.’ Post-war, he wanted to be a fire-tongued sage and seer, like his BBC colleague Dylan Thomas. MacNeice worshipped Thomas and did not, we trust, live to read Dylan’s description of his work as ‘thin and conventionally-minded, lacking imagination and not sound in the ear’.
MacNeice may not have known for certain that this was how Thomas rated him (Thomas also described MacNeice as ‘a very good chap’) but he probably sensed it, and may not have disagreed. Being MacNeice, he may have feared that hard work – and how he worked: six hundred pages of close-packed Collected Poems, numerous now unreadable verse-plays – could never compensate for an essential absence in his make-up, for a lack of that creative magic which poets like Dylan Thomas assumed that they were full of, head to toe. MacNeice did not know that he would die of pneumonia at 55, but his last poems are his best: in them, laborious self-scrutiny has hardened into horrified self-knowledge. When MacNeice assembled what turned out to be his final book, The Burning Perch, he was ‘taken aback’, he said, by the ‘fear and resentment’ it evinced, ‘by the high proportion of sombre pieces, ranging from bleak observation to thumbnail nightmares ... 1 am not sure why this should be so.’ He may not have been sure, but he had a pretty good idea. After a life-time of asking himself large, convoluted questions, he was starting to come up with a few crisp replies.
Bad news, then, for biography, or so it may have seemed. What to do with a writer who knew himself too well? Another reason for the delay in preparing a MacNeice Life might be deduced from Jon Stallworthy’s Introduction to the book we are now offered:
In 1976, as an editor of the Clarendon Press, it was my good fortune to oversee the publication of Professor E.R. Dodds’s autobiography, Missing Persons. Acquaintance ripened into friendship when he found me a house close to his own in the Oxfordshire village of Old Marston. Over many midnight glasses of Irish whiskey, we spoke of the famous friends of his ‘missing persons’ (his own past selves) – Yeats, Eliot, Auden and MacNeice. The last and least-known of these was closest to his heart: he had given MacNeice his first job and after a lifetime’s friendship had, as his Literary Executor, edited his ‘unfinished autobiography’ The Strings Are False, and his Collected Poems. He was concerned that MacNeice’s reputation still bobbed – as it seemed to him unfairly – in the wake of Auden’s and, concluding that it would take a biography to initiate a revaluation, invited me to write one. I declined, regretfully, unable to imagine myself having time to write a prose book while publishing books by other people.
After Dodds’s death in 1979, Stallworthy was approached again – this time by the OUP’s Dan Davin, another of MacNeice’s friends, and Dodds’s successor as literary executor. ‘Having by then exchanged a publisher’s office for a professor’s, I accepted and, with Dodds’s ghostly presence at my elbow, went back to his editions of the Collected Poems and The Strings Are False.’
The mention of Dodds’s ‘ghostly presence’ is surely meant to be remarked on. Dodds was indeed an industrious executor. He edited the works; he monitored the fame; he sifted the biographical remains. He knew MacNeice for many years, but ‘from a certain angle’ – the angle of a father-figure whom the poet looked up to and was keen not to disappoint. His best memories of MacNeice were of the early Thirties, when he appointed the poet to his first job as a Classics lecturer at Birmingham University. MacNeice was just down from Oxford, newly married, and writing his first poetry and fiction. Dodds and his wife adopted the young couple and rejoiced in MacNeice’s ‘rich flow of fun and fantasy, the mercurial gaiety, the warm vitality and love of life which endeared him to the friends of his early days’. Dodds introduced MacNeice to Auden, put him in touch with Eliot at Fabers, accompanied him to Ireland to take tea with Yeats. When MacNeice’s first wife ran off with an American footballer, it was the Doddses who knew what to say. There were, though, other, later angles on the poet’s life, and Dodds would have encountered these in the course of his commemorative labours.
Even so, says Stallworthy, ‘no father could have done more for his son’s memory.’ And one of the things Dodds did, of course, was to ask Stallworthy to write MacNeice’s Life. In 1976, when the first approach was made, Stallworthy had just published a conscientious and determinedly well-mannered life of Wilfred Owen. Dodds may also have recalled that MacNeice, just six months before he died, reviewed an earlier Stallworthy book on Yeats, describing its approach as ‘on the whole, perhaps, just a shade too reverential (but that is a good fault)’. Dodds understandably wanted a biography that would honour his own warm feelings for MacNeice, and that would direct posterity towards those areas of the poet’s experience which seemed to him to matter most.
If we suspect that Louis MacNeice is not altogether Stallworthy’s kind of chap, there is no doubting the biographer’s regard for Dodds. This Louis MacNeice is dedicated to the memory of Dodds – ‘an Irishman, a Poet and a Scholar, who knew more about all this than I do’ – and Stallworthy’s narrative is studded with gratuitous tributes to ‘this most temperate of men’. We hear of Dodds’s ‘high intelligence’, his ‘rock-like integrity’ (also his ‘granite-like integrity’), his ‘moral courage’, his ‘passionate commitment to teaching and the pastoral care of his students’. More than once we get the feeling that Stallworthy would rather be writing about Dodds. On that subject his reverential disposition would have been able to let rip.
This does not mean that what we have here is a whitewash, or a hush-up. The facts of MacNeice’s often ramshackle private life are presented in exhaustive detail: names are named. What we do get is a tendency to replicate, in biography, something of the ‘steadying influence’ that Dodds applied in life. There is a wish to smarten MacNeice up a bit, to cut down on his drinking (which, during his BBC years, became something of a legend), to make his black moods more creatively purposeful, his love affairs more considered and considerate than perhaps they were. MacNeice’s twenty years of writing for radio are sometimes perceived as having wrecked his talent, directing him towards drawn-out, pretentious allegories when his true gift was for delighting in the small, surprising detail. And the BBC milieu of the early Fifties, with all its beery self-importance, has been blamed for pitching this donnish introvert into some pretty noisy company. Stallworthy does not really penetrate this BBC ante-world of pubs and clubs, this salaried suburb of Fitzrovia. He would much rather lead us through the plot of The Dark Tower than prop up the bar with Reggie Smith. For this it’s hard to blame him.
Still, perhaps something is missed here that might have accounted for the deep ‘resentments’ of MacNeice’s final phase, the sense we get from his last poems of lost time and irremediable error. There is an essay by Geoffrey Grigson on MacNeice, in which this is said: ‘He could be embarrassingly silent. A conversation came to a halt. Who was going to break the silence and bridge the silent interruption? His lack of usual reticence, too, could be sudden, startling and improbable, rather like his appearance, dark, handsome, tall, well-dressed; then, looked at more closely, almost squalid.’ ‘Squalid’ seems a bit extreme. What is Grigson hinting at? He goes on to reveal that MacNeice ‘had, as a rule, the dirtiest of fingernails’ and that his dog ‘bent slowly and gracefully around the corners of tables and chairs, but goodness, how dirty that Betsy was underneath, what brown matted curls she had, and how she stank!’ Could this be all he meant by ‘squalid’? Stallworthy does not say, or ask. When he comes to paraphrase the Grigson essay, only the dog’s dirt gets a mention: ‘Grigson was intrigued by the contradiction of the sceptical romantic (so well matched by the stinking elegance of his attendant borzoi), the melancholy and the wit, the confidence and the reticence. Much though he liked MacNeice, he never felt he knew him.’ This may seem to be a smallish smoothing-over but it does typify Stallworthy’s meliorative bent. And I’d still quite like to know more about that ‘squalid’.
If the Dodds influence has been sanitising, it has also – on the whole – been shrewd. Dodds reckoned that MacNeice was all his life haunted by certain ‘images, incidents and motifs’ to do with his strange Irish childhood and that the key to his personality was to be found not in the English public schools he was sent to from the age of ten, nor in the literary and political influences that bore in on him during the Thirties and thereafter, nor in the BBC. The real shaping of MacNeice, as the poet himself so often and so mournfully acknowledged, was accomplished at the age of five, when he saw his mother removed to an asylum, leaving him in the care of a sorrowingly prayerful father (‘intoning away, communing with God’) and a busily puritanical housekeeper. His mother’s ‘agitated melancholia’ had struck suddenly, following a hysterectomy (for which MacNeice contrived to take the blame). ‘Almost overnight’, she changed from ‘the mainstay of the household – serene and comforting, the very essence of stability – into someone who was deeply unhappy and no longer able to make decisions’. MacNeice’s last ‘memory-picture’ of his mother was of her ‘walking up and down the garden path in tears’ just before her removal to hospital. She died two years later of tuberculosis.
‘When I was five the black dreams came/Nothing after was quite the same,’ he wrote in his poem ‘Autobiography’, and his biographer believes him, as Dodds did. The early chapters of Stallworthy’s book, from the Irish rectory garden (MacNeice’s father was a Church of Ireland vicar) through to the collapse of the Birmingham idyll, are by far the strongest. When MacNeice’s first wife abandoned him (and their one-year-old child), the old wound was re-opened. When it healed over, he was set in the ways of dispirited self-scrutiny. From then on, the ‘rich flow of fun and fantasy, the mercurial gaiety’ would be glimpsed but intermittently, or after a few drinks. And it would be twenty years before he would come close to recapturing the lyric forcefulness of his best poems of the Thirties. When he joined the BBC in 1940, at the age of 33, he spoke of his past life as ‘dead’. He craved anonymity, he wanted to be one of a crowd, one of the boys. As for his poetry: it may as well do something useful. He wrote propaganda and developed a taste for mass-communication, and for ‘collaborative’ creativity. By the end of the war, he was well prepared for the lofty solemnities of radio verse drama, for the Trials of Everyman, the Quest for the Dark Tower:
Such was our aim
But aims too often languish and instead
We hack and hack. What ought to soar and flame
Shies at its take-off, all our kites collapse,
Our spirit leaks away ...