The Ticking Fear
- Louis MacNeice: Collected Poems edited by Peter McDonald
Faber, 836 pp, £30.00, January 2007, ISBN 978 0 571 21574 4
- Louis MacNeice: Selected Poems edited by Michael Longley
Faber, 160 pp, £12.99, April 2007, ISBN 978 0 571 23381 6
- I Crossed the Minch by Louis MacNeice
Polygon, 253 pp, £9.99, September 2007, ISBN 978 1 84697 014 6
- The Strings Are False: An Unfinished Autobiography by Louis MacNeice, edited by E.R. Dodds
Faber, 288 pp, £9.99, September 2007, ISBN 978 0 571 23942 9
As Louis MacNeice lay dying in 1963, his last major work, a radio play called Persons from Porlock, was broadcast by the BBC. It is about a painter called Hank, who starts well in the 1930s, but whose development, as MacNeice explains in a note, ‘is interrupted by the war . . . Subsequent interruptions and frustrations include those occasioned by the lure of commercial art, by drink, money troubles and women.’ Hence the title of the play. Hank (an anagram of Khan) might have built a stately pleasure dome, but instead he dies, his promise unfulfilled, in what Coleridge’s poem calls ‘caverns measureless to man’. For Hank has an unexpected hobby, potholing, and at the end of the play drowns in a cave. Death turns up there, announcing himself as ‘a noble person from Porlock’.
There is a lot of MacNeice in Hank. After the high promise of Poems (1935), he began to disperse his energies in money-making prose books. Hank spent the war in Burma. MacNeice shuttled between neutral Ireland and the US, uncertain, like his friends Auden and Britten, how far he should commit himself to the war, before finally settling down in London. In 1941 he did his bit by joining the BBC. For the next two decades, the corporation gave him a steady income and plenty of creative scope. Yet the fluency he developed as a radio features writer was not always good for his poetry, and he came to think of his broadcasting career as a chronic interruption. By now, like Hank, he was numbing his frustration with alcohol. Both, however, pulled through. Hank got out of advertising and painted enough to hold a one-man show. MacNeice went part-time at the BBC, cut back on his drinking, and worked up the concentrated, parable-like lyricism of his later poems.
That the radio play fed off MacNeice’s own experiences is not surprising. To read The Strings Are False, the posthumously published autobiography (drafted in 1940) that Faber has reissued to coincide with the centenary of MacNeice’s birth, is to find many such connections. He says in his book on Modern Poetry (1938) that ‘literary criticism should always be partly biographical.’ This may be theoretically unsound, but it springs from something he knew about his own creativity. Yet his strength was not self-disclosure. Although he never subscribed to the Modernist cult of impersonality, he rejected the idea that poetry is self-expression and argued that even the lyric voice is dramatic. During the postwar years, when his poetry became too discursive, part of the problem was that he was pinned to the centre of his writing by an ethic of honesty without wanting to be confessional. His later, parabolic lyrics have the clean intensity that comes when an inner life has been condensed and generalised into structures as formulaic as nursery rhymes.
Hank converged with Louis to an extent that was finally uncanny. To prepare his play for transmission MacNeice went down a pothole with a BBC sound engineer. He had always obscurely relished going underground; caves, tunnels and passage-graves run through his poems and plays. In Persons from Porlock, Hank’s liking for potholes is mixed up with both his drive to paint and his early abandonment by his mother. MacNeice, whose mother was taken into psychiatric care when he was five, and died just over a year later, seems to have diagnosed a similar complex in himself. Certainly, he put into Hank’s cave system features of the salt-mines at Carrickfergus which, we are told in The Strings Are False, he visited during his childhood. It was not a good idea to repeat that visit fifty years later. Chilled, drenched and weary, MacNeice came down with pneumonia. Friends listened apprehensively as the ‘noble person from Porlock’ carried Hank away. A few days later MacNeice was dead.
Interrupted, for sure. His last book of poems, The Burning Perch, appeared ten days after his death; a potboiler on astrology in 1964. When Derek Mahon declared, with resonant finality, in an elegy published in January 1965, ‘All we may ask of you we have; the rest/Is not for publication,’ he could hardly have been more wrong. Within months, MacNeice’s friend and first employer, the Greek scholar E.R. Dodds, brought out The Strings Are False, a book of unrevised lectures called Varieties of Parable and a Collected Poems. Even now, with Peter McDonald’s intelligently re-edited Collected, we do not have all the MacNeice we could ask for. As McDonald points out, a Complete Poems would be considerably larger than the 600-odd pages of verse plus seven appendices of fugitive poems, prefaces and variants that he gives us. It would include translations, many poems that appeared in small magazines, and others abandoned in manuscript. Though the typical MacNeice poem is decisively thought through, it is caught up in a lifelong, interrupted process. Collected editions often have a sepulchral air; the unfinished nature of MacNeice’s corpus helps makes this one a living monument.
As with the output as a whole, so with its local energy. The Collected is a vast compendium of forms, issues and ideas, but it is animated repeatedly by interruption and its imminence. To be visited by a person from Porlock could be damaging, even fatal, but it was never entirely bad. Those who ‘lay the blame’ for failure on interruption are in denial about other, internal blocks. Interruption administers doses of the worldly impurity that MacNeice wanted to get into poetry. Its imminence makes moments of love, drunkenness and fantasy more sensuously consuming. Interruption could even be chosen. To go on a journey or start a romance was to break life into episodes that made sense where the big picture did not. Above all, interruption shook up habit, rebooting the imagination. Persons from Porlock was itself the product of elective interruption. As Jon Stallworthy points out, in the 1995 biography that we depend on for MacNeice’s later years, he was ‘making a fresh start at 54’ when he went half-time at the BBC.
It was a bold but characteristic step. Auden said in his memorial address that, in technique as well as the search for subject matter, MacNeice ‘shared Cesare Pavese’s belief that “the only joy in life is to begin.”’ And Spender, in a late poem, wrote of MacNeice and Bernard Spencer:
Is still a new beginning. If
They had been finished though they would have died
Before they died.
MacNeice did have favourite forms and topics, and often flogged them hard. When he tried to break new ground, he was by no means always successful. But Auden’s troubled awareness that his own verse was becoming at once mechanical and arch, and Spender’s recognition that poetry had abandoned him, made them the more respectful of MacNeice’s indefatigable ability to break off and start again. There is enough truth in what they say to suggest why he was happier writing lyrics than the long, argued sequences and narratives of the postwar years.
Time was the germ of the problem. How to use it and prevent it petrifying us were deep issues for the young poet. They went back to his Church of Ireland upbringing (his father was rector of Carrickfergus, later bishop of Down) though they were given distinctive shape by his classical education at Marlborough and Oxford. Probably no poet since Milton has been as preoccupied with the Pauline injunction that time should be redeemed and talents put to use. When he catches himself ‘killing time’ in I Crossed the Minch (1938), a book about visiting the Hebrides, he is gripped by the horrible thought that time is killing him, and writes an anxious poem about ‘The taut and ticking fear/That hides in all the clocks/And creeps inside the skull’. Reading Greats at Oxford had taught him more enjoyable, pagan reasons for seizing the day. But the reassuring idea that the cosmos was a Heraclitean flux was compromised by the philosophical idealism still current at Merton (the college where, a few years earlier, T.S. Eliot had written his thesis on F.H. Bradley). ‘Time’s face is not stone nor still his wings,’ he concluded. ‘Our mind, being dead, wishes to have time die/For we, being ghosts, cannot catch hold of things.’
MacNeice’s early poetry plays defensive games with time (too much frequency is stasis and so on), but he was right to mistrust his fluency on this theme and to declare, in ‘Wolves’: ‘The tide comes in and goes out again, I do not want/To be always stressing either its flux or its permanence.’ To push time into the background, however, did not defuse its power. When he went to Birmingham as a lecturer in classics, straight after Oxford, he wrote urban poetry with a democratic clarity that it is easy to undervalue. A lyric such as ‘Sunday Morning’ is refreshingly free from the Waste Land hysteria and pylon-school imagery that mars so much from the 1930s: ‘Down the road someone is practising scales,/The notes like little fishes vanish with a wink of tails.’ This being MacNeice, however, the injunction on which the poem turns, ‘concentrate on this Now,’ has metaphysical force. Beyond the moment, church bells swing like ‘skulls’ mouths’ and time ‘deadens and endures’.
The love poetry that followed the collapse of his first marriage, when he left Birmingham for London, is equally obsessed. Women are dancing, elemental, untroubled by the clock: compensations for the poet’s unease. Nancy Sharp, who went with him to the Hebrides, and who illustrated I Crossed the Minch, is praised for ‘living like a fugue and moving . . . Like the dazzle on the sea’. Being in love was about stopping time. In ‘Meeting Point’, an escalator pauses, a bell hangs mid-swing, while a couple sit at a table. The poem was apparently prompted by a date with the American writer Eleanor Clark, but the belief that love can create timeless moments runs all the way through his work, whichever woman is to hand.
Even when the young MacNeice flings himself into everyday pleasures he cannot escape time and its paradoxes. Here is ‘Snow’, his best-known poem from the 1930s:
The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
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.
And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes –
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one’s hands –
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.
The moment of the poem is framed by fleeting phenomena. Without the glass that separates and joins them the warmth of the room would melt the snow that would destroy the roses.
Snow and roses are not just temporary, but literary clichés of temporality, and, like windows elsewhere in MacNeice, the glass flecked with snow is a medium of representation, which is why it makes roses huge. Perhaps, come to that, the roses are already imaged, in curtain fabric or wallpaper. Yet ‘Snow’ is not just another poem about poetry. Its fascination with artifice goes along with the manufactured, slightly tasteless pinkness of the roses, and the poet’s untidy pleasure in spitting out tangerine pips. The roses are as convincingly vulgar, the pips as pointedly impure, as the gaudy flowers and rose-patterned paper and eating in the street that MacNeice praised in his 1937 radio talk ‘In Defence of Vulgarity’. Impurities like these were worth getting into poetry as a kick against St Paul.
MacNeice says in Modern Poetry that ‘words like “gold” and “roses” tend to strike me as if written in block capitals.’ The bold, glamorous command of such words in ‘Snow’ is enhanced by judicious contrast with phrases like ‘incorrigibly plural’. ‘A controlled flamboyance of diction,’ MacNeice adds, ‘has always moved me, so that I have never subscribed to the Wordsworthian exclusive crusade for homespun.’ To be ‘moved’ by fancy phrases suggests a deeper than aesthetic reaction against what was austerely spun at home. The colour and panache of ‘Snow’ seem to be making up for the dourness of an Ulster childhood. When MacNeice published it in Poems, he put it next to ‘Belfast’, which describes a ‘country of cowled and haunted faces’ where ‘The sun goes down with a banging of Orange drums.’ There may be room for debate about whether these poems should be seen as a pair, but the contrast they set up is so typical of MacNeice (like the conjunction of snow and roses) that an editor ought to think carefully before separating them. It is one of the merits of McDonald’s edition that, unlike Dodds’s (in which ‘Snow’ and ‘Belfast’ are printed a dozen pages apart), it almost completely preserves the ordering of MacNeice’s early volumes.
MacNeice is usually thought of as technically conservative, keen on rhyme and joined-up syntax. At least in the 1930s, however, his procedures were inventive and free. ‘Snow’ is subtly irregular, following the line of the voice; it shows the strain of immediacy in its language. By cutting definite articles and proposing an impossible comparative (what can be more sudden than sudden?) it hits us with abrupt existence and makes the world unbounded: ‘World is suddener . . . World is crazier.’ When the poet peels and portions a tangerine, the orderly unfolding of objects is disrupted by a fusillade of spitting and spite and pips. The result is unpunctuated saturation: ‘On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one’s hands –’. ‘On the eyes’ brilliantly catches the impacting otherness of things seen, but who is smitten, who is ‘one’? Given his appetite for fresh starts it is not surprising that MacNeice hardly ever revised after publication (a total contrast to Auden). There are, though, a few exceptions, and, as McDonald notes in a valuable appendix, this line was changed in 1941 to ‘the palms of your hands’. This draws the reader into the poem, while splitting the poet by making him a self-observer. Yet ‘one’ is surely keener. Like the donnishly high-falutin’ ‘collateral and incompatible’ it gives the poem an enjoyably analytical air.
The discipline of writing ‘Snow’ helped MacNeice achieve the looser eloquence of Autumn Journal (1939). Although the long poem runs in full, continuous pages, it is tacked together, like ‘Snow’, from flexibly alternate-rhymed stanzas. It takes on the big issues of the day – Spain, Munich, industrial squalor – but shares the lyric’s ability to home in on telling details. Above all, as MacNeice puts it, ‘In a journal . . . a man writes what he feels at the moment.’ This is why the poem is discontinuous, interrupted, constantly refocused by endings and fresh starts. ‘Close and slow,’ it begins, ‘summer is ending in Hampshire.’ On their shady lawns the retired generals and admirals are indifferent to the trouble starting up again in Europe. For the time-haunted poet, ‘the meter clicks and the cistern bubbles’; life is more immediate because change is in the air. ‘Hitler yells on the wireless,’ the academic year begins, De Valera’s Ireland is a mess but so is imperial England: ‘The country is a dwindling annexe to the factory,/Squalid as an after-birth.’
The poem’s focus on the moment keeps it fresh still. Even its false notes sound authentic, as when MacNeice overdoes the class guilt (‘But you also/Have the slave-owner’s mind’) or is driven by his childhood sense of abandonment (‘Louis Malone’ was his early pseudonym, ‘Louis M. Alone’) to claim that England is ‘teeming with unwanted/Children who are so many, each is alone’. Yet the poem’s techniques of immediacy set limits to what it can say. Defending Auden, MacNeice wrote that ‘the combined process of observing and recording = creation,’ which is much too narrow a definition. Autumn Journal is sometimes uneasy with its documentary idiom. It acknowledges what MacNeice later insisted on, that being inside the moment can prevent one understanding it. ‘Past and future merely don’t make sense,’ he writes, ‘And yet I thought I had seen them . . ./But how, if there is only a present tense?’
Once the long poem was done, he sought to see the past again. Dodds suggests that he did not complete and publish The Strings Are False because it opened up his childhood in ways that would have been painful to his father and stepmother. It was one thing to set out the externals, as he had done in ‘Carrickfergus’ – ‘I was born in Belfast between the mountain and the gantries/To the hooting of lost sirens and the clang of trams’ – but another to excavate the trauma of his mother’s illness and death. What MacNeice could not make explicit in prose was worked out, however, in the poem ‘Autobiography’. The subject drew out of MacNeice something of the spare intensity of the later lyrics. Yet it also looks back to Yeats, about whom MacNeice was writing a book. Against the tenets of the 1930s, Yeats showed that poetry need not be fluid and documentary to be true to life. ‘The writer who despises form,’ MacNeice would later argue, ‘must still formalise even in selecting his material. To despise “form” will not bring him nearer reality but may very easily take him further from it.’
So the title of ‘Autobiography’ does more than denote the genre of the poem. It says that we are looking at the form of a life on the page:
In my childhood trees were green
And there was plenty to be seen.
Come back early or never come.
My father made the walls resound,
He wore his collar the wrong way round.
Come back early or never come.
My mother wore a yellow dress;
Gently, gently, gentleness.
Come back early or never come.
In his book on Yeats, MacNeice defends refrains against the charge that they are decorative, sentimental, or designed to hypnotise the reader. ‘All poetry involves this danger of hypnosis’ and, anyway, ‘hypnosis can be illuminating.’ The refrain of ‘Autobiography’ is, in this deep sense, hypnotic. It allows a loss to surface, almost to become articulate, only to fall away into lulling sensation: ‘Gently, gently, gentleness’.
Yeats’s refrains, as MacNeice points out, are often tougher than the verses they follow. They have ‘an intellectual meaning which is subtle and concentrated, or a symbolist or nonsense meaning which hits the reader below the belt’. ‘Autobiography’ has a childlike simplicity, but its refrain is dense and riddling, close to nursery nonsense:
When I was five the black dreams came;
Nothing after was quite the same.
Come back early or never come.
The dark was talking to the dead;
The lamp was dark beside my bed.
Come back early or never come.
When I woke they did not care;
Nobody, nobody was there.
Come back early or never come.
When my silent terror cried,
Nobody, nobody replied.
Come back early or never come.
I got up; the chilly sun
Saw me walk away alone.
Come back early or never come.
The refrain, having made sense causally, develops a pattern of interruption. Desire for the lost mother (of every reader’s childhood?) is so strong that for her not to come early would be as bad as for her not to come. Yet with every repetition ‘early’ gets closer to meaning its opposite. The refrain tries to set conditions for what the speaker cannot control. It keeps being said, like a charm, as though repetition will make it more potent. Perversely – although MacNeice is always alert to this – repeated interruption is internalised as habit, a block against change, and the speaker has to break away. Yet the sudden assertion of agency at ‘I got up’ shrinks into passivity: ‘the chilly sun/Saw me walk away alone.’ The refrain has the last word; the pattern is not broken.
There is a striking ambiguity here, and not just in MacNeice. It is registered in the history of ‘interruption’, which seems always to have meant both what puts a stop to an event or action and what breaks into a sequence that then resumes. This is not surprising: the latter is always temporarily the former and the former often potentially the latter. Psychologists during MacNeice’s lifetime did a lot of research on the way interrupted activities stick in the memory longer than completed ones. To interrupt something can paradoxically inhibit making ‘a fresh start’, because what tries to be new will be haunted by what hangs over. This is one reason Hank and MacNeice could not forget the loss of their mothers, even when, in the painter’s case, his mother comes back into his life before repeating the initial abandonment.
The doctor who treats Hank’s alcoholism says that it was his mother’s flitting off with a lover when he was small that made his life so frustrated and incomplete. After this early loss, his psyche expected it to be replicated. Interruption may break into life, but is it ever entirely external? Do some people attract it? This is the sort of repetition Freud began to analyse in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, and something like it can be observed not just in everyday self-destructiveness but in the way damage is handed down through the generations. In MacNeice’s case, when his first wife left him, she also abandoned their baby son. The consequences of this would be agonising when Dan decided in the 1950s that he wanted to join his mother in America. The patterns of interruption that impelled MacNeice to write about Hank went back to Carrickfergus.
So much goes back to Carrickfergus. But does that make MacNeice an Ulster poet? A few years before writing ‘Autobiography’, he observed apropos of Yeats that ‘the Irish tend to maternal fixation.’ It was a pathology he would thrash out in his later, semi-autobiographical play The Mad Islands (1962). Was ‘Autobiography’ Irish for him in that sense? In the months before he wrote it, he was living in Dublin and seemed inclined to settle there. He published a slim volume, The Last Ditch, with the Yeats family press, Cuala, and applied for a chair at Trinity College. Literary Dublin did not accept him, but he felt at home in the South. He was reconnecting himself with the all-Ireland Protestantism that his father had upheld in the uncongenial atmosphere of Carson’s Belfast, and revisiting the West from which the MacNeices were said to hail. Was he an Ulster poet turning into an Anglo-Irish one? And how useful are these labels anyway?
MacNeice’s reputation was kept alive after his death by Ulster poets and critics. The part they played has been recognised in this centenary year by the reissue of Michael Longley’s perceptive, beautifully introduced Selected Poems and by the addition of a fine preface by Derek Mahon to The Strings Are False. It would be good to have back in print Edna Longley’s study of 1988 which did so much to rescue MacNeice from being a prefix to the essentially British, 1930s conglomerate ‘MacSpaunday’. Peter McDonald, a poet and critic brought up in Belfast, is a gold-standard successor to these figures. It is a sign of the seriousness with which he takes MacNeice’s Irishness that he gives, as an appendix, the full text of The Last Ditch, even though most of its poems are already included in the main body of his edition. Yet the Anglo-Irish polarity that structured MacNeice’s reception during the Troubles is starting to seem restrictive. It can only enhance his standing that so many more of his qualities are visible if he is thought about in the context of what the Good Friday Agreement calls ‘the totality of relationships among the peoples of these islands’.
Certainly, the Carrickfergus described by MacNeice’s poem is a nexus of relationships rather than a place apart. It has a Norman castle, a Scottish quarter and an Irish quarter (‘a slum for the blind and halt’). MacNeice, as ‘the rector’s son’, was ‘born to the anglican order,/Banned for ever from the candles of the Irish poor’. Up the lane, at the lodge of an army camp, a ‘Yorkshire terrier’ ran about. The young poet took ‘the Carlisle train’ to school ‘in Dorset’, people had maps of Flanders above the fireplace to follow the progress of the First World War, and German prisoners were held on a ship on Belfast Lough. Ulster was a microcosm of the British-Irish archipelago, caught up in European crises.
I Crossed the Minch, an odd, uneven amalgam of travel journal, satirical dialogue, literary parody and poetry book, shows MacNeice thinking between Scotland and Ireland about nationalism, language and culture, and tying these into the larger problems of Britain and Europe. In his introduction, Tom Herron makes much of MacNeice’s admission that he ‘went to the Hebrides partly hoping . . . that the Celt in me would be drawn to the surface by the magnetism of his fellows. This was a sentimental and futile hope.’ He argues that MacNeice was looking for the sort of archaic, peasant society that Synge found on the Aran Islands, and that his ‘miscalculation colours everything he sees and does’. But this is to take too literally the motif of frustrated quest which MacNeice characteristically uses to draw in the reader. Before he crossed the Minch, he already knew Hector MacIver, the dedicatee of his book. MacIver had published on the iniquities of landlordism, the failures of the herring industry, subsidy and the dole, and the collapse of Lord Leverhulme’s attempt to set up manufacturing industry on Lewis. The TLS reviewer had no difficulty in categorising I Crossed the Minch with other books of the time (by Edwin Muir and Neil Gunn) that treat Scotland and its islands in hard, socio-economic terms.
MacNeice knew that the Hebrides – unlike Synge’s Aran Islands – had been much written about by inhabitants who were novelists and poets. On Barra he visited Compton Mackenzie and talked about Welsh nationalism and the desirability of the islands attaching themselves to the Irish Free State. MacIver helped him see that Gaelic poetry dealt with material realities and not ‘the Celtic Twilight’. That the islands were economically disadvantaged yet also busy sites of literary production were at this date connected facts. In the Shetlands, Hugh MacDiarmid – praised by MacNeice in reviews – had published his Second Hymn to Lenin and would soon write his own prose book on the Scottish islands. In the Hebrides, Sorley MacLean had composed an elegy for MacNeice’s friend John Cornford, ‘marbh ’san Spàinn ’san aobhar naomh/is cridhe ghaoil mì-shocrach’ (‘dead in Spain in the sacred cause/and the heart of love uncomforted’). Within months he would start writing ‘The Cuillin’, which laments ‘the rotten wrack of filth’ in China, India and Spain, as well as in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and urges the Red Army to sweep across Europe and obliterate Fascism.
This is the setting for ‘Bagpipe Music’, the best poem in I Crossed the Minch. Rather than imposing on the Hebrides the politics of the metropolitan left, it shares with MacDiarmid and MacLean an international, anti-capitalist outlook. Hence the way it ranges out from its Scottish characters (John MacDonald and the rest):
It’s no go the merrygoround, it’s no go the rickshaw,
All we want is a limousine and a ticket for the peepshow.
Their knickers are made of crepe-de-chine, their shoes are made of python,
Their halls are lined with tiger rugs and their walls with heads of bison.
The islanders cannot escape a system so globally rapacious. If anything, their peripheral location leaves them more exposed to the core insanities of the market: Mrs Carmichael rejecting her new baby as ‘over-production’, while Willie Murray’s brother chucks his underpriced herring catch back into the sea.
Through and beyond the war, MacNeice was self-consciously archipelagic. He wrote a monologue for Byron in Scots; Wales looms large in Autumn Sequel (1954). He got interested in the folklore about seals that is common to the Hebrides and the West of Ireland, and put it into a play. In a better world, maybe after the revolution, ‘a modern English dramatist’ would ‘write for the whole British Isles’. In Persons from Porlock the chief potholer is Welsh. Whereas Hank’s appetite for caving has something to do with his interrupted relationship with his mother, Mervyn ‘used to be a Welsh nationalist and this, I suspect, is a substitute’. But MacNeice’s fascination with cultures that preserved their difference under British rule went further: he was in Lahore during partition, Ghana just before independence. These trips for the BBC were ways of breaking up a dull routine. But they also show his determination to address the big subjects of the day.
And in general his postwar bad patch was not caused by a lack of ambition: it was probably the result of too much. He came to agree with the reviewers who said that his early poetry was too concerned with the surface of life. His aim, he announced, would be ‘depth’. Addressing his second wife, the singer Hedli Anderson, he says that poets should ‘divine the answers/Which our grim past has buried in our present’. It was natural for him to feel that ‘the answers’ would be found in a new relationship with time. But he denied his own sensibility when he resisted the episodic. Reasons are given in Autumn Sequel, where he says that the construction of Autumn Journal used ways of managing time that were complicit with routines and habits. ‘Our days are quick,’ he declares. ‘Quick and not dead. To lop them off with a knife/In order to preserve them seems pure fake.’
Long views become the rule. Autumn Sequel is drawn to Oxford, Norwich and other places where the past is present. There is much anecdotal interest, and a lot of worthwhile description. Yet the attempts at temporal connection tend to be apologetically portentous (‘Ancient history, one might think,//Runs into World War Two’) or arbitrary (‘A woodpecker taps. This has happened before’). Four Quartets is partly to blame. MacNeice was clearly impressed by Eliot’s fine-tuned ability to implicate time present and time past in time future, but he lacked the subtle mysticism and etymological acuteness to create comparable effects and fell back on discursive elaboration.
Uneasy and palpably bored, MacNeice was still attracted by the economy of interruption that Autumn Sequel resists. He enjoyed watching ballet, ‘a tale that tells//Itself by interruption’, and preferred rugby to the arts because of its unpredictability. There were even signs that he envied the early death of Dylan Thomas, who ‘never stopped beginning; sink or sin,//Doubles or quits, he dared the passing bell/To pass him and it did.’ Being a true poet, Thomas punctuated his life and work with fresh starts, and his death became not an end but a temporary, enabling interruption. This was a bizarre thought for a poet as secular as MacNeice. Yet it is less surprising when one notices that he had begun to think of suicide as the ultimate elective interruption – a way of casting aside ‘dead/Habits, hopes, beliefs’ (‘The Death-Wish’).
What he was desperate to get away from was the routine, the nagging phones, the bureaucracy of the BBC. Going on about it in Autumn Sequel, he becomes self-awarely unattractive. When he says that without office life he would have done ‘original work and timeless’, it not only sounds unlike anything good that he ever wrote, but not a poem that could be written. One of the simplest, most potent shifts made by the later, parabolic MacNeice involved him getting out of himself and delineating his predicament with the lightness enabled by the third person. In ‘The Suicide’ he imagines a version of himself conducting a group of sightseers around his office, full of files, bills and unanswered letters, which he has abandoned by stepping through a high window. By virtue of the self-interruption he leaves ‘Something that was intact’.
The enemy was not just routine, but the mortgaging of time to tasks that piled up in the waste of time created by these tasks being too unpalatable to tackle. Suicide has obvious drawbacks, but at least it leaves you in credit, jumping out of your job without finishing what the Corporation thinks you owe. These Hank-like frustrations have a representative, postwar aspect. They pick up Orwellian concerns about society becoming anonymous and mechanically ordered. MacNeice had joined the BBC to do ‘ephemeral work’ but it was invaded by Taylorism, by time-and-motion men doing surveys. This insulted the poet’s freelance spirit and interfered with his visits to the pub. How could a time-server with a clipboard understand MacNeice’s deeply internalised guilt-fear about putting time to use?
His last two books, Solstices (1961) and The Burning Perch (1963), show a marvellous return to form. A return to earlier content, also: poems about 1940-41, ‘Reflections’, ‘Variation on Heraclitus’ and ‘The Habits’. The descriptive and discursive are not lost; MacNeice can still evoke ‘October in Bloomsbury’ and write elegant ‘Memoranda to Horace’. But the issues that gripped him most are now unpacked directly, without the setting up through anecdote that makes Autumn Sequel drag. The poems start from scratch (‘When I was born the row began’), but they have the weight of life behind them. And they break off, unresolved, often using repetitive formulae – most strikingly in ‘The Taxis’ where Everyman accumulates ‘extras on the clock’ (family, baggage, dog) yet remains alone.
What should end a Collected so preoccupied with interruption? Dodds chose ‘Thalassa’. This vigorous, stanzaic monologue, in which Ulysses urges his comrades to leave Ithaca with him on one final voyage, survives in a late manuscript, but it was probably written, or at least drafted, in the 1940s. It goes well at the end of the book, breaking off on the brink of an adventure into death. But McDonald’s solution is better. He puts ‘Thalassa’ last in an appendix of manuscript poems. This allows it to be the final poem in the book, but leaves ‘Coda’, printed last in The Burning Perch, to stand at the end of the corpus. The placing is both consistent with McDonald’s policy of following the order of individual volumes and matches a known decision by the poet.
Readers often complain that MacNeice is emotionally chilly. The isolation worked out in ‘The Taxis’ went too far back to be resolved. But the intense restraint of ‘Coda’ is loaded with a desire for intimacy:
Maybe we knew each other better
When the night was young and unrepeated
And the moon stood still over Jericho.
So much for the past; in the present
There are moments caught between heart-beats
When maybe we know each other better.
But what is that clinking in the darkness?
Maybe we shall know each other better
When the tunnels meet beneath the mountain.
Jericho is a part of Oxford, where MacNeice courted his first wife. In his last great love affair, with Mary Wimbush, he returned to that sort of beginning. Yet the past buried in the present reaches back through the biblical Jericho to Genesis when the night was young. ‘Coda’ articulates, in the deftest way, the continuity between archaic past, present and future that MacNeice made his subject during his ambitious postwar decline, and does this by invoking a set of the heightened moments that the poet was always drawn to whatever the philosopher in him said.
Hank drowns because he swims along a flooded ‘tunnel’ to rescue the Welshman Mervyn. Before Mervyn went ahead, they agreed to communicate by jerking on a rope: ‘The usual code. Clear?’ As its title prompts us to notice, ‘Coda’ is shot through with code. Its finely patterned lucidity leaves it obscure on many levels. Yet it remains a poem of imminence, perhaps the greatest MacNeice ever wrote. From a silent, signal moon through insistent heartbeats it moves on to the clinking of picks in tunnels. The sound of work coming closer sends a message to those alone. It says that connection is possible. That the picks will one day break through. But not before the poetry broke off.