The Ticking Fear

John Kerrigan

  • 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:

Each poem
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.’

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