Chianti in Khartoum

Nick Laird

  • Letters of Louis MacNeice edited by Jonathan Allison
    Faber, 768 pp, £35.00, May 2010, ISBN 978 0 571 22441 8

Louis MacNeice’s influence is everywhere in contemporary poetry, in its forms and in its forms of engagement. Certain strands in his work – questions of identity, nationality, responsibility – became, with the advent of the Troubles, critically important to a celebrated generation of Northern Irish poets, poets like Derek Mahon, Michael Longley and Muldoon. These writers were led to him by content but stayed for the style. Auden or Eliot’s influence can be overwhelming for a writer, their tone is so settled, their territory staked out so thoroughly. But a novice poet can wander around perfectly happily for years in MacNeice’s enormous and baggy Collected Poems and emerge with a decent grounding in poetic practice. It would be difficult to overstate his current significance. In the last 20 years there has been a burgeoning of academic attention – conferences, papers, critical studies – culminating in the appearance of his letters, weighing in at a substantial 768 pages, edited by Jonathan Allison of the University of Kentucky, who notes, a little ominously, that ‘this volume represents only a fraction of the extant letters … and there is certainly enough material for a further volume.’

MacNeice was born in Belfast, ‘between the mountain and the gantries’, in 1907. The next year his father, a Church of Ireland minister and Home Ruler who refused to sign the Ulster Covenant, was given the parish of St Nicholas in Carrickfergus, where he stayed until 1931, when he was made bishop of Cashel and Waterford. The MacNeices’ relocation north had not been through choice: Louis’s grandfather had run a mission school on Omey Island off Connemara, but in 1879 sectarian pressures forced him out. In 1913 his mother, after a hysterectomy necessitated by a uterine tumour, was admitted to a Dublin nursing home, where she died the following year. In 1917, the year his father remarried, Louis was sent off to Sherborne Prep in Dorset; Marlborough and Merton College, Oxford followed.

He married twice, having a child in each marriage, and after years of teaching and freelancing, signed a permanent contract with the BBC in 1941. He worked there – with a couple of hiatuses – until his death, writing and producing radio plays and features. In 1963, while recording sound effects in a cave in Yorkshire for his radio play Persons from Porlock, he contracted pneumonia and died in hospital in London on 3 September, nine days short of his 56th birthday. He wrote and published an immense amount: hack-work including a book about astrology; a novel, a children’s book, literary criticism, hundreds of book reviews and essays, plays (including translations of Agamemnon and Faust), radio plays, travel books and, of course, poetry. He knew he wrote too much, admitting to his second wife, Hedli, ‘my trouble all my life … has been over-production.’

That vast output of books may be one reason it’s taken a while to see how good a lot of the poetry actually is. He tried out styles obsessively, used any device you can think of, and in content embraced pretty much everything from the jazz and stockings and Johnnie Walker of Autumn Journal (1939) to the budgies and television monitors of The Burning Perch (1963). He believed that poetry was a flexible instrument; it could be reportage or narrative, philosophical or symbolist, parabolic or oneiric. If the poems show that he never fixed on a single system of style – just as he never accepted the validity of a single system of thought or belief – so much the better. He said himself that he wrote poems ‘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’. The usual précis of his career is that, after a dazzling start, the 1940s and early 1950s were less successful (as he put it in ‘Day of Renewal’, ‘This middle stretch/Of life is bad for poets’). In the early 1960s, the story goes, he produced work that was even better than that of the 1930s. To some extent this summary’s accurate, but even a MacNeice failure is more interesting than many poets’ successes.

According to Samuel Butler, the true test of the imagination is the ability to name a cat, and in his last year at Marlborough, Louis had some suggestions for his stepmother:

Re kittens, one must be called Old Foss after Mr Lear’s famous cat. The other two might perhaps be called Barocco and Rokoko (Anthony read a paper on these last night). But cats have little interest in architecture, so perhaps Rodillardus and Chat Botté would be more appropriate – though French is so difficult to pronounce. Other charming names that occur to me are Malinn, Fanfreluche, Cydalise, Poll Troy, Dobbin, Queen Anne, Pactolus, Parthenon, Laidronette, Midas, Oenone, Quangle Wangle (Mr Lear again), Amanda, Passionata and Perhaps. You may select from these – but remember Old Foss.

The suggestions, and that playful, authoritative tone, show the impress of a classical education on the minister’s boy from Carrick. There is the emergent writer’s thrill in strange, fantastic language, where the local mixes with the exotic and nonsensical. His lifelong interest in myth and folk tales also registers (Rodillardus is a cat from a fairy tale told by Rabelais, Chat Botté is the French name for Puss in Boots), and there is the poet’s joy in the unexpected turn, wrong-footing the reader with that last suggestion of ‘Perhaps’ following the proper names. The teenager already displays the excess and energy that – for better and sometimes worse – would characterise his poetry, with its endless trying on of forms and styles.

The Anthony mentioned in the letter is Anthony Blunt, Louis’s closest friend at Marlborough, later the famous art historian, and then the even more famous spy. When MacNeice arrived at the school, his letters were already performances (his first message home opens: ‘Now I will begin an account of my adventures …’), but the correspondence here makes clear that his growth as an aesthete was almost entirely directed by Blunt. There is inadvertent humour in their mutual preciousness: ‘I bought a beautiful slice of cheese the other day – orange and red – not that it tasted very good. Blunt has been painting a still life.’ When a tired Louis signs off, it is because ‘Morpheus calls me.’ The first quarter or so of this book is taken up with his (tremendously impressive) education and its accompanying trivia – nicknames and fossil-hunting, mumps and rugby. These letters might have easily been left out of Allison’s selection without losing very much. It’s difficult, in fact, to disagree with MacNeice’s own appraisal of November 1940. He was in the US but had decided to return to England, worried he was ‘missing history’. Fearful of the U-boats, he wrote to his literary executor and old friend, the Oxford professor E.R. Dodds:

In case any mug wants to publish any of my letters … I do not want any letters to my father or stepmother to be published as they nearly always contain some falsity. I also regret most of my undergraduate letters (esp. to Anthony Blunt) which are nearly always v. affected & forced but I suppose they might be amusing to social historians.

The early letters contain several fervent pronouncements about the nature of Art and Poetry, along with much baiting of the art teacher at Marlborough. But you can also track the changes in MacNeice’s feelings about Ireland and the alienation that resulted from being educated in a country not his own. Back in Carrickfergus for the holidays, he confides to Blunt that ‘my artistic self … is mouldering here among the cabbages & well-intentioned people.’ (His realignment or reinvention of himself is accompanied by a name change: he starts to sign off as Louis, his middle name, rather than Freddie.) The MacNeice on display in these letters is much more sexually ambiguous than the one in Jon Stallworthy’s fond, donnish 1995 biography: ‘as many of his contemporaries were engaged in what he later called “mild homosexual romances”,’ Stallworthy wrote, ‘he singled out a “dark-haired boy of 16 who had large grey feminine eyes and asked him illicitly to tea”. This romance advanced no further, and Blunt maintained that “Louis was always, totally, irredeemably heterosexual.”’ This is to dismiss the numerous adoring letters to men, and the frequent references to the appearance of the males of Marlborough and Oxford. Blunt and MacNeice gave each other female alter egos, Susie and Antonia, and the letters reveal the existence of a protracted infatuation or love affair with a young man called Charles Thurstan Edward-Collins (the possessor of the ‘grey feminine eyes’). Louis returned to Marlborough to visit after he left for Oxford. (‘I told Charles I wasn’t coming to M.C. any more but I expect I shall. The College is so sordid … Still it is worth it. Don’t you think Charles was looking very beautiful at the end of last term[?] I wish his photograph did him justice.’)

The undergraduate MacNeice seems to have been intrigued by but unused to females. In September 1926 he joked to Blunt (who was at Cambridge) that he was ‘still averse to women except an Indian woman of about 80 I saw in Dublin & promptly fell in love with’. In January 1927 he declared: ‘I have again renounced women … but I fear it may not last.’ It didn’t: in December 1928 he became secretly engaged to Mary Ezra, the stepdaughter of Jackie Beazley, an Oxford professor of archaeology. (The first mention of this in the letters comes in March 1929, when MacNeice writes to Blunt: ‘yes, Mary Ezra. She doesn’t like you & I gather you don’t like her. Which is very bad taste on both sides. We are going to live in a garret.’) The forthcoming marriage occasioned a long letter to John Hilton, a schoolfriend who offered to intercede between MacNeice and his prospective in-laws, the Beazleys. It comes as a relief and a shock to read it. Here, at last, is the intimate voice:

here goes: Apologia pro Vita Mea. Only not even an apologia. (You may very possibly think me (a) a swine & (b) dishonest. As for the latter I have always thought of truth as something one constructs, & never seen any need to load my friends with superfluous unpleasantness.)

The crux of the matter is that I have got an idiot brother (a ‘Mongol’ i.e. non-hereditary). Hence the greater part of my rows with Mrs B[eazley] owing to my inefficiency in producing non-hereditary evidence … My birth was managed so rottenly that my mother had eventually to have a hysterectomy; after which she was ill off & on till she died for obscure reasons when I was just 7 … From the age of about 5 or 6 till 8 or 9 my sister & I (& my brother) lived all together at home without being in any way properly looked after; first we had a hopelessly uneducated woman from a farm in Co. Armagh who used to tell my sister how she would soon die because she (i.e. my sister) had so many colds, & what nasty things they would write on her grave-stone. Then we had a worthless zany or two; I think for several years I never had my teeth washed. As for my father he loomed about the house & hardly ever spoke to us. At one time I had to sleep in the same room with him & all night he used to groan & mutter & toss about.

My stepmother appeared when I was about 9. My brother was sent off to an Institute in Scotland & my sister & I were sent to school. As my stepmother’s ideas were then wholly quaker, mixed with a naive & charming innocence & a little snobbery, it was one dotty epoch on top of another. I always remained terrified of my father … When I was 17, however, owing to a (sentimental &, I think, foolish) proposal of my sister, the family reinstalled my brother at home … The result of this was that while the rest of the family seemed even to enjoy it (as a Christian burden?) I became in a strange way hollow; I am only filling up again now. My only way out was to imagine it away, when I was not at home … the summer you stayed with me my brother was away in England.

Even if you know MacNeice’s life well, the letter comes with the force of revelation – not just in facts but tone. The effect of this self-doubting, direct, personal letter is to reinforce the sense that all the previous correspondence moves very fast but is a little desperate in its gaiety. All that slick jauntiness is corollary to a large and difficult sadness.

MacNeice and Mary finally wed in the summer of 1930 but the marriage was not a success. MacNeice graduated with a first in Greats and the couple moved to Birmingham, where he had a lectureship at the university. A son, Dan, was born in 1934, and the next year Mary emigrated to the US with a lover. Granted sole custody of his son, MacNeice moved to London where he taught at Bedford College. There are no more letters like the one to Hilton until the correspondence of the late 1930s and early 1940s with Eleanor Clark, an American writer he had an affair with. The letters to her are long, often funny – they make you wish you could read her replies. She presses him to be more dogmatic in his beliefs, and in a letter written during a bombing raid he tells her with the usual grace and disdain he felt for sloganeering:

I’m sick & tired, darling, of being accused of things like relativism & empiricism (burst of guns then) because it’s all a misunderstanding; & it’s not that I don’t believe anything, it’s just that I don’t think you can explain the Universe by saying 2 + 2 = 4 or by Dialectical Materialism or by the Cross of Christ. Etc. etc. etc. Droning & droning. The cook in my professor’s house at Oxford suddenly the other day began cursing Hitler Homerically – ‘I’ll cut out his inside & rub salt in it, I’ll cut off his leg & make him look at it etc.’

The bulk of the post-Oxford letters are practical. They concern the books he did write, and many relate to books he never began or finished: among them ‘The Roman Smile’, a discussion of Latin humour, a children’s book about three goats in Achill, an anthology of poetry for schools, an anthology with W.R. Rodgers called ‘The Character of Ireland’, a book on the practice of poetry for John Lehmann, a book called ‘Countries in the Air’ intended to discuss how ‘in foreign travel one is much of the time searching for the implementation of certain myths.’ Starting in April 1932, there are almost 50 letters to T.S. Eliot (who published MacNeice’s poetry and plays and Letters from Iceland). For those interested in this sort of thing (I am), the addressee remains ‘Mr Eliot’ until 1936, when he becomes ‘Eliot’, and finally in 1949 ‘Tom’, though he signs his letters ‘Louis MacNeice’. Disappointingly, the letters to Eliot are nearly all administrative, short, and not particularly enlightening, as are many of the letters to publishers, magazine editors and universities.

There’s not much correspondence with fellow writers, and what there is doesn’t deal with practice. Only one letter to his collaborator Auden is extant, and though interesting on what he thought of his friend’s poetry, it’s a public letter that appeared in New Verse. MacNeice was busy. He did his connecting (literary and otherwise) in person, in pubs and clubs and restaurants. The correspondence of a poet who writes letters to connect – like Keats or Bishop or Larkin – is different in kind, and a note to Larkin in 1958 reminds us how different. The two poets were editing a PEN anthology with Bonamy Dobrée. In a footnote to MacNeice’s terse four lines suggesting inclusion of a poem by Redgrove, Allison records Larkin’s experience of the collaborative process, as related to Kingsley Amis: ‘Each editor became more like himself as time went on – Dobrée more feather-brained and corrupt, MacNeice lazier and duller witted, and me more acutely critical and increasing in integrity.’ (In the recently published Letters to Monica, Larkin was – at least in 1950 – more generous: ‘I also happened on a poem called “Dublin” by MacNeice & that also depressed me by its extraordinary talent. Despite all we say about them, Auden & MacNeice have talent whereas the tiny fish have not. Poetry is like everything else: if you’re not 2/3rds of the way there already, it’s not worth starting.’)

MacNeice’s letters have little of Larkin’s bile or candour. The impression they give of their writer is similar to his own famous prescription: ‘I would have a poet able-bodied, fond of talking, a reader of the newspapers, capable of pity and laughter, informed in economics, appreciative of women, involved in personal relationships, actively interested in politics, susceptible to physical impressions.’ There are plenty of physical impressions and very few mental ones; here large events – both political and personal – for the most part happen off-stage. In 1942 MacNeice married Hedli Anderson, a singer and actress, though she’s mentioned only after the marriage has taken place. A daughter, Corinna, was born the following year and the family spent 1950 in Athens, where MacNeice was director of the British Institute.

In the 1940s and 1950s, MacNeice starts to make radio documentaries abroad and in lieu of a diary writes long letters home to Hedli. There is much vivid local colour, but no time or space for anything else. Khartoum is

v. un-glam … Whole town laid out by Lord Kitchener; nothing from before him. Shoes get dusted over in no time. Inhabitants mainly sullen-looking; at any rate not responsive … Visited one of the ginning factories where the seeds are extracted from the cotton. Occasional motheaten camels wandering in, wedged between 2 great bales like the most cumbrous kind of lifejacket.

Throughout he is assiduous in recording his tipples: lager, Dutch beer and champagne in Accra, John Collinses in New Delhi, sarsaparilla in Singapore, whisky in Colombo, brandy and soda in Kuala Lumpur, Chianti in Khartoum. The letters also relate the embarrassment and consequences after MacNeice, staying on a US naval destroyer to make a radio feature, was upbraided for being drunk. Drink is a recurrent topic in the letters to Hedli in particular, with him repeatedly apologising or defending himself.

And the letters take you to places you don’t really want to go. In 1959, from Johannesburg, he writes to Hedli that

I don’t think I’m any longer interested in Sex for Sex’s Sake … & can’t really get interested – drink or no drink – unless ones tuned in on the other wavelength. Which so often (drink or no drink) we aren’t – probably because we’re both such egocentrics. Please don’t take any of this amiss; everyone (including me) knows that you’re extraordinarily attractive for your age.

In arguments he is mostly gentle, but that ‘for your age’ is barbed. Within a page it becomes clear he’s having an affair with a 20-year-old South African, who, as he tells her, is definitely ‘on the same wavelength’. His marriage to Hedli broke up in 1960 and he moved in with Mary Wimbush, another actress, his companion until he died.

Although Allison has done a fine and thorough job with his introduction and cross-referencing (frequently footnoting, for example, the more substantial prose of the unfinished autobiography The Strings Are False), these letters remain mostly secondary texts. They help explain the life not the work. The book is also, very occasionally, subject to the curse of autocorrect: Rochdale is in Lancashire, not Tyrone; Housman wrote A Shropshire Lad, not ‘The Shropshire Lad’; and the Harold to whom a Chinese goose is bequeathed in ‘Auden and MacNeice: Their Last Will and Testament’ is Acton, not Action. Some words listed as indecipherable were decoded in Stallworthy’s biography, and in a few places the versions disagree. Writing to Dodds to apologise for a one-night stand with a mutual friend, Margaret Gardiner, MacNeice says: ‘If however I had done any celebration, I shouldn’t have imagined that she would suffer over it.’ In place of ‘celebration’ Stallworthy has ‘calculation’, which seems to make more sense.

Those hoping for letters that inform the poetry will find few exegetical passages, though there are moments that illuminate the way MacNeice thought. Everything for him came down to being in two minds. From Mayo in 1945, MacNeice tells Dodds, a fellow Ulsterman: ‘I wish one could either live in Ireland or feel oneself in England. It must be one of them ould antinomies.’ In 1954 he writes that ‘America, as usual, made me feel Yes & No.’ He could, however, make up his mind: after initial misgivings, by November 1939 he is telling Dodds that

I am beginning to think this may be my war after all. It doesn’t seem any good being perfectionist like the Trotskyites & E. over in America. Obviously there is plenty wrong with the British Empire & especially India & no doubt our present Government have no intention of mending this state of affairs. However the war they are supposed to be running may mend it in spite of them. I find myself liable to use things like India or interferences with liberty at home to rationalise my own cowardice. It does however seem to be clear that, in this choice of evils, Mr Chamberlain’s England is preferable to Nazi Germany (& anyhow it won’t if people have any sense, remain Mr C’s England). I find it natural to remain agin the government but in this case it seems quite feasible to be agin the govmt. & still support the war. (Just as it seems feasible to support the war & at the same time attack the people who attack the people who are anti-War.)

And so on. Even the rhetorical forms, the repetition and reversals, show a mind obsessional in its rational habits, in its weighing of opposites. As MacNeice remarked of ‘the classical student’ in Autumn Journal, ‘his training in syntax/Is also a training in thought/And even in morals.’

In ‘The Window’ MacNeice asks how ‘to achieve in a world of flux and bonfires’, ‘of wind and hinges/An even approximate poise’. The poem offers the partial answer of ‘paradox and antinomy’, and it is striking how often the finest poems are founded on principles of contradiction: the traveller in ‘The Taxis’, alone with an invisible entourage; the Odi et Amo poems about Ireland; the mayfly that has such vitality and a life-span of just one day. The love poems especially are alive to the ‘ould antinomies’. In part three of ‘Flowers in the Interval’, oppositional statements suggest all love’s paradoxes; only at the end do they resolve back to the non-theoretical, a real person:

Because your voice is carved of jade yet warm

And always is itself and always new,
A pocket of calm air amidst a storm
And yet a ripple beneath all calms, a view

Into wide space which still is near; is you.

There is only one letter to a reader about a poem, but the poem is the much loved ‘Snow’.

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.

MacNeice explains to Miss J. Freeman in 1961 that ‘the theme is plurality’, although the poem is

almost a piece of factual reporting … I was in fact … sitting in my room beside an open fire eating tangerines and there were roses in the window and outside it did begin to snow … The major point comes in the last line, which puzzles you. There was no question of the roses and the snow ever merging. Each was to retain its identity for ever and in my mood at the time I was glad about this.

MacNeice wrote in his essay ‘Poetry Today’ that the ‘generalisations so often offered by poets’ are only ‘a moment in the context of the poet’s life and work, which can be contradicted by other moments in his life and work, just as one character in a play can give the lie to another character’ – and I’m not sure the last line of ‘Snow’ is as settled as he claims. In MacNeice ‘even the walls are flowing’, and instability and paradox are prefigured by the fire’s ‘bubbling’ – an adjective related to fire’s opposite element, water. That ‘between’ in the last line works as a double agent, both joining (there is something, a connection, between the snow and the roses) and dividing (there is something, a barrier, between them). If plurality is the theme, it’s a plurality undercut by monism, and the line proposes in a single thought that everything is both apart and a part. MacNeice is such a fine poet that the ambiguity does not invite dispute as to the poem’s meaning: the ambiguity is the meaning.