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.

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