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date: 24 February 2021

MacNeice, (Frederick) Louisfree

(1907–1963)
  • D. M. Davin
  • , revised by Jon Stallworthy

(Frederick) Louis MacNeice (1907–1963)

by Howard Coster, 1942

MacNeice, (Frederick) Louis (1907–1963), writer, was born at 1 Brookhill Avenue, Belfast, on 12 September 1907, the youngest of three children of John Frederick MacNeice (1866–1942), then rector of Holy Trinity, Belfast, and his wife, Elizabeth Margaret (1866–1914), daughter of Martin Clesham, of co. Galway.

Early years and education

Originally a Galway man, Louis MacNeice's father was from 1908 to 1931 rector of Carrickfergus; in those early years his mother was often ill, his father preoccupied and remote: 'My mother was comfort and my father was somewhat alarm' (MacNeice, Strings are False, 37). His only brother, William, was what was then termed a mongol, that is, a sufferer from Down's syndrome, and MacNeice was much dependent for company on his sister, Caroline Elizabeth, who was later to marry Sir John Nicholson, third baronet. The death of their mother in 1914 was a severe blow, which threw a sombre shadow over MacNeice's adult recollections of childhood, imparting to much of his poetry a poignant sense of the impermanence of men and things. The children were looked after by a cook and a governess until 1917, when their father brought home a new wife, Georgina Beatrice, second daughter of Thomas Greer, of Sea Park, co. Antrim, and Carrickfergus; she brought 'much comfort and benevolence' (ibid., 61) into their lives. MacNeice's father became bishop of Cashel and Waterford in 1931, bishop of Down and Connor and Dromore in 1935, and died in 1942. In later life MacNeice came to appreciate him, as well as the family background of Galway, Dublin, and Connemara. This acted as a counterpoise to that element of stern Ulster reticence which he did not always find it easy to accept in his own character.

When MacNeice was ten he was sent to Sherborne preparatory school—then a happy place, and he was happy in it. In autumn 1921 he went with an entrance scholarship to Marlborough College, where he enjoyed rugby and running on the downs, and specialized in the classics. John Betjeman, Bernard Spencer, John Hilton, Graham Shepard, and Anthony Blunt were among his contemporaries; all but the first remained lifelong friends. MacNeice matured rapidly and precociously in an aesthetic and intellectual ambience, wrote a great deal of verse, and developed a persona which took pride in an opposition to science as well as religion, a contempt for politics, and a scepticism of all values except the aesthetic.

In 1926 MacNeice won a postmastership to Merton College, but Oxford was at first disappointing: he found much of the work arid, and his Marlborough friends were in other colleges. But he continued to write—chiefly poems and stories of satire and fantasy—and in time became friendly with other poets, notably W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and Clere Parsons. He took a first in classical honour moderations in 1928, and eagerly devoured the philosophy prescribed for Greats, ranging beyond it in quest of a system to replace a world founded on the religion he had lost with one founded on reason. But his obsession with the logic of poetry ran counter to any other logic, and his quest did not find a solution either then or later, although it was to be a continuing drive which underlay all his poetry. His Oxford studies did, however, give him a firm intellectual foundation, and in spite of emotional strains, his last year there—1930—was a year of successes. He got a first in literae humaniores, edited Oxford Poetry with Stephen Spender, and published his first book of poems, Blind Fireworks. On the security of a lectureship in classics at the University of Birmingham, on 21 June 1930 he married Giovanna Marie Thérèse Babette (Mary) Ezra (1908–1991), daughter of David Ezra and stepdaughter of John Beazley.

Lecturer at Birmingham and emerging poet

Industrial Birmingham and its university were a rude shock after the youthful snobberies and ‘preciousness’ of the Oxford aesthetes; MacNeice had to revise his ideas of how and what to teach, and he confronted the problems inevitable to a man who honestly wants to fulfil his obligations, whether to his employers or to his wife, yet who at a deep level regards his creative writing as more important than anything else. According to his posthumous autobiography, The Strings are False (1965), he and his wife at first withdrew from these problems into a ‘hothouse’ of their private world, in which he wrote a novel, Roundabout Way (1932), under the pseudonym Louis Malone. The book he soon came to see as a fake, and it was not a success. But he was unable to shut off the outside world, and at Christmas 1933 he wrote Eclogue for Christmas with 'a kind of cold-blooded passion' (MacNeice, Strings are False, 146) which surprised him. His son Daniel was born in 1934, and about this time MacNeice also began to take more interest in the life of Birmingham and the university, where there was then a remarkably able group of people; he became a lasting friend of the head of his department, Professor E. R. Dodds, his lifelong mentor who became professor of Greek at Oxford; of Ernest Stahl, a lecturer in German and later Taylor professor at Oxford; and of John Waterhouse, a lecturer in English. And among the students he came to know R. D. Smith, with whom he was later to be associated at the BBC, and Walter Allen. MacNeice was also becoming known as a poet through his contributions to New Verse and other periodicals and his second volume of Poems (1935), and he was at work, with Dodds's encouragement, on his translation of Aeschylus's Agamemnon (1936), which Dodds's successor as professor of Greek at Oxford, Sir Hugh Lloyd-Jones, considered 'the most successful version of any Greek tragedy that anyone in this country has yet produced' (E. R. Dodds, Missing Persons, 1977, 116).

Looking grimly at the outside world in 1933 MacNeice had wanted to 'smash the aquarium' (MacNeice, Strings are False, 146); instead, in 1935 his own golden bowl was broken when his wife abruptly left him, and their eighteen-month-old son, for an American graduate student. He had to turn his mind to domestic problems, and reconcile himself to the fact of rejection. His autobiography dissimulated the grief and concentrated on the gain of freedom: 'I suddenly realized I was under no more obligations to be respectable' (ibid., 152). But freedom and loneliness made him restless, and at Easter 1936 he and Anthony Blunt visited Spain. His Birmingham years may have made him more conscious of social and political injustice, but he does seem to have seen only the pictures of Spain and not the whole picture, with its intimations of turmoil to come. On his return he felt he could not endure the reminders of his broken marriage, and in summer 1936 accepted a post as lecturer in Greek at Bedford College, London. He then went to Iceland with W. H. Auden, a journey about which they subsequently wrote Letters from Iceland (1937). It was through Auden that he met Nancy Culliford Sharp (1909–2001) [see under Coldstream, Sir William], the wife of the painter William Coldstream. They were instantly attracted, and in 1937 began a passionate affair.

Move to London and Autumn Journal

MacNeice discharged his university duties in London punctiliously, although living the literary life and moving gradually away from 'the old gang who were just literary' towards 'the new gang who were all Left' (MacNeice, Strings are False, 165). The Group Theatre produced his Agamemnon in 1936, which was well received, and, less successfully, his Out of the Picture in 1937. His life at this period was 'a whirl of narcotic engagements' (ibid., 165)—parties, private views, and political meetings, and arguments. But although he was left-wing in his sympathies he was never himself formally committed to the revolutionary left, and he found the Communist Party unacceptable; nor can the whirl have been too narcotic, for in the single year 1938 he published another book of poems, The Earth Compels; two prose works written to commission, I Crossed the Minch, and Zoo (both with illustrations by Nancy Sharp); and a critical book, Modern Poetry, which exhibited a close study of metrics and a keen eye and ear, drew on a wide range in the classics and English, and showed a great balance of judgement. And in August he began a long poem which it took him the rest of the year to finish. Autumn Journal (1939), regarded by many as his masterpiece, is The Prelude of the 1930s, but it is a dramatic rather than a philosophical poem, sometimes recording emotions as they occur, sometimes recollecting them, but seldom in tranquillity. History is a river on which Wordsworth in his Prelude looks back to the rapids of the French Revolution, whereas MacNeice can hear the premonitory thunder of the falls ahead. Memory is a structuring principle of both poems, but in Autumn Journal it is a post-Freudian, Proustian memory that flies back and forward like a weaver's shuttle, leaving past and present, public life and private life interwoven on the loom. The poem is a farewell to peace that, at the same time, takes tender leave of Nancy Sharp, who by then had ended their relationship, but would remain a close friend.

The Second World War and the BBC

MacNeice paid a second visit to Spain early in 1939 and found it much changed; Barcelona was on the eve of collapse and Franco's cause triumphing. This, and the outbreak of war with Germany, brought his dilemmas to a head: he had also been in the United States that spring, and now, loitering in Ireland, he decided to take leave of absence from Bedford College, and go back to America to see whether he could make a life with the American writer Eleanor Clark whom he had met in New York. His visit was a success, and he enjoyed lecturing at Cornell, but by July 1940 it had become clear to him that if he stayed there he would be 'missing history' (Traveller's return, Selected Prose of Louis MacNeice, ed. A. Heuser, 1990, 83). In the event he was forced to stay on, owing to peritonitis, and he did not get back to England until December. He was rejected for active service because of bad eyesight and in May 1941 joined the BBC features department, which had a covert propaganda brief from the government. There, under Laurence Gilliam, MacNeice applied his mind to the principles and techniques of his new medium and to exploiting it to creative ends. His mastery was apparent in such programmes as the series The Stones Cry out, Alexander Nevsky, and Christopher Columbus. He adapted his old love of the stage to radio drama, and produced at least two memorable contributions: He had a Date (1944), an elegy for his friend Graham Shepard who had been killed on convoy duty; and The Dark Tower (1946), a synthesis of two favourite themes, the morality quest and the parable.

During the war years MacNeice also produced three more books of poetry, The Last Ditch (1940), Plant and Phantom (1941), and Springboard (1944), and another critical work, The Poetry of W. B. Yeats (1941). On 1 July 1942 he made a fresh start in family life by marrying Antoinette Millicent Hedley (Hedli) Anderson (1907–1990), an actress and singer; his son Daniel rejoined him from Ireland, and in 1943 his daughter Corinna was born.

The features department provided MacNeice with security and employment which he found useful, satisfying, and compatible with his vocation as poet. It was natural to continue in this work after the war, more especially as Gilliam had recruited other stimulating colleagues, many of them also poets—W. R. Rodgers, Rayner Heppenstall, Terence Tiller, and, on occasion, Dylan Thomas. Rodgers and Thomas in particular became his close friends, as did Francis (Jack) Dillon, the producer. MacNeice was proud of his skill in this medium and took pleasure in the company and technique of the teams with which he worked. The BBC of those years, and Gilliam particularly, knew how to get loyalty and dedicated work out of the intractable race of poets, and drove them with relaxed reins. MacNeice was given leave to visit Ireland in 1945—an Antaean and necessary return to his origins; his curiosity about the wider world was also given scope and he had many assignments abroad—to Rome, to India and Pakistan (in 1947 and again in 1955), to the United States (1953), to the Gold Coast (1956), and to South Africa (1959).

In 1949, to mark the Goethe bicentenary, the BBC produced MacNeice's version of Faust—a major undertaking on which he worked in collaboration with his old friend Ernest Stahl. He had published another collection of poems, Holes in the Sky (1948), and the following year Collected Poems, 1925–1948. From January to September 1950 he was on leave from the BBC as director of the British Institute in Athens, and he stayed on until the following March as assistant representative of the British Council, which had merged with the British Institute. Again, he led the double life: conscientious in discharging his duties, while writing—in spite of the rueful 'This middle stretch / Of life is bad for poets' (Day of Renewal, ll. 1–2, Ten Burnt Offerings, 65)—the poems published in 1952 as Ten Burnt Offerings. Back in London, he was beginning to be strongly conscious of time slipping away, and in elegiac mood he began Autumn Sequel (1954), a complement to and reprise of Autumn Journal; he was in the midst of writing this when Dylan Thomas died, in November 1953, and grief for that death strongly marked the mood of the poem. He published no more until Visitations in 1957—the year in which he received an honorary doctorate from the Queen's University, Belfast. In 1958 he was appointed CBE.

Last years and reputation

But some desperate discontent was working in MacNeice, and a desire for renewal. In 1960 he and his second wife separated. He set up house with the actress Mary Wimbush (1924–2005), and in 1961 gave up full-time employment in the BBC to be freer for his own work. He felt himself to be in a fresh creative phase of which Solstices (1961) was the first harvest; he delivered the Clark lectures in 1963 (published as Varieties of Parable in 1965), and he went to Yorkshire that summer to make a programme, Persons from Porlock, which involved recording underground. He insisted on going down with engineers to see that the sound effects were right and caught a severe chill. By the time his sister discovered how ill he was and made him go into hospital it was too late; he died of viral pneumonia at St Leonard's Hospital, Shoreditch, London, on 3 September 1963. After a funeral in London on 7 September, his ashes were interred in Carrodore Churchyard, Ireland.

Before his death MacNeice had been assembling the poems for The Burning Perch (1963). Of this he wrote, 'I was taken aback by the high proportion of sombre pieces, ranging from bleak observations to thumbnail nightmares … All I can say is that I did not set out to write this kind of poem: they happened' (Poetry Book Society Bulletin, September 1963, 1). It was a central tenet of his critical theory that the poet cannot be completely sure of what he has to say until he has said it, and that he works towards his meaning by a 'dialectic of purification' (MacNeice, Modern Poetry, 21). And in a sense what gives MacNeice's poetry its excitement is the tension between his mastery of words and technique, and the uncertainty for which he was trying to find a resolution. It was fortunate for him as a poet that he did not find it, for perplexity over the irreconcilables in life was the yeast that fermented his best work. Any comprehensive theoretical solution would have been sterilizing.

Even so, MacNeice's escape from the frigidities of his classical education had been narrow, as he realized in Modern Poetry: 'Marriage at least made me recognize the existence of other people in their own right and not as vicars of my godhead' (MacNeice, Modern Poetry, 74). And it was in Birmingham that he learned to respect the ordinary man, and came to form his own conception of what a poet should be:'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' (ibid., 198). But this description omits the qualities which made MacNeice special as a poet: the capacious mind with full memory; the dazzling skill with metaphor and image and symbol; the control of verbal technique—the sharp contemporary tang of his scholar-poet's idiom, ranging from lyric to acute observation, even slapstick; the basic seriousness, the search for a belief which could explain without destroying the delight of 'The drunkenness of things being various' (Snow, l. 8, Collected Poems, 30). The absence of a firm and forming conviction meant that he was open to experience but often passive in his acceptance of it, however creatively he might give back the experience in poetry. He was himself aware of this: 'But the things that happen to one often seem better than the things one chooses. Even in writing poetry … the few poems or passages which I find wear well have something of accident about them' (MacNeice, Strings are False, 220). And in the same passage of his autobiography he expressed the feeling that what makes life worth living is the surrender to the feelings and sensation which the given moment may present.

As poet and critic, and as man—humanist and stoic—MacNeice was all of a piece. Once he had found himself and his deepest themes he developed as a tree develops, the years adding rings and ruggedness to the trunk and density of branch and foliage, but the basic shape not changing. As the tree, rooted where it stands, must accept and surrender to the winds and seasons, so MacNeice stoically and passively accepted whatever life brought him next.

Sources

  • L. MacNeice, The strings are false, ed. E. R. Dodds (1965)
  • L. MacNeice, Modern poetry: a personal essay (1938)
  • J. Stallworthy, Louis MacNeice (1995)
  • m. cert., 1930
  • m. cert., 1942
  • d. cert.

Archives

Sound

Likenesses

Columbia University, New York
British Library, National Sound Archive
Bodleian Library, Oxford
King's College Archive Centre, Cambridge
National Portrait Gallery, London