Louis MacNeice: In A Between World, by Christopher J Fauske, Irish Academic Press, 256 pp, €22.50, ISBN: 978-1911024095
In 1995, Jon Stallworthy’s biography of the poet Louis MacNeice appeared to generally favourable reviews. It was recognised as an urbane, courteous study of a poet who had never quite escaped a reputation for playing second fiddle to WH Auden. For this reader, however, it did not manage to grasp how turbulent had been the life from which the poet’s marvellous poems had sprung. Since then, David Fitzpatrick’s richly detailed life of the poet’s Church of Ireland bishop father has supplied us with knowledge about how the family background had roots in the experience of sectarianism, while also enforcing an awareness of MacNeice senior’s standing as an eminent Irish public figure.
In 2010, Jonathan Allison’s edition of MacNeice’s letters was published, which contained some of the poet’s passionate correspondence with women with whom he had had relationships. Both these volumes are germane to this new work on MacNeice for Fauske explores in his book how the poet and radio dramatist was significantly influenced by his father’s communitarian Christian values, while his personal life was dogged by misfortune in love. Which is to say that though Fauske has not written a new biography his book has a close biographical focus. Its nine chapters in fact comprise a series of individual essays which situate MacNeice in the various contexts in which he worked. Each pays due attention to biographical matter in illuminating ways.
Fauske’s overall argument about MacNeice is that his career was a matter of negotiating between conflicting realities; for had not the poet himself declared in his poem “Carickfergus”: “I was born between the mountain and the gantries”? His oft-anthologised poem “Snow” had ended with the gnomic observation “There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.” Later in mid-life he would write of “days running into each other, but oh the distance between!”
The state of betweenness for MacNeice, according to Fauske, involved national and political issues, between Belfast and Dublin, Ireland North and South, Ireland and England, Europe and America, peace and war (MacNeice chose London over neutral Ireland and a then non-combatant United States, lest he miss history).
Fauske devotes chapter three of his book to MacNeice the critic, whose published reflections on the art of poetry in books such as Modern Poetry A Personal Essay, The Poetry of W.B.Yeats and the posthumously published Varieties of Parable amount to apologias for his own work. He writes: “Materialism and mysticism might appear to be an odd couple, but MacNeice’s classics training and his understanding of his father’s ‘ability to balance faith in the immutable with the practical concerns of the mundane’ offered him the confidence to stake out this territory as his working area.” Fauske is especially good on how the issue of belief was important for the poet and he writes well of how “pity” played a central role in MacNeice’s quest for meaning that could underpin his artistic production (he abandoned Christianity as an undergraduate). An excellent chapter lets us see how in his major work Autumn Journal (1939) the poet responded as a poet to a decade in which there was much to be pitied.
A particular strength of this book is that its author is willing to engage with the poetry as poetry in the various contexts that he deems germane to our responses to it. For example, he takes due account of how MacNeice’s experience of radio drama affected his mid-career poetry. This allows him to grant greater success to such works as Ten Burnt Offerings and Autumn Sequel than other critics of these works have done. They “are not”, he writes, “poems to be read so much as they are poems to be heard, sustained sequences building a soundscape”. MacNeice’s literary executor and friend ER Dodds told me that the former volume was one about which the poet felt especially satisfied. Fauske asserts that “the volume is surely worth its place on any bookshelf”.
Given how well Fauske deals with key poems of MacNeice’s “middle stretch” (to use the poet’s own formulation) such as “Didymus” in Ten Burnt Offerings, it comes as a surprise and something of a disappointment that his book does not deal with the poet’s final three volumes, poised as they are between past and present, life and death. A complete chapter could easily have been devoted to the posthumously published The Burning Perch (1963) with its eerie parable poems and jauntily grim premonitions of a premature demise. Such a concluding chapter would have given, one feels, a more comprehensive quality to this scrupulously researched, carefully argued and welcome study.
Terence Brown is Professor Emeritus of Literature at Trinity College Dublin
Space to Think, an anthology bringing together more than fifty of the best pieces to have appeared in the Dublin Review of Books since its foundation ten years ago, will be published this month. Selling in the shops at €25, it is available now for pre-order at a special price of €20 (to collect in Dublin) or €20 + post and packing charges as appropriate for shipping to addresses in Ireland and internationally. To buy online, follow the steps from the home page of our website.
One piece featured in Space to Think is Denis Donoghue’s 2009 essay “Three Presences”, a study of the relations between Yeats, Pound and Eliot. Here is a short quotation:
Over a few years, Pound came to think that whatever Yeats did in the way of Symbolism, Eliot did it better; and whatever Hueffer [Ford Madox Ford] did in the way of Realism, Joyce did it better, at least in Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and the realistic chapters of Ulysses. Pound’s review of Responsibilities in May 1914 may be thought to point to a change of style on Yeats’s part, but it doesn’t; not quite. There is a new note, as Pound remarks, in such poems as “No Second Troy” and “The Magi”, but Yeats is still a Symbolist; although his work has become “gaunter, seeking greater hardness of detail”. It is “no longer romantically Celtic”. Pound seems to say that Yeats, still incorrigibly Symbolist, has recognised the force of contingent detail: the change, the new note, is evident in some of the poems in The Green Helmet and Other Poems (1910) and Responsibilities (1914). But Yeats has not changed his fundamental allegiance to Symbolism. He has not joined Pound, Gaudier-Brzeska, Wyndham Lewis, H. D., Hueffer and Joyce in the service of what we now call Objectivism. Even in later years, when Pound wrote of his early days with Yeats, he recalled him as a convinced Symbolist.