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Louis MacNiece

By Jon Stallworthy

Anyone wishing to can now indulge in a Louis MacNiece binge (binge being the appropriate word, considering our subject’s propensity for alcohol consumption), with the publication by Faber and Faber of Jon Stallworthy’s biography and, to coincide with this, their reissuing of Edna Longley’s critical study from 1987, and of MacNiece’s own unfinished autobiography, The Strings Are False, first published posthumously in 1965. MacNiece’s reputation has occupied an uncomfortable position in twentieth century literature: second only to Yeats in Anglo-Irish letters; second only to Auden as ‘a poet of the thirties’. Is this assessment justified? We shall see.

Both the Stallworthy and the Longley have already been reviewed in this magazine, so I will be concentrating for the most part on MacNiece’s own book. Stallworthy, a poet himself, has already written a biography of Wilfred Owen, and two books of criticism on Yeats. His account of MacNiece is just, even-tempered, informative and highly readable. He glosses over some traits of MacNiece’s that might be judged reprehensible, like his heavy drinking and his infidelities, but this is better than the debunking type of biography which has become so popular. There is a contrapuntal relationship between the biography and the autobiography, and they overlap and compliment each other. Stallworthy makes sense of some of the material in The Strings Are False, where some names have been changed to protect identities, while he gets a lot of his information on MacNiece’s early life from that book itself. Longley’s criticism is insightful without being revelatory, and will probably be most useful to students. She is good at relating MacNiece’s own critical writings to his poetry, his aesthetic theory to his artistic practice.

The Strings Are False by Louis MacNiece.

The title phrase, although never quoted in the book, is from Julius Caesar. The work was written in the early 1940s, which was a time of personal and public crises. Stallworthy has commended its honesty, and he is right. It begins with MacNiece sailing back to England from America in December 1940, pans back to his outward voyage in January of that year, and mentions his previous trip to the States in March and April of the year before. We are introduced to his fellow passengers, and told of his time abroad. Then we are taken back to his childhood in Carrickfergus, and the book proceeds chronologically from then on.

We meet his parents, his elder brother and sister, and the eccentric nanny and gardener. We hear of the bad dreams he was subject to as a child. His father, John, was a Protestant rector, and later a bishop. His mother, Lily, died of tuberculosis when MacNiece was seven, after drifting into clinical depression. His brother William, whom he describes as ‘a Mongolian imbecile’, spent his life after boyhood in an institution in Scotland. He tells us: ‘In the dearth of contacts with children our own age my sister Elizabeth took refuge in a cult of the Old and I took refuge in fantasy; she shared her antiquarianism with me and I shared my fantasies with her.’ She later became a doctor. His father remarried, and Miss Bea Greer became MacNiece’s stepmother.

Then it’s on to preparatory school in Sherborne, and public school in Marlborough, to which he won a scholarship and where he met, among others, the precocious Anthony Blunt, already a keen critic and historian of art. It is amusing to learn, given his subsequent career, that in adolescence Blunt ‘...considered it very low to talk politics.’ Then another scholarship to Oxford, which he didn’t much like, but where he met Auden and Betjeman and Spender and the rest of the gang. He also met his first wife, Mary, (here called ‘Mariette’), who he married despite initial parental objection (his and hers). The funniest episode in the book is when, before their marriage:

...Mariette was sent to see a prominent neurologist who allegedly

told her I was mentally unsound; I had a psychosis and would

sooner or later commit suicide. But why, she asked, would I

commit suicide? Because I had a psychosis. But how did he know

I had a psychosis? Because people who commit suicide always have

psychoses. Unable to answer this logic Mariette asked if it

wouldn’t be a good idea for him to see me. Quiet unnecessary, he

answered; he knew all about me that he wanted to. Besides, he

had read one of my poems.

He graduated with a first class honours degree and got a job lecturing at Birmingham University. His son Dan was born, and Mariette left him literally holding the baby, and took off with a mutual friend. At Birmingham his boss was E R Dodds, who was to become his friend and literary executor, and who has done a marvellous job editing this book. MacNiece later took a job at Bedford College, London.

There are the trips abroad: to Paris with John Hilton while an undergraduate; to Spain with Blunt at Easter 1938; to Iceland with Auden; to Barcelona in 1938, a trip which began as ‘sensation-hunting’ and ended in ‘self-hatred’; and his first sojourn in America. The first journey to Spain gives rise to a discussion of Goya, and to a couple of tirades against Marxism, showing the absurdity and hypocrisy of the intellectual left in Britain in the Thirties. As Longley writes, in her study: ‘Because MacNiece had never subscribed to the original myth, he underwent no volte-face (Day Lewis), anguished retreat backwards from Communism (Spender), or regrouping of aesthetic ideas (Auden).’ There are meetings with W B Yeats, Jack Yeats, and Antonio Machado. The book ends with MacNiece embarking for America for the second time, in January 1940, the war having started the previous September. He is discreet about, and doesn’t mention by name, Eleanor Clarke, a woman he had met during his first stay in the States, and who Stallworthy tells us was his main reason for going back there.

There are two appendices: ‘Landscapes of Childhood and Youth’, by MacNiece himself, which contains a lovely image of his ambivalence between Ireland and Oxford, politics and aesthetics: ‘If I had one foot poised over untrodden asphodel, the other was still clamped to the ankle in the bogs.’; and ‘Louis MacNiece at Marlborough and Oxford’ by contemporary and friend, John Hilton. For those whose appetites have been whetted, Stallworthy’s book will finish the story: the job at the BBC; the second marriage and further amours; the further foreign escapades, to Greece, Africa and India; and his early death at fifty-six, from pneumonia, which antibiotics couldn’t alleviate, due to his debilitated state from over-indulgence in booze and fags.

MacNiece’s influence on younger Irish poets has been immense, most notably in the cases of Derek Mahon (most obviously in ‘In Carrowdore Churchyard’) and Paul Muldoon (most obviously in ‘7 Middagh Street’). If these three books serve any useful purpose, it will be to send readers back to the most important book by or about MacNiece, his Collected Poems, where they will find that he was a great poet, sceptical yet subtle, sometimes slightly surreal but always rooted in reality, who shouldn’t have to play second fiddle, however false the strings, to anyone.

First published in Books Ireland


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