Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

Louis MacNeice’s Struggles with Ireland

After a first visit to the city a friend of Louis MacNeice’s said to him: ‘Dublin? Dublin! There’s no such place. It’s just one enormous pub.’ MacNeice said this about one of his last visits, in June of 1962, for the opening of the Joyce Tower at Sandycove. ‘At a conservative estimate the drinking during my seven days averaged twelve hours a day’.

The opening, by Sylvia Beach, came towards the end of his stay. His drinking companion for much of the time was Dominic Behan. The morning of Bloomsday was spent in Davy Byrne’s and when they emerged, hoping for a seat in one of the two cabs freshly painted in black and yellow, they found them full. The two men loaded a crate of Guinness into a taxi and set off, one of them brandishing a bottle out of the left-hand window, the other waving one out of the right-hand side. At the Martello tower, MacNeice was said to have stationed himself at the entrance to the marquee ‘in easy reach of the passing drink-trays’.

In fact he did no such thing. He took a position leaning on a large granite boulder in Michael Scott’s garden, beside the Martello Tower, where the opening was to take place, closed his eyes against the bright sunlight and composed what may have been muddled thoughts about this strange event. Essentially a publicity stunt backed by Bord Failte the afternoon had little to do with Joyce.

I approached MacNeice asking for a poem for The Dubliner, the literary magazine I then edited. He was polite but non-committal and I never in the end got anything. But I remember the occasion, the kind notice he took of me but also his detachment from the Irish literary tribe crowding the event. He was not of it. He had transcended it. His greatness was that of an English poet and it would have been impaired by closer involvement with Irish writing.

There were many reasons. He was a Belfast Protestant. His father was a bishop. His grandfather had been a prosletysing school-teacher on Omey Island from which he and his young family had been ‘run-out’ by a local priest. Louis had been educated in England, at Marlborough College then Oxford. He worked for the BBC. He was a Faber poet from the 1930s, a skilled and evocative broadcaster and someone who helped Irish writers when and where he could – a sure recipe for envy and malice.

He sent up the event late, quoting someone who thought Joyce must have been ‘a terrible bore’, characterising the proceedings as ‘a tourist idea’ and ‘a promoter’s dream’. He thought it time Joyce was rescued from ‘the campus laboratories’ but the rescue was not entirely successful; the event is more lavishly tourist today and campus attention has gone into overdrive.

Apart from a later trip to visit Richard Murphy in Cleggan, MacNeice’s flawed relationship with Ireland was at an end. Within a year he contracted bronchitis and died in September the following year.

Different layers of his relationship with Ireland have come to us, most directly from his poems which are shot through, as if by sunlight, with his love of the country, his wisdom about its people, his understanding of its literature. But this was always tinged by another complex set of English loyalties. He was always more part of English poetry than Irish and this is evident from the latest MacNeice volume, the Letters.

The book is an impressive achievement. MacNeice has escaped characterisation which, for anyone with Irish roots, can be a blessed relief. And the full grandeur and comprehension of this is now provided in Letters of Louis MacNeice [Edited by Jonathan Allison and published by Faber and Faber, MacNeice’s main publisher furing his lifetime, at £35].

Though he regarded Dublin as ‘home from home’ he also felt doubtful about the connection. ‘I like it of course more than it likes me: there was a time when they sang about me,

Let him go back and labour
For Faber and Faber

Just after leaving Marlborough he wrote to a friend, John Hilton, ‘Ireland is a good place but you mustn’t be sentimental there for there are lots of little shops with bogwood toy harps & Connemara marble pigs & other knickknacks’. He had more savage comments about Ulster, derided Orangeism for its fascist tendencies and told Eleanor Clark, with whom he had an affair and to whom he wrote several long love letters including the longest in the whole collection, of a radio interview in Belfast:

‘The man I had the radio discussion with was crazy (he thinks I’ve sold my birthright) & the Orange procession was crazy—banners depicting Samson fighting with the Lion, Christ giving water to Total Abstainers, The Storming of Jhansi, William III of course ad nauseam, Queen Victoria pretty often, Lord Beaconsfield quite a bit. All very gaudy & the bearers staggering under the weight of them.’

He met Yeats in 1934. He was unlucky in the choices Yeats made of his poetry for the 1936 Oxford Book of Modern Verse, that eccentric collection. MacNeice had not really found his true voice and Yeats missed the defining poem, Bagpipe Music, by a year. MacNeice later wrote a book about him that was both critical and mischievous.

He wrote to Eleanor Clark: ‘I was interested to find what appallingly bad verse Yeats wrote in his early twenties -- suppressed in the later editions. Have heard a lot of good stories about Yeats lately from Gogarty & Higgins e.g. when Yeats’ Spanish doctor wrote an account of his health to Gogarty which G. read out, knowing Yeats wouldn’t know what it meant -- ‘This is an antique sclerocardiac…’ & Yeats stopped him & rolled the word on his tongue & said ‘Sclerocardiac! I’d rather have that title than be King of Lesser [sic] Egypt.’

F.R. Higgins offered elction to the Irish Academy of Letters. MacNeice replied: “I said yes. But they’ll probably think better of it. The Irish Academy of Letters meets once a year in Dublin’s only decent restaurant & gets so drunk they have to send the writers away.’

One is drawn towards the letters that deal with Ireland and with Irish writers. Yet this is hardly central. Apart from the obvious interest to readers here and the inevitability of his accounts of events often being funny, there is the deeper significance of the impact that he, another outsider, had on British poetry.

He rivals T.S. Eliot and W.B. Yeats in terms of the magic of his writing though mercifully not in the influence he exercised. Eliot is the Anglicised American, Yeats the undistinguished Anglo-Irish ascendancy figure, MacNeice from evangelistic Belfast Protestants with a hint of descent from an Irish King, Conchubar MacNessa.

The Letters, seven hundred pages of them, give an account, in the editor’s words, ‘of a life lived fully, with passion and intellectual candour’. It is this which distinguishes his poetry; he created no personae, invented no myths, peopled his writing with no false gods. Arguably his greatest poem of all, Autumn Journal, embodies, in a rich, varied but perfectly balanced way, the mood of a world on the edge of war and of the human spirit’s anticipation of cataclysmic events. The poem’s observations are direct, truthful and have a sustained lyricism that places the work beside Wordsworth’s The Prelude or Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.