A niggle worried me, that I ought to have known all about Louis MacNeice a long time ago, as if I was less for not having known more.  I shoved the niggle out.  I have been enjoying discovering Louis MacNeice now and if I had known about him since then, he would not be new to me now.  I came across a poem he had written, in another book, and bought a collection of his works, and read some more. 

He died the year after I was born and was born in 1907 in Belfast, Northern Ireland, to a family that came from the south of the island.  He was Anglo-Irish.  Neither one thing nor the other, made up of a mixture of the West of Ireland, Northern Ireland and England.  In the south of Ireland he was a “visitor” or a tourist and in England he felt a stranger.  He did not visit his family home in Connemara until after he left school but it was a country that came alive in family history so that “for many years I loved on a nostalgia for somewhere I had never been”.  He describes himself as a “bastard/ Out of the West by urban civilisation” and as being neither free of all roots nor yet a rooted peasant.   

Yet ambiguity about his roots was only one of the shadows that he dragged along behind him, for his mother died when he was only five and her inadequate replacement – a dour-faced Puritan housekeeper – provided for his basic physical needs but no affection.  His father, an priest in the Church of Ireland who became a bishop, “wore his collar the wrong way round” and frightened him with his faith that he was yet unable to deny yet taught him Latin which had the effect of liberating him from his love-lacking environment.   

From the age of ten he was sent away to school in England, first to Sherborne where the poetry-loving headmaster inspired him, then to Marlborough where he held a classical scholarship.  Here he got to know John Betjeman and Anthony Blunt, the future spy.  He finished his education at Merton College, Oxford and went on to become a respected translator of The Agamemnon and other Greek classics as well as Goethe’s Faust.  He was, unsurprisingly, an intellectual snob by all accounts. 

He became friends with W H Auden and 1940 found him in America like so many other intellectuals – Auden, Christopher Isherwood, Aldous Huxley, Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears.  He returned to England in December 1940 because “I thought I was missing History” and was a fire warden in the London Blitz.  He married twice, once when he was twenty-three, and again twelve years later, during the war, in 1942.  He was, as Anthony Blunt described him “totally and unredeemably heterosexual”. 

His neither-one-thing-nor-the-other-ness left him comfortable with ambivalence and ambiguity and disliking political certainties.  His poetry is not overtly political as the works of other poets were, yet he believed that “to shun dogma does not mean to renounce belief” and he was insistent that it was the duty of all of us to assert our hatred of hatred and assertion of human values, however minute our gesture. 

“The poet is a maker, not a retail trader.  The writing today should be not so much the mouthpiece of a community (for then he will only tell it what it knows already) as its conscience, its critical faculty, its generous instinct.  In a world intransigent and overspecialized, falsified by practical necessities, the poet must maintain his elasticity and refuse to tell lies to order.  Other can tell lies more efficiently; no one except the poet can give us poetic truth.” 

He would also have the poet an all-rounder: 

“I would have a poet 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.” 

I suppose he was describing himself. 

For me, the poems I like do not tell me something that I do not already know.  For if I did not already know that thing, I doubt that the poet’s words would resonate with me.  The poems that I like best are the ones that give voice to thoughts I have had, feelings I have experienced, things I have noticed, events that have happened to me already, even if some of those thoughts, feelings and experiences have not been made sense of before that moment.  Poems make me feel less alone.  The effect of the poem is like combing conditioner through long tangled hair until all the confused strands lie side by side in straight lines. 

The Mixer 

With a pert moustache and a ready candid smile

He has played his way through twenty years of pubs,

Deckchairs, lounges, touchlines, junctions, homes,

And still as ever popular, he roams

Far and narrow, mimicking the style

Of other people’s leisure, scattering stubs. 

.

Colourless, when alone, and self-accused,

He is only happy in reflected light

And only real in the range of laughter;

Behind his eyes are shadows of a night

In Flanders but his mind has long since refused

To let that time intrude on what came after. 

.

So in this second war which is fearful too,

He cannot away with silence but has grown

Almost a cipher, like a Latin word

That many languages have made their own

Till it is worn and blunt and easy to construe

And often spoken but no longer heard. 

And this challenge to the internet written in 1957. 

To Posterity 

When books have all seized up like the books in graveyards

And reading, and even speaking have been replaced

By other, less difficult, media, we wonder if you

Will find in flowers and fruit the same colour and taste

They held for us for whom they were framed in words,

And will your grass be green, your sky be blue,

Or will your birds be always wingless birds? 

And I liked Wolves and Conversation too. 

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