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The peculiar and the ordinary.




LONDON: FABER, 2010. 35.00 [pounds sterling]

'ORDINARY PEOPLE are peculiar too," observes Louis MacNeice in his poem "'Conversation." It could be said that the reverse is also tree, and reading through Jonathon Allison's Letters of Louis MacNeice, it is certainly the case that the peculiarly gifted poet is also refreshingly commonplace. Indeed, one of the more intriguing aspects of this selection of letters is how often MacNeice's epistolary voice differs from that of his verse. In MacNeice's poems the speakers often seem to glide effortlessly through existence, delighting in or scrutinizing reality with verve and panache. The best poems often approach sophisticated, metaphysical subject matter with a cool nonchalance, as in "Entirely," when the poet fluently reflects on the mysteries of the universe:
   If we could get the hang of it entirely
      It would take too long;
   All we know is the splash of words in
      And the falling twigs of song ...

MacNeice was a writer who seems not to have been intimidated by the bewildering volatility and flux of reality. Indeed, in many poems he embraces the prolific complexity of life with great 61an; most famously perhaps in "Snow," where he declares: "World is crazier and more of it than we think,/Incorrigibly plural." In Letters of "Louis MacNeice, a different MacNeice emerges in contrast to the surefooted poet of brio and dash; a MacNeice who is crazier and more of him than we think. This is particularly clear in the poet's letters to Eleanor Clarke, the American author with whom he fell in love while on a lecture tour to the U.S. in the spring of 1939. It is apparent from their correspondence that MacNeice was more admiring of Clarke than she was of him, and he seems to have largely played the frustrated troubadour. As the romance began to fizzle out in 1940, MacNeice displays a side to himself not seen in his poetry. In response to a rather withering attack on his character by Clarke in May 1940, MacNeice writes with unrestrained irritability and petulance:
   I am now going to say a lot things to you
   but, as they say, you asked for it. I
   thought you might accuse me of
   "inhumanity" (which I shall explain about
   in a moment) but what in the hell do you
   mean by telling me I have "an awful lack
   of curiosity about the world?" I was
   curious about the world & suffering from
   my curiosity about it before you were
   born. (393)

The letters between Clarke and Mac Neice are not always so fraught, and more than any other correspondence, perhaps. they offer a vivid picture of MacNeice's life as he was living it at a given moment. These letters represent one of the largest sequences in the collection and are a high water mark in terms of emotional candor.

Other important sequences of letters included in the book are between people close to MacNeice, including his lather, John Frederick MacNeice, his stepmother Beatrice MacNeice, his first wife Mary Beazley and his second wife, the singer Hedli Anderson. There are also several long sequences to his friend John Milton, E. R. Dodds, the great classicist; Anthony Blunt, the art historian and Soviet spy, as well as over fifty letters to T. S. Eliot, MacNeice's editor at Faber for a number of years. Shorter, but no less significant sequences of letters included are those to his children, Dan and Corinna, as well as the various correspondences with his colleagues in the BBC, especially Laurence Gilliam, head of the Features Department, and Bertie Rodgers, fellow poet and broadcaster. These BBC letters shed much light on MacNeice's work for the Corporation and, by and large, show him to be deeply interested in the sound medium and animated about its creative possibilities. There are also smaller clusters of letters to MacNeice's lovers Nancy Coldstream, during the 1930s, and Mary Wimbush in the 1960s.

One of the more interesting aspects of this selection of letters is the way that it brings to prominence influences which have not been adequately registered in critical studies of the poet. The most obvious example is Anthony Blunt, who seems to have had a considerable effect on MacNeice in his final years as a schoolboy at Marlborough College and his first year at Oxford. Blunt encouraged an intellectual radicalism and a frivolous aestheticism in the young MacNeice, and introduced him to post-Impressionist and Byzantine art. He helped to fuster within MacNeice a greater sensitivity to the more cosmopolitan and avant-garde currents in contemporary culture and art. Crucially, he provided MacNeice with a refreshingly alternative perspective to that of the poet's rather restrictive and puritanical upbringing in the rectory in Carrickfergus. This broadening of outlook, however, did not extend to MacNeice's sexuality, which Blunt later judged "irredeemably heterosexual." Throughout Letters of Louis MacNeice, Allison is an exemplary editor and provides meticulous annotations to the letters which are conveniently placed at the bottom of the page. MacNeice has been lucky in terms of the caliber of academics who have edited his works after his death. E. R. Dodds edited his unfinished autobiography The Strings are False (1965) and his Collected Poems (1966). His Selected Literary Criticism (1987)and Selected Prose (1990) were edited by the assiduous Alan Heuser, and his Selected Plays (19931 were jointly edited by Heuser and Peter McDonald. In 2007. the centenary of MacNeice's birth, a new collection of MacNeice's poems was published by Faber, having been intelligently edited and introduced by McDonald. In some ways then, Fhe Letters of Louis MacNeice crowns a steady effort of scholarship over many years to publish MacNeice's significant written material. Allison's editorship does justice to what has preceded him.

There are inevitable absences in the volume, which runs to over 700 pages, though this is no fault of the editor. An obvious gap is W.H. Auden who seems to have destroyed MacNeice's letters to him (as he did with most of his letters), although a public letter to the poet from MacNeice, printed in New Verse, is included. Other "missing persons" as Allison terms them, are the writers Dylan Thomas, Stephen Spender, Christopher Isherwood, the scholar Ernest Stahl with whom MacNeice translated Goethe's Faust, Jack Dillon and Reggie Smith, fellow writers at the BBC, and Graham Shepard who tragically died at sea during World War II and for whom MacNeice wrote "The Casualty," his great elegy to his dearest friend. MacNeice's own death was in its way tragic because it was so avoidable. In August, 1963 MacNeice traveled to a number of caves in Yorkshire to record sound effects for his last radio play "Persons from Porlock." Writing to his daughter about the trip, he tells her enthusiastically, "We got a nice underground stream, also a waterfall, also general drippings" (704). Unfortunately MacNeice was later soaked while walking on the Yorkshire moors and developed a cough and then pneumonia. As his breathing deteriorated he eventually passed away days later. Shortly before his death, he had asked his last question of the universe: "Am I supposed to be dying?" With an eerie, artistic synchronicity the poet's radio play "Persons from Porlock" had aired just days before he died. Taking his cue from Coleridge, MacNeice intended the play's title to "represent any unforeseen interruption of the creative process" and the central character, an artist, is plagued by numerous interruptions which mirror MacNeice's own struggle to write. The play ends as the artist meets the final, "Person from Porlock," Death.

A jaundiced view of MacNeice's letters might view them as yet another series of "Persons from Porlock," interrupting MacNeice as he struggled with the important business of writing poetry. However, though many are certainly businesslike in tone, suggesting a chore performed, there are many more which seem to allow MacNeice to reflect productively upon his world, and to document his compellingly unpredictable, peripatetic movement through life. The selection of letters as a whole offers an absorbing portrait of the less contained, more vulnerable fragments of MacNeices personality. They are of interest, too, to those scholars seeking to trace more precisely the changing register of the poet's artistic sensibility as it evolved from the direct and exuberant sensuousness of his very early poetry through to the taut, chilling, and elliptical tone of the poems of his late creative renaissance in the late Fifties and the early Sixties.

Unfortunately, in his letters, MacNeice rarely offers insight into the processes of poetic composition or, indeed, detailed scrutiny of his poetry. However, there are brief moments in certain letters where the reader is offered a glimpse of MacNeice observing the world with a poetic cast of mind. He writes to Clark in 1939:
   Today I watched a very delightful sunset--the
   sun like a great bulgy apricot: I
   had forgotten how quickly it sinks.
   Someone told me that at sea when the sun
   sinks, you sometimes see a flash like
   green lightning run along the horizon;
   that is something, darling, we must look
   for. (322)

Allison's inclusion of a significant number of letters written by MacNeice as a child and then as a schoolboy also help to enhance our understanding of the poetry. Many of these letters enlarge our sense of MacNeice's childhood in Carrickfergus and then in Sherborne (MacNeice's English boarding school). It was this period of his life which provided the poet with many images and experiences which were to resonate powerfully through his later poetry. For it was the dimly lit often troubled strata of early memory and consciousness which often provided artistic sustenance for the poet: a process MacNeice describes in "Conversation," as 'Fishing for shadows in a pool.' It is perhaps in the elucidation of such intuitively felt interior landscapes that this selection of letters finds one of its strongest justifications. In 1954, MacNeice observed of a recent publication of W. B. Yeats's letters: "These letters demand our attention because Yeats was a 'major' poet." This, admittedly problematic, label given to Yeats would seem increasingly to apply to MacNeice, who can now be viewed as one of the central poets of the twentieth century. Allison's carefully edited selection will only serve to enrich our understanding of a writer who believed profoundly in the value of communication; and who, in poems such as "Train to Dublin," could sign off from his reader with a disarming, intimate honesty reminiscent of his most thoughtful letters:

I would like to give you more but I cannot hold

This stuff within my hands ...

--Carlow College
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Title Annotation:Letters of Louis MacNeice
Author:Workman, Simon
Publication:Irish Literary Supplement
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2012
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