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OpenEdition Books

Studies on Louis MacNeice

Jacqueline Genet
Wynne Hellegouarc’h

Louis Macneice’s Ireland*

Terence Brown

Texte intégral

  • * With acknowledgments to the Macmillan Press.

1It was always a place to reject. It would always represent in one of its manifestations an intimation of primal terror, of those forces which can overwhelm a self-hood insecurely possessed of its own identity. Ireland for MacNeice is therefore a place of hauntings, where dark ghosts of the past cannot be laid to rest. The sources of this vision of Irish reality lie, as is by now well-known, in the poet’s own haunted Northern Irish childhood, chillingly adressed in his poem "Autobiography":

  • 1 The Collected Poems of Louis MacNeice, edited by E. R. Dodds, London, 1979, 183-184. All reference (...)

When I was five the black dreams came;
Nothing after was quite the same.
Come back early or never come.
The dark was talking to the dead;
The lamp was dark beside my bed.
Come back early or never come1.

  • 2 The Strings are False, edited by E. R. Dodds, London, 1965, 17.

2What is perhaps less widely observed is the obsessional degree of MacNeice’s preoccupation with a childhood whose traumata he could never fully exorcise. The fact indeed that he chose to attempt a full-scale autobiographical prose work (posthumously published as The Strings are False) at the early age of thirty-two suggests psychological necessity and compulsion rather than any fully mature retrospective composure. And this work, (for which he signed a contract in 1939 and abandoned c. 1941) was only the culmination at that date of the various autobiographical passages which had pushed their way with obsessional insistence into prose and critical works such as Zoo (1938) and Modern Poetry: a personal essay (1938). MacNeice at the outset of The Strings are False recognised the therapeutic aspects of his endeavour, that his feelings were "too mixt to disentangle"2. We are reminded that in 1934 in his poem "Valediction" he had confessed "The woven figure cannot undo its thread". But the past now demands comprehension if all the threads are not to be lost in a chaotic tangle:

I am 33 years old and what can I have been doing that I still am in a muddle? But everyone else is too, maybe our muddles are concurrent. Maybe if I look back, I shall find that my life is not just mine, that it mirrors the lives of the others or shall I say the Life of the Other? Anyway I will look back. And return later to pick up the present, or rather pick up the future.

3So MacNeice in The Strings are False (p. 35) picks up the threads of his Irish past hoping to escape a vitiating entanglement.

4In that book we learn, therefore, of a shadow-filled rectory, lit at moments of psychic release by the brilliance of sense impressions, where a remote father played out a strange conspiracy with God and a loving and wholly attentive mother fell into acute melancholia and departed suddenly for the nursing home in which she was, unexpectedly, to die; of a mongoloid brother who seemed frozen in a condition of emotional stasis and of a Calvinistic children’s nurse who abused her charge with warnings of hell-fire and damnation. Family legend of a West of Ireland, from which the MacNeices had been uprooted to a Northern exile, provided the emotional dialectic for a childish sense of personal alienation from a deeply unsettling experience of the natal place. In another autobiographical essay, begun in the 1930s MacNeice wrote:

  • 3 MacNeice’s essay "Recantation" is an early version of an autobiographical chapter in his book Zoo, (...)

I have always had what may well be a proper dislike and disapproval of the North of Ireland but largely as I find on analysis for improper i.e. subjective reasons. A harrassed and dubious childhood under the hand of a well-meaning but barbarous mother’s help from County Armagh led me to think of the North of Ireland as prison and the South as a land of escape. Many nightmares, boxes on the ears, a rasping voice of disapproval, a monotonous daily walk to a crossroads called Mile Bush, sodden haycocks, fear of hell-fire, my father’s indigestion — these things, with on the other side my father’s Home Rule sympathies and the music of his brogue, bred in me an almost fanatical hatred for Ulster. When I went to bed as a child I was told "You don’t know where you’ll wake up". When I ran in the garden I was told that running was bad for the heart. Everything had its sinister aspect — milk shrinks the stomach, lemon thins the blood. Against my will I was always given sugar in my tea. The north was tyranny3.

5From this complex of impressions and emotional responses one of MacNeice’s primary apprehensions of Irish reality emerges: that of Ireland as a condition of absolute determinism. The North is locked in a fateful embrace with its destiny that suggests Calvinistic predestination. The image for this is the basalt of County Antrim:

The hard cold fire of the northerner
Frozen into his blood from the fire in his basalt
Glares from behind the mica of the eyes...

6So "Belfast" (1931) characterises the inhabitants of the northern capital while in "Valediction" the north as a whole is a "country of callous lava cooled to stone".

  • 4 C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, London, 1977, 14.
  • 5 Ibid., 20.

7MacNeice was not the only twentieth-century Irish writer of his background to experience Ireland in this bleak fashion. Indeed a comparative study of the apparently differing personal and literary careers of such diverse figures as C. S. Lewis and Samuel Beckett might suggest that MacNeice’s hope to discover in his own life history "the Life of the Other" was by no means misplaced. Alienation, deracination, loss of religious faith, emigration, identity crises were experiences of several literary generations of Protestant Irishmen in this century. So there is something poignantly characteristic, therefore, about the isolated Protestant Victorian or Edwardian suburban house which haunts each of these writers’ imaginations, sad diminution of the Ascendancy’s great houses to which their predecessor W. B. Yeats had aspired. C. S. Lewis in his own autobiography confessed himself, son of an Anglican North of Ireland family, "a product of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstair indoor silences, attics explored in solitude, distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and the noise of wind under the tiles"4. And in such a work as Footfalls Beckett suggests the intense privacies of a suburban home that reminds one of the large house, Cooldrinagh, in Protestant Foxrock, Co. Dublin, where he spent his childhood. For each of these writers too, the childhood home with its centripetal emotional life is invaded by death and distress which cannot be alleviated by any sense of a wider, sustaining community. The house is a familial island which early or youthful encounters with loss drown in a sea of sorrows." There came a night when I was ill and crying both with headache and toothache and distressed because my mother did not come to me", Lewis wrote. "That was because she was ill too; and what was odd was that there were several doctors in her room, and voices and comings and goings all over the house and doors shutting and opening. It seemed to last for hours"5.

When I woke they did not care;
Nobody, nobody was there.
Come back early or never more.
When my silent terror cried,
Nobody, nobody replied.

8And in Footballs:

  • 6 Samuel Beckett, Footballs, London, 1976, 11.

I say the floor here, now bare, this strip of floor was once stripped, a deep pile. Till one night, while still little more than a child, she called her mother and said, Mother, this is not enough6.

  • 7 They Stand Together: the Letters of C. S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves 1914-1963, edited by Walter Hoop (...)
  • 8 Ibid., 433.
  • 9 Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 22.
  • 10 Quoted by Deirdre Bair, Samuel Beckett: a Biography, London, 1978, 19.

9For all three writers too, the Irish version of Christianity which Anglican orthodoxy offered them was an emotionally insufficient, sterile creed which failed the crucial test of experience. In adulthood Lewis wrote to a friend of the Puritanism of his North of Ireland background "I feel that I can say with absolute certainty... that if ever you feel that the whole spirit and system in which you were brought up was, after all, right and good, then you may be quite sure that that feeling is a mistake"7. Among the reasons offered are that Ulster’s Puritanism "is simply the form which the memory of Christianity takes just before it finally dies away altogether in a commercial community..."8. But as a child he remembered when his mother died. "Against all the subsequent paraphernalia of coffin, flowers, hearse and funeral I reacted with horror"9. Samuel Beckett too noted that his mother and brother got no consolation when his father died when he was a young man, remarking at the moment of crisis it has no more depth than an old school tie10. Both echo MacNeice’s pained rejection of his father’s creed which he expressed in a revulsion for a world where

  • 11 MacNeice, The Strings are False, 54-55.

Religion never left us alone, it was at home as much as in Church, it fluttered in the pages of a tear-off calendar in the bath-room and it filled the kitchen with the smell of silver-polish when Annie, who might at the same time be making jokes about John Jameson, was cleaning the communion plate11.

10Superficially the south of Ireland, as it appears in MacNeice’s early poetry might seem not to share in the grimly determinist condition which, he believes, afflicts the North. "Train to Dublin" exuberantly celebrates in a poetic toast an escape into a sense of Ireland that even allows the poet a new perspective "on the vivid chequer of the Antrim hills":

I give you disproportion between labour spent
And joy at random; the laughter of the Galway sea
Juggling with spars and bones irresponsibly,
t I give you the toy Liffey and the vast gulls,
I give you fuschia hedges and whitewashed walls.

11But this is superficial, almost a tourist’s Ireland and the poet knows it, as "Valediction" makes clear. This long poem confronts Ireland as a country that reveals its beauty to the eye of a tourist but which holds its children in an iron grip, imprisoning them in their personal lives and in the public constraints of an implacable history:

Park your car in the city of Dublin, see Sackville Street
Without the sandbags in the old photos, meet
The statues of the patriots, history never dies,
At any rate in Ireland, arson and murder are legacies
Like old rings hollow-eyed without their stones
Dumb talismans.

12Common sense tells you to get out; the country can be relished only when you know you can leave its narcotic beauties. For the inhabitants they are a fatal drug, nostalgia an acceptable withdrawal symptom for those wise enough to take the cure of expatriation:

take the Holyhead boat before you pay the bill;
Before you face the consequence
Of inbred soul and climatic maleficence
And pay for the trick beauty of a prism
In drug-fall fatalism.

13"Carrickfergus" of 1937, ostensibly a simple autobiographical account of childhood and schooldays before and during the First World War, subtly consolidates this reading of Irish reality as both imprisonment and exclusion. Born in the oppressive space "between the mountain and the gantries" the poet evokes a social and cultural condition characterised by frozen constraint manifested in such words and phrases as "bottle-neck harbour", "crystal salt", "jams", "slum", "walled", "stop his ears", "banned for ever", "barred", "knelt in marble", "Banned to civilians", "prison ship", "A cage across their sight". Childhood seems locked in a state of stultifying permanence.

I thought that the war would last for ever...

  • 12 Edna Longley, "Autumn Journal", The Honest Ulsterman, n° 73, Sept. 1983, 71.

14MacNeice’s major statement on Ireland, on its oppressive effects on personal possibility, on the fateful aspects of its public life and the malign interaction between the personal and the public in the Irish polity is in Autumn Journal. This poem of 1939 coming at the end of the first phase of MacNeice’s career, and at the premature conclusion of the 1930s in the Munich crisis, was a remarkably honest piece of emotional and intellectual stock-taking. How precisely the famous Section XVI relates to the rest of this poem is worth considering for in this context it both compresses and intensifies attitudes already expressed but now given a new harder-edged political and moral significance. Autumn Journal as a whole espouses a kind of progressive, internationally-minded social humanism, in response to the moral pusillanimity of Chamberlain’s capitulation at Munich, the challenge of Fascist gains in Spain and economic injustice and inequity in the United Kingdom. Throughout the poem the liberal humanist registers his personal dismay at European developments together with his distaste for simple and dangerously fanatical commitments. The section on Ireland, as Edna Longley has argued, "surfaces from the subconscious of Autumn Journal to interpret its whole political and moral stance. By embodying the deadly alternatives to liberal or tragic doubt MacNeice rescues it from the charge of weakness"12. The section opens with the admission

Nightmare leaves fatigue:
We envy men of action
Who sleep and wake, murder and intrigue
Without being doubtful, without being haunted...
(Collected Poems, p. 131)

15One such man of action, with whom MacNeice might most readily have identified was James Connolly. In his poem of 1936, "Eclogue from Iceland", MacNeice had chosen him as one of a personal pantheon of heroically human individuals:

There was Connolly
Vilified now by the gangs of Catholic Action
But the same poem had also included an Irish voice which stated
I come from an island, Ireland, a nation
Built upon violence and morose vendettas.
My diehard countrymen like drayhorses
Drag their ruin behind them.

16In Autumn Journal the sense of a destructively ineluctable history overwhelms any possibility that envy of men of action might result in direct Irish commitments. Even the socialist Connolly is victim to the all embracing collective tyranny of a purblind, even fanatically committed nationalism:

Let them pigeon-hole the souls of the killed
Into sheep and goats, patriots and traitors.
(Collected Poems, p. 133)

17Ireland, to be sure, still holds its attractions for a poet for whom "her name keeps ringing like a bell/In an under-water belfry" but these are now reckoned even more acidly than in "Valediction" to be attractions of the kind a tourist might permit himself on vacation but which can render the native callously introspective. Three contemptuous lines associate indeed even the Irish separatist and revolutionary traditions with archaism and the picturesque, irrelevant in the midst of general European crisis.

Griffith, Connolly, Collins, where they have brought us?
Ourselves alone! Let the round tower stand aloof
In a world of bursting mortar!
(Collected Poems, p. 133)

  • 13 Ibid., 72.

18As Longley suggests "Despite lingering charms, chiefly of landscape, Ireland functions as an anti-Utopia, a kind of social and political original sin"13.

19The outbreak ot the Second Word War saw MacNeice on holiday in Ireland and a sequence of poems he then wrote suggests that even anti-Utopias can have almost irresistible appeal in face of the terrifying prospect of imminent war. "The Closing Album" in The Last Ditch is marked by a haunted sense of a last magical hour in the enchanted ground before duty’s call must be answered:

Forgetfulness: brass lamps and copper jugs
And home-made bread and the smell of turf or flax
And the air a glove and the water lathering easy
And convolvulus in the hedge.

Only in the dark green room beside the fire
With the curtains drawn against the winds and waves
There is a little box with a well-bred voice:
What a place to talk of War.

20"The Closing Album" was written in August and September 1939. By 1940, in the autobiographical The Strings are False, the enchantment has been shaken off, a note of disdain now predominates. In Dublin on the eve of the declaration of war he observes "spent Saturday drinking in a bar with the Dublin literati; they hardly mentioned the war but debated the correct versions of Dublin street songs". Visiting Dublin later in the year from a Belfast gloomily preparing for the worst he records

  • 14 MacNeice, The Strings are False, 212-213.

Going to Dublin was changing worlds — a dance of lights in the Liffey, bacon and eggs and Guinness, laughter in the slums and salons, gossip sufficient to the day. Dublin was hardly worried by the war; her old preoccupations were still preoccupations. The intelligentsia continued their parties, their mutual malice was as effervescent as ever. There was still a pot of flowers in front of Matt Talbot’s shrine. The potboy priests and the birds of prey were still the dominant caste; the petty bureaucracy continued powerful and petty14.

21Disdain mutates into revulsion in "Neutrality" (circa 1943) where insularity is a form of primal, aboriginal guilt, the charms of the Irish landscape now not merely archaic and escapist but symbols of amoral complicity with evil:

Look into your heart, you will find fermenting rivers,
Intricacies of gloom and glint,
You will find such ducats of dream and great doubloons of ceremony
As nobody to-day would mint.

But then look eastward from your heart, there bulks
A continent, close, dark, as archetypal sin,
While to the west off your own shores the mackerel
Are fat — on the flesh of your kin.

22That represents the nadir of MacNeice’s relationship with his native country. The personal loss of a close triend, Graham Shepard (celebrated in the elegy MacNeice wrote for him "The Casualty") who drowned when his corvette was torpedoed in mid-Atlantic in 1943, may have stimulated its cold fury. It was also the last occasion on which MacNeice was to write with such unrestrained venom of the country about which his feelings were in fact becoming increasingly complicated, undergoing a kind of sea-change. That process had been effected in part by his immersion in the poetry of W. B. Yeats as he read for the book on that poet which he published in 1941.

  • 15 See, Samuel Hynes, "Yeats and the Poets of the Thirties", Modern Irish Literature, edited by Raymo (...)
  • 16 Louis MacNeice, The Poetry of W. B. Yeats with a foreword by Richard Ellmann, London, 1967, 15.

23The English poetic generation with which MacNeice was associated in the 1930s, the Auden generation, had held Yeats in considerable esteem15; they had admired his imaginative dominance of social chaos in the sinuous, energetic, dramatic style of his later work. Both his politics and mysticism had been much less to their taste. Reading Yeats for his book did little to reconcile MacNeice to his subject’s politics but it did help to redefine his own aesthetic. He recognised that the view of poetry at which he had arrived in an earlier book Modern Poetry: a personal essay (1938) "had over-stressed the half-truth that poetry is about something, is communication. So it is, but it is also a separate self; in the same way a living animal is an individual although it is on the one hand conditioned by the laws of heredity and environment and the laws of nature in general and on the other hand has a function outside itself, is a link in a chain"16. Such writing goes half-way towards the possibility of a quasi-mystical understanding of poetry and, indeed, individual life. MacNeice then makes quite clear what he means:

  • 17 Ibid., 16.

Mysticism, in the narrow sense, implies a specific experience which is foreign to most poets and most men, but on the other hand it represents an instinct which is a human sine qua non. Both the poet and the "ordinary" man are mystics incidentally and there is a mystical sanction or motivation for all their activities which are not purely utilitarian (possibly, therefore, for all their activities, as it is doubtful whether any one does anything purely for utility)17.

24In such thinking we can see MacNeice wrestling with the notion of determinism: with that deterministic sensibility hich had been formed in a childhood permeated with Calvinistic gloom, which his native country had infused in him, which the fashionable Marxist ideology of the 1930’s had consolidated, and which his father’s Irish Protestantism had done almost nothing to alleviate.

25That Yeats was the catalyst which stimulated MacNeice’s mind in the direction of mysticism, should, perhaps, not surprise. For in many ways Yeats had already confronted the crises which MacNeice and other Protestant Irish writers of his generation were enduring. Yeats had known solitude and isolation as a child in Sligo, loss of religious faith, a conflict between his Anglo-Irish background and his English education. But with magisterial creative integrity he had made of various kinds of impoverishment the mysterious source of his own imaginative enrichment, acknowledging and calculating the mystical roots of human experience. Yeats offered an example of an imaginative achievement which transcended the limitations of personal origins and gave sanction to a spiritually conceived view of man in face of contemporary reductionism ("utilitarian" in MacNeice’s terms).

26It is fascinating to observe how Yeats had a markedly similar catalytic effect on C. S. Lewis, that writer who shared MacNeice’s background so closely (Ulster, English public school and Oxford) and whose childhood absorption in elaborate private mythologies was to bear fruit in the publication of the allegorical Christian fantasies. Lewis first read and met Yeats when he still nursed poetic ambitions (he wrote poetry, occasionally for publication, throughout his life).

27As a young man his hard-bitten scepticism had been undermined by the frank supernaturalism of a poet whose work attracted the deracinated Ulsterman. While waiting to take ship for France and action with the Third Somerset Light Infantry in 1917, the nineteen-year-old Lewis wrote to a Belfast friend:

  • 18 They Stand Together, 195-196.

tis true that I have no patriotic feeling for anything in England, except Oxford for which I would live or die. But as to Ireland you know that none loves the hills of Down (or of Donegal) better than I: and indeed, partly from interest in Yeats and Celtic mythology, partly from a natural repulsion to noisy drum-beating, bullying Orangemen... I begin to have a very warm feeling for Ireland in general18.

  • 19 Letters of C. S. Lewis, W. H. Lewis, London, 1966, 57.

28Four years later Lewis got to meet Yeats in Oxford and to his Irish appreciation of a poet whose imagination stimulated his own he added a sceptic’s bewilderment and curiosity at a full-blooded, unapologetic belief in magic. Lewis wrote to his brother of this encounter "it would be ridiculous to record it all; I could give you the insanity of the man without his eloquence and presence, which are very great. I could never have believed that he was so like his own poetry"19. And to his Belfast friend he confessed

  • 20 They Stand Together, 287.

The subjects of his talk, of course, were the very reverse of Johnsonian: it was all of magic and apparitions. That room and that voice would make you believe anything.... You’ll think I’m inventing all this but it’s really dead, sober truth. The last two or three years have taught me that all the things we used to like as mere fantasy are held as facts at this moment by lots of people in Europe20.

  • 21 Roger Lancelyn Green and Walter Hooper, C. S. Lewis: a Biography, London, 1979, 67.

29So impressed was Lewis by Yeats that he based the physical appearance of a magician in a long poem on the poet he published in 1926 (Dymer, published under the pseudonym Clive Hamilton). And as Lewis’s biographers note, something of Yeats’s grandeur "may have helped to create Merlin in the That Hideous Strength"21. But more crucially what had earlier struck Lewis about Yeats, as he recorded himself, and what the meeting confirmed, was that

  • 22 MacNeice, Surprised by Joy, 141.

Yeats believed his "ever living ones" were not merely feigned or merely desired. He really thought that there was a world of beings more or less like them, and that contact between that world and ours was possible...I now learned that there were people, not traditionally orthodox, who nevertheless rejected the whole Materialist philosophy out of hand22.

  • 23 Hugh Kenner, A Reader’s Guide To Samuel Beckett, London, 1973,163.
  • 24 Samuel Beckett, Ill Seen Ill Said, London, 1980, 42.

30Yeats aided both Lewis and MacNeice to acknowledge the imaginative need they both possessed for mythic and metaphysical possibilities. And it may not be wholly fanciful to note that Beckett, their contemporary and fellow exile, in his later phase as an artist, when his work became ghost-possessed, turned to the Yeats whose work he had earlier largely set aside. Beckett read Yeats’s poetry with obsessive concentration in 1961. Since 1959 and the BBC production of Embers he has been obsessed by "lonely people haunted by interior voices"23 in works which seem to occupy some new metaphysical territory in consciousness between past and present, life and death. In one of the most tantalising of these, the television piece but the clouds, Yeats’s great poem "The Tower", itself poised between this world and supernatural possibilities, supplies the language for a haunted, almost mystical conclusion. There is a strong strain of mysticism in almost all of Beckett’s late chillingly contemplative work: "the silence merges into the music infinitely far and as unbroken as silence"24.

31MacNeice’s "Carrick Revisited" (c. 1946) both explores and manifests the poet’s new attitude to the surfaces and mystical depths of experience. Back in his hometown the poet becomes conscious afresh of the conditioning forces of nature and

The channels of my dreams determined largely
By random chemistry of soil and air;
Memories I had shelved peer at me from the shelf.
The experience draws from him the recognition
Our past we know
But not its meaning — whether it meant well.

32Determinism is acknowledged but what also informs the poem is a new sense of the absolute mystery of human consciousness in time, of the individual both fated and astonishingly self-aware.

33During the war years MacNeice became more and more prepared to admit what his earlier work, with its glossy metropolitan, materialist superficiality (brilliant and entertaining as that had been) had by implication denied. The constituents of human consciousness are reckoned to be more various, more profoundly and perplexingly rooted than liberal humanism and rational empiricism allow. A predilection for dreams, fantasy and myth begins to find expression in his poems (and particularly in his radio plays) as they become more and more involved in the technical problems of double level writing — that is writing where an appearance of surface realism belies the mythic and symbolic depths. Indeed, for all their differences of temperament and political outlook, MacNeice began to share C. S. Lewis’s interest in the history of allegory, drawing significantly on the scholar’s work for his Clark lectures at Cambridge in 1963 which were posthumously published as Varieties of Parable (1965). These lectures showed that he shared a taste with his fellow Ulsterman for what might be seen as a puritan tradition in English letters — Spenser, Bunyan, even George McDonald. MacNeice extends the tradition and conceptually complicates the matter in ways Lewis might have found uncongenial, as when he brings his studies up to date in an exploration of twentieth century writers of parable with Beckett as the most richly suggestive exemplar. But MacNeice and Lewis both wrote their own allegories and parables, sharing indeed a title. Lewis has a story entitled The Dark Tower, the title of MacNeice’s famously resonant radio play of quest, with its Bunyan-like allegorical summons to duty and integrity of life, which Lewis must surely have approved.

34MacNeice often associated the mythic and symbolic depths that double-level writing implies with the landscape of his native country. A poem he wrote in 1945 allies Ireland with the wilder, uncontrollable energies of the unconscious, England with the civic self-possession of the conscious mind and civilised romance. The poet remembers in "Woods" how his father had found the English landscape "tame", that landscape that had once so attracted the son with its intuitions of possible psychological as well as social harmony; now he admits

in using the word tame my father was maybe right,
These woods are not the Forest; each is moored
To a village somewhere near. If not of to-day
They are not like the wilds of Mayo, they are assured
Of their place by men; reprieved from the neolithic night
By gamekeepers or by Herrick’s girls at play.
And always we walk out again.

35Ireland, subsequently, is associated in the poet’s imagination with mystical possibilities, and not just in a superficial respect whereby the country is a kind of Celtic alternative to reality, a personal Tir na nOg. Rather, it is a region of consciousness now linked in the poet’s mind with imagery of water and movement. It is no longer an image of the ineluctable and destructive in the human condition but a reminder of mysteriously deep, renewable human possibilities. "Donegal Triptych" states the matter precisely:

the cold voice chops and sniggers,
Prosing on, maintains the thread
Is broken and the phoenix fled,
Youth and poetry departed.

Acid and ignorant voice, desist.
Against your lies the skies bear witness;
Forgotten words in wafts of mist
Come home to roost, forgotten silence

Will drown your logic fathoms deep,

  • 25 Edna Longley, " Louis MacNeice: the Walls are Flowing" in Gerald Dawe and Edna Longley (eds), Acro (...)

36However, in admitting the depths of human consciousness to his poetry, MacNeice courts the world of nightmare as well as that of an inspirational liberating mysticism. The dark shadows of that County Antrim rectory remain to haunt a mind ready to salute an Ireland that could now sometimes represent psychological release and spiritual intimations. MacNeice’s late poetry frequently steps into the dimension of black dream, the real world suddenly opening like a trap door to reveal the horrors waiting beneath. As Edna Longley has suggested of his late work "He enters an underworld contorted by childhood trauma, by horror of petrifaction and unnaturalness. Perhaps his poetry fully realised itself when this Ulster id rose to the surface. Even in "Carrickfergus" going to school in England represents a contraction into consciousness...25

37It is of course Beckett who holds the modern title deed on this psychic territory, whose work inexorably assumes vertiginous, horrific depths. But it is curious to note an awareness of the horrors of nightmare in C. S. Lewis too, whom in this essay I have allowed to shadow MacNeice like an elder brother. For Lewis’s Christianity could not banish even in so resolute a spirit a fear that ultimate reality, even if supernatural, may be terrifying. "Reality" he states in A Grief Observed "looked at steadily, is unbearable". In a key, highly revelatory passage in his novel Perelandra he had dramatised one such look at reality. A character meets a strange, otherworldly creature:

  • 26 C. S. Lewis, Perelandra, London, 1983, 14.

I felt sure that the creature was what we call "good" but I wasn’t sure whether I liked "goodness" so much as I had supposed. This is a very terrible experience. As long as what you are afraid of is something evil, you may still hope that good will come to your rescue. But suppose you struggle through to the good and find that also is dreadful? How if good itself turns out to be the very thing you can’t love, and your very comforter the person who makes you uncomfortable? Then, indeed, there is no rescue possible. The last card has been played26.

  • 27 Ibid., 14-15.

38This dilemma of Beckettian proportions draws from the narrator (indistinguishable at this moment from Lewis himself) "I wanted every possible distance, gulf, curtain, blanket, and barrier to be placed between it and me. But I did not fall quite into the gulf. Oddly enough my very sense of helplessness saved me and steadied me"27. That Gulf which is familiar from Beckett’s bleak oeuvre, Lewis imagined as

  • 28 C. S. Lewis, Poems, edited by Walter Hooper, London, 1964, 72.

The rim of the world where all life dies
The vertigo of space, the fear
Of nothingness; before me lies
Blank silence, distances untold
Of unimaginable cold28.

  • 29 Louis MacNeice, Poetry Book Society Bulletin, n° 38, Sept. 1963.
  • 30 Louis MacNeice, Varieties of Parable, Cambridge, 1965,143.
  • 31 Time Was Away: The World Of Louis MacNeice, edited by T. Brown and A. Reid, Dubin, 1974, 3

39It is also the gulf over which MacNeice lays the insecure timbers of his late work, in those poems he dubbed "thumbnail nightmares"29 which negotiate terror with an austere, syntactical control, a devil-may-care verbal panache. In one of his Clark lectures MacNeice quoted from Beckett’s Malone Dies: "All my feet, which even in the ordinary way are so much further from me than all the rest, from my head I mean, for that is where I am fled, my feet are leagues away." At which point MacNeice interjects, "And then comes the inevitable touch of Irish extravaganza": "And to call them in, to be cleaned for example, would 1 think take me over a month, exclusive of the time required to locate them"30. His own late poems provide similar moments of such "Irish extravaganza" by which horror, if not made bearable, is at least rendered in a tone of sardonic élan which rebukes despair. In the Prologue to a book MacNeice was editing with his friend W. R. Rodgers (uncompleted when he died in September 1963) he evoked Ireland as "this land of words and water"31. So in one of her aspects Ireland in MacNeice’s later poetry is a land of living principles, functioning for the poet as a symbol of liberating process, both embodiment of determinism and refutation of it. The Prologue, in fact, concludes

  • 32 Ibid., 4.

So the eye
Can miss the current in a stream, the ear
Ignore even a waterfall, the mind
Intent on solid fact, forget that water,
Which early thinkers thought the source of all things,
Remains the symbol of our life; yet never,
No more than peat can turn again to forest,
No more than the die, once cast can change its spots,
No more than a chid can disavow its birthplace.
No more than one’s first love can be forgotten
If pressed could we deny this water flows32.

40In another aspect Ireland in MacNeice’s later poetry is most present in those sardonic verbal depth-charges that explode with a kind of ghoulish Beckettian glee in the currents of the unconscious. Indeed in the poet’s last book The Burning Perch (published posthumously) though Ireland is scarcely mentioned, the mind revealed, with its blend of mythic awareness, melancholy, blackly mordant humour and verbal panache, seems to express a full realised Irish sensibility quite unselfconsciously. In "The Suicide", verbal displays are honed with lethal precision, words exact the tribute of form from desperation:

And this, ladies and gentlemen whom I am not in fact
Conducting, was his office all those minutes ago
This man you never heard of. There are the bills
In the intray, the ash in the ashtray, the grey memoranda stacked
Against him, the serried ranks of the box-files, the packed
Jury of his unanswered correspondence
Nodding under the paperweight in the breeze
From the window by which he left; and here is the cracked
Receiver that never got mended and here is the jotter
With his last doodle which might be his own digestive tract
Ulcer and all or might be the flower maze
Through which he had wandered deliriously till he stumbled
Suddenly finally conscious of all he lacked
On a manhole under the hollyhocks.


* With acknowledgments to the Macmillan Press.

1 The Collected Poems of Louis MacNeice, edited by E. R. Dodds, London, 1979, 183-184. All references to MacNeice’s poetry are to this volume, referred to in the text as Collected Poems.

2 The Strings are False, edited by E. R. Dodds, London, 1965, 17.

3 MacNeice’s essay "Recantation" is an early version of an autobiographical chapter in his book Zoo, 1938. It has been published in The Honest Ulsterman, n° 73, Sept. 1983, 4-9, in a special Louis MacNeice number of that periodical.

4 C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, London, 1977, 14.

5 Ibid., 20.

6 Samuel Beckett, Footballs, London, 1976, 11.

7 They Stand Together: the Letters of C. S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves 1914-1963, edited by Walter Hooper, London, 1979, 432.

8 Ibid., 433.

9 Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 22.

10 Quoted by Deirdre Bair, Samuel Beckett: a Biography, London, 1978, 19.

11 MacNeice, The Strings are False, 54-55.

12 Edna Longley, "Autumn Journal", The Honest Ulsterman, n° 73, Sept. 1983, 71.

13 Ibid., 72.

14 MacNeice, The Strings are False, 212-213.

15 See, Samuel Hynes, "Yeats and the Poets of the Thirties", Modern Irish Literature, edited by Raymond J. Porter and James D. Brophy, New-York, 1972, 1-22.

16 Louis MacNeice, The Poetry of W. B. Yeats with a foreword by Richard Ellmann, London, 1967, 15.

17 Ibid., 16.

18 They Stand Together, 195-196.

19 Letters of C. S. Lewis, W. H. Lewis, London, 1966, 57.

20 They Stand Together, 287.

21 Roger Lancelyn Green and Walter Hooper, C. S. Lewis: a Biography, London, 1979, 67.

22 MacNeice, Surprised by Joy, 141.

23 Hugh Kenner, A Reader’s Guide To Samuel Beckett, London, 1973,163.

24 Samuel Beckett, Ill Seen Ill Said, London, 1980, 42.

25 Edna Longley, " Louis MacNeice: the Walls are Flowing" in Gerald Dawe and Edna Longley (eds), Across A Roaring Hill: the Protestant Imagination in Modern Ireland, Belfast and Dover, New Hampshire, 1985, 103.

26 C. S. Lewis, Perelandra, London, 1983, 14.

27 Ibid., 14-15.

28 C. S. Lewis, Poems, edited by Walter Hooper, London, 1964, 72.

29 Louis MacNeice, Poetry Book Society Bulletin, n° 38, Sept. 1963.

30 Louis MacNeice, Varieties of Parable, Cambridge, 1965,143.

31 Time Was Away: The World Of Louis MacNeice, edited by T. Brown and A. Reid, Dubin, 1974, 3

32 Ibid., 4.


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