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Studies on Louis MacNeice

Jacqueline Genet
Wynne Hellegouarc’h

MacNeice, the war and the BBC

Derek Mahon

Texte intégral

1One evening in the autumn of 1940, as MacNeice recounts in his unfinished autobiography, The Strings Are False, he went into the country for dinner beside the Hudson River outside New York: "The ice in my whiskey tinkled like a sheep-bell", he remembers, "and the boats on the night river were like sheep on an endless moor, and the lights of Tarrytown and the noises of trains called me to the further bank — ripae ulterioris amore — but it was more than the bank of the Hudson or even the eastern shore of the Atlantic, it was something such as Rilke meant by Death, something unknown but comprehensive where everything falls into place... For five months," he says, "I had been tormented by the ethical problems of the war. In Ireland most people said to me, "What is it to you?", while many of my friends in England took the line it was just power politics. Why Poland of all places? And then there was India. I had decided, however, that any choice now was a choice of evils and that it was clear which was the lesser. Moreover I felt that I was not justified in supporting the war verbally unless I were prepared to suffer from it in the way that the underprivileged must suffer. But I was not yet prepared to do this, so I had made use of certain of my privileges to escape for a little to America. I had a special — a personal — reason for wanting to return to America, but apart from that I thought I could think things out there, get myself clear before I went back to the maelstrom."

  • 1 * Hedli MacNeice adds the following details: 1. The schoolmaster grandfather MacNeice of Omey Islan (...)

2Before I go any further I’d better tell you what I’m not going to do, and that is explore MacNeice’s radio plays in any detail. My emphasis will be on his wartime and post-war poetry to the extent that it was conditioned by his broadcasting work; although it’s worth noting that even his pre-war, pre-BBC work contained a dialogical element, as in the "Eclogue for Christmas" and the "Eclogue from Iceland", in which disembodied voices discuss the contemporary climate. But I have no tapes to play you, and will not even be referring to the play-texts. What I say will constitute, in some measure, a redaction of "MacNeice in Ireland and England", my own unremarkable and in some respects wrong-headed contribution to Time Was Away, the MacNeice symposium edited by Terence Brown and the late Alec Reid and published by the Dolmen Press in, I think, 1971. I might add that I fully expect to get everything wrong, and I hope Hedli will be able to correct my errors of fact*1.

3While we wait for an authorized biography to appear, many students of MacNeice are puzzled by the exact sequence of events in his life during the years 1938-1941.The arrangement of the Collected Poems is a little baffling in this regard, but the bibliography presents no difficulty. He published a book of verse each year: in 1938, The Earth Compels; in 1939, Autumn Journal; in 1940, The Last Ditch (Cuala Press) and in 1941 Plant and Phantom. What I’ve been trying to figure out is the biographical sequence of events, on the basis of The Strings Are False, on the internal evidence of the poems, and with the help of other sources, notably Barbara Coulton’s Louis MacNeice in the BBC (1980). Though open to correction in this as in other respects, I think it goes something like this. Until the end of 1938 MacNeice was teaching Greek at London University. He lived alone, his first wife having left him three years previously for an American graduate student and football star, with whom she emigrated to the United States.

4During the Easter semester of 1939 MacNeice himself was in America to teach a poetry course at Cornell University, when he met and fell in love with a young woman called Eleanor Clark, who lived in Connecticut. He returned to England in the summer of 1939, and from there to Ireland, where he remained until the end of the year.

5As Terence Brown mentioned, he was in Ireland when Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939 (in Galway, to be precise), but seems to have been in no hurry to get involved. While friends and contemporaries were rushing to enlist, he bided his time. This was, of course, the period of the Phony War, the Drôle de Guerre, preceding the invasion of France, the London Blitz and the Battle of Britain. Besides MacNeice was Irish and Ireland was neutral; at this point he also had a strong emotional tie with America, and America was neutral too, for the moment. He returned, as promised, to Cornell in January 1940, and remained there until June, teaching his poetry course. He intended returning to London in the summer, having decided, at last, that that was where he should be; but an almost fatal attack of appendicitis hospitalized him in Connecticut, where he afterwards convalesced with Eleanor Clark. During his convalescence he visited his first wife in New Jersey, and the remarkable Auden ménage in Brooklyn, where guests included the stripper Gipsy Rose Lee. As described in the opening pages of The Strings Are False, he sailed for England in December 1940, in a ship full of Canadian airmen.

6Barbara Coulton reports that "in the BBC Archives there is a memorandum dated 9 January 1941: "Louis MacNeice, a poet recently back from the Unitd States, wrote to D. G. and said that he was anxious to do some propaganda to America. He came in to see me this afternoon and Harding talked to him." It was signed by R. A. Rendali, and as a result of this MacNeice joined the staff of the BBC and worked as a writer-producer in what was to become the Features Department. For some twenty years this was his full-time job, apart from a year in Greece with the British Council. In 1961 he went on a part-time contract; when he died in September 1963 his last radio play had just been performed.

7A French lecturer at Cornell, whom MacNeice calls André, had rebuked him for his evident preoccupation with his private life and indifference to the political turmoil in Europe: "Poète, why are you doing nothing? You must show us a course... Poète, prends ton luth! C’est la fin du monde; there is nothing to be done now but to form a new society, an anarchiste society... Poète, prends ton luth!" Well, MacNeice had taken his lute now on behalf of the Allied war effort, and I’ll have more to say about that in a minute, as also about his later broadcasting career. It’s worth noting, though, that pace André, this was a particularly rich period in MacNeice’s creative life: 1939 gave us "London Rain", "The Closing Album" and "Meeting Point", 1940 "Bar-Room Matins" and "Autobiography". "London Rain" is an existential poem, a private confrontation with the void and, I believe, a crucial moment in MacNeice’s development:

Whether the living river
Began in bog or lake,
The world is what was given,
The world is what we make,
And we only can discover
Life in the life we make.

8"Bar-Room Matins", written in New York, invites comparison with Auden’s not dissimilar "3 September 1939" ("I sit in one of the dives on 52nd. St..."). MacNeice’s version goes, in part:

Mass destruction, mass disease;
We thank thee, Lord, upon our knees
That we were born in times like these.
Pretzels crackers chips and beer;
Death is something that we fear
But it titillates the ear.
Anchovy almond ice and gin;
All shall die though none can win;
Let the Untergang begin.
Die the soldiers, die the Jews
And all the breadless, homeless queues;
Give us this day our daily news.

9One of the best books about London during the war is Charles Ritchie’s The Siren Years. Ritchie, now in retirement in Ottawa, was a young Canadian diplomat who shared an office with Lester Pearson and conducted a lasting friendship with the Anglo-Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen, who dedicated to him one of her best books, The Heat of the Day.

10The Heat of the Day, a psychological thriller about treason, was published in 1949; it was Bowen’s only war novel. Now, one of the intriguing things about The Heat of the Day is its subversion of conventional values. Thus, a representative of Britain’s Secret Service plants himself arrogantly in a London living-room "like a German in Paris" — this from an author who was herself a sort of spy, reporting to that same Secret Service on conditions in her own country, Ireland. Ritchie, in his memoirs, records his and Elizabeth’s uneasiness in wartime London: both foreigners, one Irish, one Canadian, and both inclined to ironical and subversive thoughts. I believe MacNeice was a similar case. There was that initial indecisiveness as he shifted around between Ireland, England and America. No doubt his relationship with Eleanor Clark had a lot to do with this, and there’s not enough information available as yet to be able to say how it ended between them; whether they broke up because of the war, or whether they broke up anyway and MacNeice decided that, in the circumstances, he might as well be back in London doing his bit. In any event a certain ambiguity persisted. Not that he was pro-Hitler; au contraire. Indeed, there is a sense in which he was more anti-Hitler than the English, and this because he was Irish. Let me explain. In an early poem, "Turf Stacks", written in Co. Mayo, he speaks of

The little sardine men crammed in a monster toy
Who tilt their aggregate beast against our crumbling Troy

11and elsewhere, in his "Epitaph for Liberal poets", he denounces "the tight-lipped technocratic conquistadorès"; and both these types, the sardine-men and the conquistadorès, are, it seems to me, persons of Anglo-Saxon origin, creatures of office routine and the exigencies of industrial utilitarianism. Ironically, MacNeice himself would become a creature of office routine and something of a technocrat in his role of radio producer; and the tensions thus established would prove fruitful in his later work, which I’ll speak about in due course. The sardine men and the conquistadorès posed (and still do pose) a threat to everything MacNeice held dear, "the drunkenness of things being various" as he puts it in "Snow"; those things which in "Train to Dublin", are "rich and breathing gold", and which he celebrated in love poems and in the magnificent elegy for his friend Graham Shepard an Englishman, as it happens, with whom MacNeice had been to school at Marlborough. When he writes in "Eclogue for Christmas":

We shall go down like palaeolithic man
Before some new Ice Age or Genghiz Khan,

12the values whose loss he imagines are those celebrated in "Snow" and "Train to Dublin", as also in the vivid anarchy of the famous "Bagpipe Music", and in "Prayer Before Birth".

13To return to the question of MacNeice’s wartime ambiguity, it’s interesting to read a poem like "Brother Fire", dated 1942, about the morning after an air-raid on the City of London, that is to say the financial district, an important point. MacNeice is not recommending the destruction of private homes, but taking a wild anarchic delight in the spectacle of exploitative institutions going up in flames:

O delicate walker, babbler, dialectician Fire,
O enemy and image of ourselves,
Did we not on those mornings after the all-clear,
When you were looting shops in elemental joy
And singing as you swarmed up City block and spire,
Echo your thought in ours? "Destroy! Destroy!"

14Bowen too was fascinated by the air-raids, perhaps because a bomb half-wrecked her house; as Auden observed, "all poets love explosions." "Brother Fire" is one of MacNeice’s key wartime poems; but it’s a measure of his Anglo-Irish cultural inclusiveness that he could also write a poem like "Swing-Song", a demotic, Second World War version of Yeats’s "Irish Airman":

I’m only a wartime working girl,
The machine-shop makes me deaf,
I have no prospects after the war
And my young man is in the RAF.
K for Kitty calling P for Prue;
Bombs doors open,
Over to you.

15MacNeice describes, in The Strings Are False a walking tour in the West of Ireland in August and September 1939: "The Closing Album" was written at this time. He was with Ernst Stahl, the German liberal humanist who later helped him with his translation of Goethe’s Faust. In Galway they heard of the outbreak of war and "a young man in sports clothes said to us: Eire of course will stay neutral, but I hope the English knock hell out of Hitler". Later, "I spent Saturday drinking in a bar with the Dublin literati; they hardly mentioned the war but debated the correct versions of Dublin street-songs... To Croke park next day to watch the all-Ireland hurling final... A huge crowd of Gaelic Leaguers, all wearing the fainne, one-minded partisans. Talk about escapism, I thought..."

16He took a dim view of Irish neutrality on the simple grounds that everyone should be pitching in to defeat fascism. He seems not to have been impressed by De Valera’s attitude, described by Professor Michael Tierney, according to T. Brown, as "sacred egotism". There is, in fact, a MacNeice poem entitled "Neutrality, dated 1942, which reads very bitterly: "Off your own shores", he says, "the mackerel are fat on the flesh of your kin." He is thinking of the many seamen lost through the action of U-boats on the North Atlantic convoys, lives which might have been saved by Irish participation in the conflict. That word "kin" raises a number of questions; though it is well known that thousands of Irishmen, mostly from the South, served the Allied cause, among them Samuel Beckett in the French Resistance.

17MacNeice had, as it happens, particular reasons to be bitter. His friend Graham Shepard, temporarily with the British Navy, was torpedoed and drowned in 1942, an event which gave rise to one of MacNeice’s finest poems, "The Casualty". I’ve spoken of "the drunkenness of things being various", the sense of dazzle and fun that always appealed to MacNeice, and identified it, a little complacently perhaps, with his sense of himself as Irish; so it’s interesting to note that, except for some of the love poems (he met his second wife, Hedli, during the war), "The Casualty" represents the consummation, in MacNeice’s verse, of this particular quality; for Shepard was, of all things, an Englishman! He appears in The Strings Are False as "an inky little boy who didn’t quite fit into the Marlborough pattern. In appearance and manner he was a stray from some other place or era, a surprising blend of precocious worldly-wisdom and faunal innocence. His feeling for fantasy geared with mine. He lived by right of himself, untidy and often unwashed, and he gabbled so that people found him hard to follow. He spent much of his time thinking about dances in Surrey and bathing parties in Cornwall. A sort of cockney leprechaun (interesting phrase!), he had an enthusiasm not encouraged at Marlborough. He was, in other words, a kind of Irishman!" MacNeice contrasts him with their rather cold contemporary Anthony Blunt, later a distinguished art historian and KGB agent, friend of Guy Burgess and Donald MacLean, whom he recruited into what used to be called the Homintern, Russia’s sexually deviant fifth column in Britain’s corridors of power.

18I would like to read three quite generous passages from "The Casualty" because, whilst presenting us with a vivid picture of Graham Shepard, it also tells us a great deal of what we need to know about MacNeice: his human priorities, the values he admired. I believe it is also one of his finest poems. From "The Casualty":

"Damn!" you would say if I were to write the best
Tribute I could to you; "all clichés", and you would grin
Dwindling to where that faded star allures
Where no time presses and no days begin —
Turning back shrugging to the misty West
Remembered out of Homer but now yours.

Than whom I do not expect ever again
To find a more accordant friend, with whom
I could be silent knowledgeably; you never
Faked or flattered or time-served. If ten
Winds were to shout you down or twenty oceans boom
Above the last of you, they will not sever

That thread of so articulate silence. How
You died remains conjecture; instantaneous
Is the most likely — that the shutter fell
Congealing the kaleidoscope at Now
And making all your past contemporaneous
Under that final chord of the mid-Atlantic swell.

Oh, you were a good mixer and could laugh
With Rowlandson or Goya and you liked
Bijoux and long-eared dogs and silken legs
And titivated rooms, but more than half
Your story lay outside beyond the spiked
Railing where in the night an old blind minstrel begs.

He begged and you responded, being yourself,
Like Raftery or Homer, of his kind —
Creative not for the counter or the shelf
But innocently whom the world bewilders
And so they observe and love it till their mind
May turn them from mere students into builders.

Of which high humble company were you,
Outside the cliques, unbothered with the fashion,
And self-apprenticed to the grinding trade
Of thinking things anew, stropping the blade

You never used, your multicoloured passion
Having been merged by death in universal Blue.


Here you are gabbling Baudelaire or Donne,
Here you are mimicking a cuckoo clock,
Here you are serving a double fault for set,
Here you are diving naked from a Dalmatian rock,
Here you are barracking the sinking sun,
Here you are taking Proust aboard your doomed corvette.

Yes, all you gave were inklings; even so
Invaluable — such as I remember
Out of your mouth or only in your eyes
On walks in blowsy August, Brueghel-like December,
Or when the gas was hissing and a glow
Of copper jugs gave back your lyrical surprise.

For above all that was your gift — to be
Surprised and therefore sympathetic, warm
Towards things as well as people, you could see
The integrity of differences. O did you
Make one last integration, find a form
Grow out of formlessness when the Atlantic hid you?
Whether you did or not the fact remains
(Which I, for all your doubts, could have no doubt of)
That your whole life till then showed an endeavour
Towards a discovery; and if your pains
Were lost the loss is ours as well, for you are out of
This life and cannot start any more hares for ever.

20The London of 1941, when MacNeice began his broadcasting career, has been well described by many writers — by Cyril Connolly, Stephen Spender, Elizabeth Bowen, and by Robert Hewison, whose book Under Siege, Literary Life in London, 1939-45 is something of a minor classic. Literary life in London centred on Soho, a short walk from the BBC, and MacNeice commuted regularly from one to the other. Pubs were important: "The Highlander", says Hewison," was frequented by film technicians and so came to be used by writers like Dylan Thomas who were working on films for the Ministry of Information." Others favoured the York Minster, known as the French Pub because it was owned by the Berlemont family, specialized in wine rather than beer, and catered to French refugees. "The back bar of the Café Royal", says Hewison, "was appreciated for its supply of Irish whiskey, whose availability was, paradoxically, a consequence of Ireland’s neutrality and the restrictions on Scotch whiskey production."

21"For servicemen on leave", says Hewison, "the pubs were an exotic outlet for enthusiasm stifled by the military machine; to civilians working in dull jobs, or even interesting ones at the BBC, Soho represented an escape into a world that defied the increasing limitations of wartime controls; the emphasis was on individuality and personality, on the outrageous as opposed to the routine" and he quotes MacNeice’s poem "Alcohol":

On golden seas of drink, so the Greek poet said,
Rich and poor are alike. Looking around in war
We watch the many who have returned to the dead
Ordering time-and-again the same-as-before —

The haves who cannot bear making a choice,
The have-nots who are bored with having nothing to choose
Call for their drinks in the same tone of voice,
Find a factitious popular front in booze.

22There is nihilism here, if we look at the dark side; on the bright side there is democracy, as the phrase popular front — front populaire — pointedly indicates. MacNeice would later abandon Soho for the BBC’s own pub, the George in Mortimer St., further west, as also did Dylan Thomas and others who survived the siren years. Despite the "pubbability" MacNeice always stood a little apart from those with whom he had been grouped, notes Hewison, and never abandoned the role of commentator. But before leaving Hewison I’d like to pick up a useful point he makes about the London writers. Alienated and disaffected as many of them were from the national esprit de corps, and influenced perhaps by the international scope of Cyril Connolly’s magazine Horizon and the presence in London of so many French and other expatriates, the London writers and artists both respectable and Bohemian, experienced what Hewison calls a "nostalgia for defeat", a nostalgie de la défaite: "The uneasiness and guilt", says Hewison, "shows most acutely in attitudes to what was happening on the Continent. Both pacifists and combatants seem to have had a nostalgia for defeat, for the reality of occupation and the threat of death" — an intriguing and psychologically acute observation borne out by a poem like "Brother Fire". "There was passionate interest", reports Hewison, "in the work of Aragon, Malraux and Vercors, enhanced by their being smuggled out of occupied France. Englishmen of letters suffered from an inferiority complex when it came to French literature, and Connolly more than most. He wrote in December 1944, 6 months after D-Day: "In France there was no total war, but the Germans were directly in command. Instead of the state becoming the enemy (for Vichy was too weak for that) there was a military tyranny to be opposed. The attitude of writers therefore was not one of anarchic sulking but of fraternal conspiracy against the enemy. We on the other hand who have neither starved nor been tortured, have never had our liberation, our moment of glory." There was much translation: Vercors’ Le Silence de la Mer was widely admired, and MacNeice’s Collected Poems contain, in an appendix, English versions of "Three Poems in Defeat" by Louis Aragon, originally published in John Lehmann’s magazine Penguin New Writing. These are "The Lilacs and the Roses", "The Unoccupied Zone" and "Richard Coeur-de-Lion". The first title sounds like something by a Decadent poet of the Nineties, Ernest Dowson perhaps: "They will come no more, the days of wine and roses." In fact it’s entirely modern in its cinematic method, starting with a landscape familiar to Ronsard and Péguy which transforms itself subtly into a contemporary newsreel:

I shall not ever forget the flower-gardens of France,
Illuminated scrolls from eras more than spent,
Nor forget the trouble of dusk, the sphinx-like silence,
The roses all along the way we went;
Flowers that gave the lie to the soldiers passing
On wings of fear, a fear importunate as a breeze,
And gave the lie to the lunatic push-bikes and the ironic
Guns and the sorry rig of the refugees.

23There was no patriotic war-poetry from MacNeice; his characteristic mode was ironical and anarchic, while that of Dylan Thomas was rhapsodic and surreal. But the war provided them both with answers to some of their problems, and the war for them, like the peace which succeeded it, was very much a matter of the BBC. Thomas found a new way to earn a precarious living, and wrote the one great masterpiece of radio drama, his play for voices, Under Milk Wood, finished and transmitted the year he died. The BBC — more precisely, the Features Dept. — provided MacNeice, a "gregarious solitary" as he has been called, with a sense of community.

24The BBC, whose cultural standards had been set by such men as John Reith and Tyrone Guthrie, was what in Ireland is called a semi-state body, a private corporation nominally independent of government. Features Dept., set up during the war to act as a propaganda unit, though not in Goebbels’s sense of the word, was headed by an immensely sympathetic and imaginative man, Laurence Gilliam, who liked to give writers their head and made a point of frustrating authority. During and after the war the department, situated in Broadcasting House, five minutes’ walk from the George, employed at different times MacNeice, Thomas, W. R. Rodgers, Dan Davin, Hal Craig and R. D. Smith, husband of the novelist Olivia Manning. As you can see, Ireland was strongly represented. In Autumn Journal MacNeice had expressed a need for community, and this was now gratified. "For MacNeice", says Barbara Coulton, "Features was a new world. He had been dissatisfied with academic life; now war had interrupted everyone’s lives, setting people unsuspectingly on new courses, if they survived."

25"Gilliam", says Coulton, "was experienced in journalism, and had a particular enthusiasm for radio documentaries; he was a man of wide-ranging interests and inspiring integrity. He was also a bon viveur, unpunctual, and a tower of strength to his subordinates." MacNeice lists Gilliam and his subordinates in Autumn Sequel, published in 1953, a poem unlike the earlier Autumn Journal in being closely written in terza rima. There’s something slightly mechanical about it, and it has never enjoyed the same success as the Journal. The characters, practically all men, appear under pseudonyms. Thus Gilliam is Herriot, Dylan Thomas is Gwilym and so on. After a while the BBC crowd begin to merge into each other, becoming a composite figure, anecdotal, pint in hand, hard-working, hard-drinking, devoted to rugby and cricket. The poem is over a hundred pages in length. Inevitably there are longueurs; but it has its moments and, is an important document for the student of MacNeice, recording the texture and activity of his life in the 1940’s and 50’s. In Canto 4 he describes his initiation into Features, his agreement "to join this new crusade", and his agreement to stay on after the war; but the high points come in Cantos 18 and 20, where he records the death and funeral of Dylan Thomas:

a bulbous
Taliesin, a spruce and small bow-tied Silenus
Roistering his way among the woods of Wales.

After the funeral wake in Carmarthenshire:
Of course, we think, we shall meet him in the flesh
Tomorrow or the next day, in full force
Of flesh and wit and heart. We close the door
On Wales and backwards, eastwards, from the source
Of such clear water, leave that altered shore
Of gulls and psalms, of green and gold largesse.
November the twenty-fifth. We are back once more
In London; and will he keep us waiting?... Yes.

26In the space of twenty years MacNeice wrote and produced twice as many scripts for the BBC. The first, "Word from America", went out on 15 February 1941; "Britain to America" went out on the 26 July 1942. He had been greatly impressed by the American Ed. Murrow’s reports from wartime London and started out by trying something similar. His first radio play, Christopher Columbus, was scheduled for 12 October 1942, the 450th anniversary of Columbus’ landfall in the New World and shortly after America entered the war. Other programmes dealt with Belfast, with Norway, Russia and Greece. Another play, The Dark Tower, went out in January 1946, his version of the Agamemnon later the same year; and so on. Other post-war programmes included features on Indian and Ghanaian independence and three more plays: The Administrator, The Mad Islands and Persons from Porlock.

27There was, of course, a close relationship between MacNeice’s poetry and radio work. It is a broadcasting cliché that, although there are millions of listeners out there, each one listens alone, as one reads a book. Radio is an intimate medium, and intimate techniques work best. MacNeice, like Dylan Thomas, understood this instinctively. A play about the death of Graham Shepard uses the device of a drowning man’s recall of his past life, voices alternating with the sound of the waves. It has been pointed out that radio drama works best when the characters’ voices are contained in an echoing hollow — a cave, a tunnel, a living-room. His last play, Persons from Porlock, makes use of the cave. The narrator, an artist related to the cave painters of Lascaux and anticipating the primitive notations of Louis le Brocquy, is trapped in a tunnel where he tries to swim against the stream, images clearly borrowed from the "caves of ice" and "sacred river" of Coleridge’s "Kubla Khan"; the Persons from Porlock represent the same kind of distraction from artistic creation that they represented for Coleridge.

28Which gives rise to the unworthy thought that MacNeice’s ambiguous and even subversive wartime feelings had stayed with him; for there seems to be an implication that by choosing the cave — radio drama — he somehow impaired his own poetry; and it must be said that during the fifties, when he was busiest at Features, there was a certain falling-off in the poetry itself, although this was to be partially rectified towards the end. After Autumn Sequel his verse grows tired and laconic, as if he doubted the value of the enterprise. Consider "House on a Cliff:

Indoors the tang of a tiny oil-lamp. Outdoors
The winking signal on a waste of sea.
Indoors the sound of the wind. Outdoors the wind.
Indoors the locked heart and the lost key.

Outdoors the chill, the void, the siren. Indoors
The strong man pained to find his red blood cools,
While the blind clock grows louder, faster. Outdoors
The silent moon, the garrulous tides she rules.

Indoors ancestral curse-cum-blessing. Outdoors
The empty bowl of heaven, the empty deep.

Indoors a purposeful man who talks at cross
Purposes, to himself, in a broken sleep.

29"Visitations" and the later, complex "Memoranda to Horace", where he finds "life restricted to standing room only", demonstrate similarly distressing symptoms. There’s an early, and very good poem called "The Death Wish", and I hope it isn’t posthumously impertinent to suggest that this was a symptom with which MacNeice was uncomfortably acquainted, I mean from an early age. Whatever about that, his attitude to radio work underwent a subtle change during the later 1950’s. This was related to important changes within the BBC itself, where administrative persons, and other, more disciplined departments, looked with increasing disfavour on Features, which began to be seen as something of a spoilt child. Time-and-motion experts were called in and presented everyone with a questionnaire. When the sardine man came to collect MacNeice’s he found that the poet, who liked to sit with his feet on his desk and gaze out the window, had left several blank spaces. What, inquired the sardine man, were you doing in the blank spaces? "Thinking", replied MacNeice laconically. As Coulton points out, a poem like that addressed "To Posterity" acquires special significance in the light of these circumstances:

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?

30One day in the George, he sat morosely putting back into Greek, on a beer-mat, Callimachus’ short elegy for Heraclitus (William Cory’s translation): "They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead..." But he stuck at it, producing in the autumn of 1959 his own play about the Battle of Clontarf, They Met on Good Friday, with Patrick Magee regal as Brian Boru; also The Mad Island (1961), based on the voyage of Maelduin, with Denys Hawthorne as Maelduin. MacNeice at this time was absorbed in the Irish sagas, which provided material for a short sequence of poems entitled "Dark Age Glosses"; the relationship between poetry and radio continued. It was now seriously threatened, however, by two things: the rise of Drama Department as a separate unit (and it had already established itself with Donald McWhinnie’s prize-winning production of Beckett’s All That Fall), and the new hegemony of television, satirized by MacNeice in one of his last and bitterest poems, "Budgie" ("La Perruche"), from the posthumous volume The Burning Perch, or perhaps, more disturbingly, it is a satire on the poetic vocation. In either case, it is the tone that is symptomatic:

The budgerigar is baby blue,
Its mirror is rimmed with baby pink,
Its cage is a stage, its perks are props,
Its eyes black pins in a cushionette,
Its tail a needle on a missing disc,
Its voice a small I Am. Beyond
These wires there might be something different
Galaxy on galaxy, star on star,
Planet on planet, asteroid on asteroid,
Or even those four far walls of the sitting room
But for all this small blue bundle could bother
Its beak, there is only itself and the universe,
The small blue universe, so Let me attitudinize,
Let me attitudinize, Let me attitudinize,
For all the world is a stage is a cage
A hermitage a fashion show a crèche an auditorium
Or possibly a spaceship. Earth, can you hear me?

Blue for Budgie calling Me For Mirror:
Budgie can you hear me? The long tail oscillates,
The mirror jerks in the weightless cage:
Budgie can you hear me? The radio telescope
Picks up a quite different signal, the human
Race recedes and dwindles, the giant
Reptiles cackle in their graves, the mountain
Gorillas exchange their final messages;
But the budgerigar was not born for nothing.
He stands at his post on the burning perch —
I twitter Am — and peeps like a television
Actor admiring himself in the monitor.

31During the summer of 1963 MacNeice, always meticulous in these matters, accompanied technicians to an underground cave in Yorkshire to check the sound for Persons from Porlock, and caught pneumonia; he died in September in a London hospital, and is buried in Co. Down, Northern Ireland. Alec Reid and Terence Brown, perhaps taking their clue from the Heraclitus story, chose as an epigraph to Time Was Away the final couplet of Cory’s translation:

Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales, awake;
For Death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take.

32I prefer to think that these lines, these pleasant voices, refer not to the radio work, which though excellent is by its nature ephemeral, but to the poems MacNeice left us, their intimate whispers still echoing somewhere in the ether.


1 * Hedli MacNeice adds the following details: 1. The schoolmaster grandfather MacNeice of Omey Island, forced to leave the homestead and the island, went to Dublin not Belfast. There he brought up his eleven children, two of whom went to Trinity College Dublin — one being Louis’s father, the Rev. John Frederick MacNeice. It was only by chance so to speak that Louis was born in Belfast where his father was Rector; he could have been born in Waterford in the South where the Rev. MacNeice had also been Rector. The MacNeices as a family had no roots in the North. 2. When Louis MacNeice returned from America after the outbreak of war, he wished to join the British Navy and applied for an interview. He was rejected on health grounds due to his recent operation for peritonitis and being myopic.


© Presses universitaires de Caen, 1988

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