Frederick Louis MacNeice (muhk-NEES) was born in Belfast, North Ireland, on September 12, 1907, of parents who had come from the west of Ireland. After a career as a poet, classics scholar, university lecturer, and feature writer for the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), he died of pneumonia in London, September 3, 1963.
In 1926 MacNeice entered Merton College at Oxford, and he remained there until 1930, when he married and moved to Birmingham, where he was lecturer in classics until 1936. Next, he went to London and lectured in Greek at the Bedford College for Women. He was highly regarded as a classicist, and his translation of the Agamemnon of Aeschylus is considered excellent.
At the outbreak of World War II, MacNeice was lecturing at Cornell University in the United States; subsequently he returned to Britain and made a lasting reputation writing programs for the BBC. His verse plays for radio stand as the most brilliant of that genre. His wartime piece, The Dark Tower, the most memorable of all, was written in collaboration with the British composer Benjamin Britten.
In the 1930’s MacNeice was widely recognized as one of the so-called Oxford group, including W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and C. Day Lewis, all poets who had attended Oxford. These poets, reacting to the image of modern society as a “wasteland,” as popularized by T. S. Eliot, were notable for having developed a “new” poetry which eschewed the openly lyrical and poetic for an idiom based on colloquial language and a direct, forthright use of statement. Ironic, disillusioned, and nostalgic in turn, the poetry of MacNeice and his fellows offered no concession to those who would look upon the cataclysmic events of their time in any terms but those of the strictest honesty. Yet each of the poets, beyond the toughly intellectual tone of assessment and criticism, was capable of the most human of lyric sentiment.
The Oxford group committed themselves to the cause of resisting Fascism and, in particular, Generalissimo Francisco Franco of Spain. MacNeice, while sharing the group’s sympathies, was wary of oversimplifying political matters, and he asserted that artists should beware of committing themselves wholly to any political movement. One who knew him well has commented on his ability to inspire friendship through silence, as if his deepest life remained an inner one; he was highly intelligent, taciturn, and yet not aloof. The same qualities are revealed in his poetry, which ranges from social commentary through ironic disillusionment to a controlled and quiet lyricism.
His first volume of poems, Blind Fireworks, appeared in 1929. Among the notable volumes that followed were The Earth Compels, Autumn Journal, Letters from Iceland (in collaboration with Auden), Plant and Phantom, Springboard, Holes in the Sky, and Collected Poems, 1925-1948. After 1950 his most noteworthy publications were Visitations and some selected collections. MacNeice translated Horace and Goethe’s Faust, as well as the Agamemnon.
Generally it is regarded that his poetry suffered in his later years, but his best works–particularly those of the 1930’s–are memorable for their control, intelligence, and humanity.