Authors: Louis MacNeice

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Irish poet, playwright, and scholar


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.{$I[AN]9810000495}{$I[A]MacNeice, Louis}{$S[A]Malone, Louis;MacNeice, Louis}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;MacNeice, Louis}{$I[geo]IRELAND;MacNeice, Louis}{$I[tim]1907;MacNeice, Louis}

Louis MacNeice

(Kim Kurnizki)

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.

BibliographyBrown, Terence. Louis MacNeice: Sceptical Vision. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1975. Concerned with the themes in MacNeice’s poetry. Argues that the poet’s real contribution is as a proponent of creative skepticism. The result is a dependable, authoritative study. Contains a good bibliography and notes.Brown, Terence, and Alec Reid, eds. Time Was Away: The World of Louis MacNeice. Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1974. A collection including personal tributes, reminiscences, and evaluations of MacNeice’s work. Several pieces are of interest, including one by MacNeice’s sister which contains personal biographical information. Other selections look at MacNeice’s Irishness, his poetry, and his reaction to his mother’s death. Includes W. H. Auden’s “Louis MacNeice: A Memorial Address.”Devine, Kathleen, and Alan J. Peacock, eds. Louis MacNeice and His Influence. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Essays by leading experts on MacNeice’s work examine the range and depth of his achievement, including his influence on Michael Longley, Derek Mahon, Seamus Heaney, and Paul Muldoon. Includes bibliographical references and index.Longley, Edna. Louis MacNeice: A Study. London: Faber & Faber, 1988. The first complete study after MacNeice’s death. Explores the dramatic nature of MacNeice’s poetry, stresses the importance of his Irish background, and credits William Butler Yeats’s influence, hitherto downplayed. This piece of historical criticism moves chronologically, linking MacNeice’s life and times. Special attention is given to his English, war, and postwar poems. Bibliography.McDonald, Peter. Louis MacNeice: The Poet in His Contexts. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. An examination of MacNeice in the context of Northern Ireland and its poets. W. J. Martz, reviewing for Choice magazine, notes the author’s “need to see MacNeice as MacNeice …in his contexts rather than those that have hitherto been thought to be his.” Bibliography, index.McKinnon, William T. Apollo’s Blended Dream: A Study of the Poetry of Louis MacNeice. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971. After a skeletal biography the author suggests that MacNeice has been underestimated and proposes to reevaluate his work in a new perspective. He characterizes him as a poet-philosopher and then goes into a detailed analysis of his linguistic techniques. Although rather dry in approach, this is a valid study with interesting perceptions of the poet.Marsack, Robyn. The Cave of Making: The Poetry of Louis MacNeice. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982. This book looks at MacNeice as a poet of the 1930’s and focuses on despair and disillusionment in his work. Contains commentary on the poet’s craft and process based on papers, drafts, and notes made available to the author. Extensive notes and an excellent bibliography make this a helpful companion to reading MacNeice.Moore, Donald B. The Poetry of Louis MacNeice. Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1972. This descriptive study traces the poet’s development chronologically. Tracks themes such as self, society, and philosophy through MacNeice’s work. The final chapter gives a retrospective and general critical overview. Includes a select bibliography with citations of related works.O’Neill, Michael, and Gareth Reeves. Auden, MacNeice, Spender: The Thirties Poetry. London: Macmillan Education, 1992. A close analysis of the major works of three giants of 1930’s English poetry.Stallworthy, Jon. Louis MacNeice. New York: W. W. Norton, 1995. Stallworthy produces the first full-scale biography of MacNeice, a tour de force “not likely to be superseded,” according to W. J. Martz of Choice magazine. Includes pictures and copies of manuscript pages, each dated. Bibliography, notes, index.
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