8th March 1996 at 00:00
Since Louis MacNeice's premature death in 1963 (he was 56 when he contracted pneumonia after going potholing with the sound engineers working on his radio play, Persons from Porlock), the Irish poet has been somewhat neglected.

Only now, 30 years later, do we have a study which does justice to both his character (his school report read, "I think that life will never be dull for him") and his resonant poetry ("Sleep and, asleep, forgetThe watchers on the wallAwake all night who knowThe pity of it all"). Jon Stallworthy's marvellous Louis MacNeice (Faber Pounds 12.99) reveals both the roots of MacNeice's dystopian vision of life and his determination, despite this, to have fun.

MacNeice, whose mother died when he was five and whose wife would later desert him and their young son, was often accused of being too reserved in person and too little able to give himself in his poetry. He gives a devastating reason for this in an extraordinary letter (I wonder how many such long and truly personal epistles are written and posted in the 1990s) to Eleanor Clark: "The point is that by the age of 12 far from being automatically sheltered, I was extremely vulnerable to contacts with the world amp; other people amp; I was vulnerable just because I was comparatively clear-sighted about them, because I could imagine myself into them whereas they couldn't imagine themselves into me."

Strangely, Eleanor - with whom MacNeice was supposed to be deeply in love - does not make an appearance in his unfinished autobiography, The Strings Are False, published posthumously and now reissued by Faber (Pounds 7.99), who have also reprinted Edna Longley's valuable assessment of his literary output, Louis MacNeice: A Critical Study (also Pounds 7.99). All three books provide a fascinating glimpse into the life of this charismatic Irishman who had the dark, chiselled looks of a Hollywood star.

MacNeice suffered badly from nightmares ("When I was five the black dreams came;Nothing after was quite the same", he wrote). In Night (Vintage Pounds 7.99), A Alvarez explores the dark dimensions of life "after hours" - from Boswell's description (from 1763) of mistakenly snuffing out his candle at 2am and struggling to find some tinder to relight it, to his own experience of racing through the shady streets of Manhattan in the back of a police car while on duty with the "graveyard shift".

As Alvarez graphically illustrates, our experience of "night" in the neon-clad Nineties is a very different thing from the darkness of the Middle Ages, when most people went to bed at sundown and candles were the status symbols of the rich. Richard Barber's The Knight and Chivalry, originally published 25 years ago, and now revised (the Boydell Press Pounds 16.95) takes us inside the thought-world of those centuries during which the Knight emerged as a warrior invested with almost mythic powers. Barber's lavishly illustrated study seeks to explain the contradictions between the romantic tales of Arthurian legend and the brutality that accompanied most of the supposedly "chivalric" missions. Reading his book is like being taken back in time to those far-distant days.

The Virago Book of Women Travellers, edited by Mary Morris and Larry O'Connor (Virago Pounds 8.99), takes us almost as far back - to 1716 when Lady Mary Wortley Montague arrived in Constantinople. In this richly assorted collection of females on the loose, we also find characters such as Kate Marsden, who drove sled dogs 2,000 miles across the Siberian tundra to find a herb that she had heard could cure leprosy (she returned empty-handed), and Emily Hahn who set off for the Belgian Congo in the 1930s to get over a broken heart (she never got there, landing up in Shanghai instead). MacNiece's correspondent, Eleanor Clark, too, is here - with an ironic account of how she exiled herself to the southern Sahara for 13 days in an attempt to give up smoking (she succeeded).

When Nelson Mandela was sworn in as President of the new South Africa in May 1994, Breyten Breytenbach writes that he felt an enormous surge of feeling, not just of joy but of freedom. At last he was free "not to endure my South Africanness as a burden or a shame or a job or even an example, free to be finally a footloose painter of metaphors and scribbler of colours". His "Open Letter to President Mandela" is included in The Memory of Birds in Times of Revolution, a collection of essays, lectures and thoughts from the apartheid days of 1987 to the present striving towards reconciliation (Faber Pounds 9.99).

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