Ready to be resdiscovered

10th March 1995 at 00:00
Louis MacNeice, By Jon Stallworthy, Faber and Faber #163;20, 0 571 16019 0. Thirty-two years is an unusually long gap between the death of a major poet and the arrival of a biography.

With Louis MacNeice, part of the delay is to the complexity of an undertaking which well-qualified biographers, including Stallworthy at first, simply lacked time and resources to take on. But it had to do, also,with a curious underestimation by publishers (much more than readers and fellow-poets) of MacNeice's talents, and a shaming element of doubt about the likely interest of such a life.

Much of his work had been allowed to go out of print by the time he died in 1963. Moreover, his death then, of pneumonia at the age of 56, while shockingly unexpected, had not been sensational. MacNeice's personal life had been passionate and varied, yet in conventional and well-known ways: the whisky, the women, the travels were not secrets requiring any biographer to dig for. It needed a wholly different development - his advancing status as an Irish writer - to make a biography and reassessment look more urgent. Born in Belfast of Protestant stock, he had come to seem,whatever his later habitats and affiliations, the best thing since W B Yeats to a new, gifted generation of Ulster poets.

Jon Stallworthy's book makes ample amends for a peculiar long-term neglect. For much of its narrative and mood he is candidly dependent on the absorbing autobiography The Strings are False (rightly seen as the most remarkable by a poet of that generation) and Barbara Coulton's Louis MacNeice in the BBC. But his subject's early death provided him with the melancholy advantage of being able to interview contemporaries of MacNeice's own age, and some younger English people who knew him. Hardly one surviving Irish poet was in that position. But Stallworthy's own Englishness was no disadvantage to the biographer of a writer whose father and wealthy stepmother deliberately set him on the course of a thorough and decisive English education, at Sherborne, Marlborough and Oxford.

After that, MacNeice would never wish to return to the shadow of his bishop father's beliefs. It would inevitably have drawn him, man and writer, into his country's "violence and morose vendettas". At public school and university he had become classical scholar, aesthete, sensual man - and poet. In Autumn Journal (1939) he acknowledges a "family feeling" for Ireland. Besides - luckily for Ireland - "the waves are roughThat split her from a more commercial culture." But Ireland was a "tiny stage", suited only to limited, achievable ambitions. Thenceforth he would go back as an exile famous in a place which neither over- nor undervalued his Irishness.

Through the 1930s, university posts, foreign lecturing jobs and agreeable literary commissions kept him well afloat through a failed first marriage, the relationships which followed its break-up, and a more stable second one, to Hedli Anderson, cabaret singer, talented, beautiful and long-suffering. Louis's ambitions rarely needed to be spurred by an overdraft; the MacNeices always had desirable, if rented, residences, and live-in helps. The poems came, superbly crafted, exhilarating in their brilliance and apparent ease, and T S Eliot at Fabers judiciously guided each slim volume through the press. Then in 1942 cam Laurence Gilliam's legendary Features Department at the BBC, where the poet stayed for 19 years.

It has been the custom to suggest that radio script-writing and production sapped MacNeice's creative life; and that only with a less onerous freelance attachment did he produce some of his best (to be his final) poems. It is more likely, though you need to read between the lines of Stallworthy's rather plain account to sense it (did he have the chance to hear the radio productions as well as read the words?), that MacNeice felt himself as feverishly muse-driven in that medium as in writing free-standing poems.

The products of that work - notably The Dark Tower, with MacNeice's verse and Britten's music; still the best allegory written about mankind's dilemma in the nuclear age - represent as electrifyingly original a use of the medium as has ever been made. They deserve to be revived and added to, now that radio paradoxically appears to have held its own against television; though the creative climate of MacNeice's BBC, to put it mildly, no longer obtains, and in that sense a significant part of the poet's achievement has fled into the air.

Jon Stallworthy has toiled honourably to bring everything back into view.The greatness of E R Dodds's edition of the Collected Poems is abundantly re-emphasised by appropriate quotation and sensitive comment. He avoids (and he did not have to) the ultimate tedium of a biographical treatment which parades every sordid skeleton from every banal cupboard. And if Louis MacNeice still remains mysterious it is not his fault. About his wonderfully approachable poetry, the critic G S Fraser remarked that there was "no code to crack. " But the man, shy, distant and elusive while alive,and now farther off still from anyone who would attempt the task, may be a cipher to whom no one ever quite finds the key.

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