Going with MacNeice's Flow
1907 was a good year for poets’ births – W.H. Auden, Louis MacNeice, John Hewitt. It’s fitting that MacNeice (born in Belfast on 12 September) should have arrived between Auden and Hewitt, since his different relation to these poets defines some of his aesthetic, cultural and political bearings. MacNeice’s artistic dialogue with Auden – also with T.S. Eliot – places him at the centre of post-Modernist developments in English-language poetry. Hewitt, however, shared W.R Rodgers’s regret that (living here) he had been ‘schooled in a backwater of literature, out of sight of the running stream of contemporary verse’. In 1930s England, MacNeice was not only in the stream – he was the stream or a main current. Indeed, flowing water is a repeated symbol in, and for, his poetry.
The metaphysics of flux influence MacNeice’s poetic forms, his interior drama and his socio-political critique. His fears or dislikes often take on a stony, static shape. The tombstones behind his father’s Carrickfergus rectory figure as ‘granite sphinxes’: an image that combines childhood nightmares (after his mother’s illness and death) with the felt oppressiveness of religion. Similarly, MacNeice recoiled from procrustean thinkers, be they communist slogan-poets, dogmatic Irish nationalists and unionists, the BBC managers who blighted his last years as a radio producer in London, or poetry critics who thought they had him sussed. His poem ‘Variation on Heraclitus’ defies all such: ‘But none of your slide snide rules can catch what is sliding so fast’.
Yet MacNeice’s centenary may coincide with a fluid moment when his time has come. This is, first, an aesthetic moment. The MacNeice ‘Centenary Conference & Celebration’ (12-15 September), which the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen’s is organising, will assemble poets from England, Scotland, the Republic and Northern Ireland who acknowledge MacNeice’s impact on their own work. Since his premature death in 1963, his centrality to modern poetry has been increasingly understood, and many more poet-fans might be mustered. As for the academic papers to be given at the conference: their ‘variousness’ – ‘various’ is a keyword in MacNeice’s famous poem ‘Snow’ – confirms the richness and range of his poetry.
Second, MacNeice’s poetry – fluid, various – may also be enjoying its political moment. His centenary reminds us how fiercely he attacked the procrustean paralysis to which all Irish politics succumbed after 1921, and from which they are slowly recovering. In Autumn Journal (1939), MacNeice portrays Northern Ireland’s binary oppositions as frivolous self-indulgence amid European crisis, and as a paradigm of political inertia:
And one read black where the other read white, his hope
The other man’s damnation:
Up the Rebels, To Hell with the Pope,
And God Save – as you prefer – the King or Ireland.
Let us hope that this critique will cease to apply. But, like MacNeice’s perspective on Irish neutrality in ‘Neutrality’ (from which Clair Wills’s recent book That Neutral Island takes its title), it remains live politics.
MacNeice’s northern Irish upbringing was partly accidental. ‘Carrick Revisited’ expresses his surprise at finding himself ‘in a topographical frame’, but admits that ‘neither western Ireland nor southern England/ Cancels this interlude’. If ‘southern England’ is where MacNeice spent most of his adult life, ‘western Ireland’ encapsulates family pre-history. No less than John Hewitt, embroiled in local battles against unionist obscurantism, MacNeice was ‘mauled’ (Conor Cruise O’Brien’s verb) by Ireland. In fact, his shifting ‘frames’ dramatise the Irish question as it presented itself during his lifetime. His grandfather ran the Irish Church Mission School on Omey Island, north of Clifden in Connemara. But in 1879 a sectarian stand-off had forced this Church of Ireland family to leave Omey.
MacNeice’s father’s career as Rector in Carrickfergus, later as Bishop of Down, Connor and Dromore, was not controversy-free either. In 1912 John Frederick MacNeice (who will feature in the conference too) refused to sign the Ulster Covenant. In 1935 he refused to let the union flag hang over Edward Carson’s grave in St Anne’s Cathedral. His sermons on the need to ‘work and witness for peace’ remain as fresh as his son’s poems. In Letters from Iceland (1937) MacNeice praises his father for ‘fixing/ His pulpit out of the reach of party slogans’.
All this conditioned MacNeice’s poetry. Some critics refer to his ‘divided identity’, as if he should have made up his mind about something. But MacNeice questions ‘identity’ along with division, and his complex affiliations to Ireland and Britain again seem of the moment. As regards poetic affiliations: culturally close to Yeats, MacNeice was his most immediate heir. No other Irish poet of his generation so absorbed and sifted Yeats’s later poetry. That is among the reasons why poets from Northern Ireland have, in turn, absorbed MacNeice; why they have steered ‘various’ paths between traditional stanzas and freer flow; and why it is right to celebrate MacNeice’s centenary in Belfast and Carrickfergus. To quote from ‘In Carrowdore Churchyard’, Derek Mahon’s elegy for MacNeice, there are many senses in which his poetry will go on ‘Rinsing the choked mud, keeping the colours new’.
This article was first published in Fortnight magazine. We thank them for permission to republish it here.