The British poet Louis MacNeice (1907-1964) claimed himself to be not a theorist but a poetic empiricist. His unfinished autobiography was post-humously published as The Strings Are False.
Louis MacNeice was born on September 12, 1907, in Belfast, Ireland. Educated at Merton College, Oxford, he taught Greek for a short time in London, lectured in classics at Birmingham University from 1930 to 1936, and lectured in Greek at Bedford College for women from 1936 to 1939. During the first year of World War II (1939) he was a lecturer at Cornell University in the United States.
MacNeice returned to London in 1940. In 1941 he joined the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) as a staff script writer and producer to illustrate Britain's war effort. He continued in these capacities, with the exception of an 18-month hiatus during 1950-1951 when he served as director of the British Institute in Athens; his knowledge of Greek language and culture served him well.
MacNeice was twice married. His first wife was Giovanna Marie Therese Ezra. This marriage began in 1930 and ended in divorce in 1946. He had a son by his first marriage and a daughter by his second. In 1954, with his second wife, vocalist Hedli Anderson, he conducted a reading and concert tour in the United States. Before his death, in London, he travelled extensively abroad in France, Norway, Italy, and India.
MacNeice rarely read novels. His favorite was Tolstoy's War and Peace. MacNeice himself wrote three novels in his youth, all of which he considered poor attempts. He published his first poetic collection, Blind Fireworks, in 1929.
In politics, MacNeice distrusted the established parties; in economics, he predicted the inevitable fall of capitalism. On a visit to Barcelona in 1939, he pronounced that the Republican government was in the right in the Spanish Civil War. He was in opposition to partition in Ireland and voted for the Labour Party in England in spite of his opposition to the party leaders, whom he regarded as reactionary.
As poet, MacNeice's early work derives from the forms and traditions of classic poetry. He confessed that he proceeded by trial and error, attempting to achieve Wordsworth's "Real Language of Men," an objective he sought not only in diction but in rhythm as well. MacNeice acknowledged that his imagistic propensity for the topical and visual led him to diffuse composition, in which one descriptive passage led to another.
Eventually growing bored with description for its own sake, MacNeice began to experiment with traditional lyrics, in which he sought to express a single, strong personal feeling. He employed symmetrical but intricate verse patterns and rhymes to this purpose. Again, stylistic boredom set in as his content grew too narrow and his rhythm too predictable.
Seeking escape in structure, MacNeice subordinated semantic and other elements of his poems, preferring dull interdependent to brilliant independent images. His attention was given to sheer syntax rather than to the relations between sentence structures and verse patterns. In his later works he strove for economy. Especially in imagery he pursued the multam in parvo of poetic compression. MacNeice quoted himself to exemplify this "much in little" compression which he sought. He described a prostitute sitting at the end of a long bar as "Mascara scrawls a gloss on a torn leaf."
In spite of his claim to empiricism and denial of theoretically derived poetics, MacNeice was nonetheless identified in the 1930s with a group of young poets of social protest (an occupational hazard of poets). The group included his friends Stephen Spender and W. H. Auden. In later years he returned from political to moral themes. As his obsession shifted from the political to the moral his compositional complexity and aesthetic intensified.
Collaborating with a scholar of German in 1951, MacNeice provided an abridged translation of the poetic rather than literal linguistic aspects of Goethe's Faust for a radio presentation. During the late 1950s it was Robert Lowell, in reference to his own translations from Italian, who appropriately observed that poetic translation requires not so much translation per se as the composition of a new poem based upon an original in another language. If MacNeice's linguistic collaborator translated that which was German, it was MacNeice who translated that which was Faust.
With W. H. Auden, MacNeice co-authored Letters from Iceland (1936). Co-authorship is rare in the 20th century, and in this endeavor he again revealed his divergency. His originality knew no "Mass-production of neat thoughts," and he was never afraid to take the poetic leap into "…. Fates great bazaar."
Some critics regard MacNeice as an undeveloped poet; but in art, as in life, his invocation was:
…O fill me/ With strength against those who would freeze my humanity, would dragoon me into a lethal automaton, would make me a cog in a machine, a thing with one face….
MacNeice was connected with the English Group Theatre in London, which produced his translation of the Agamemnon by Aeschylus in 1936 and his experimental play, Out of the Picture (1937), which he, himself, judged a bad play. At this time he began a trilogy of one-act plays with the intention of having them produced by the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, because he considered the London West End Stage moribund.
His later works included The Roman Smile, a book of literary criticism; a verse translation of the Hippolytus by Euripedes; and a quasi-autobiographical book. In addition to his own publications, MacNeice contributed articles to several anthologies of literary criticism. Most of his work was published in the United States.
MacNeice was made C.B.E. (Commander of the British Empire) in 1957. He died on September 3, 1964, from viral pneumonia.
The best source of information about his life is his The Strings Are False: An Unfinished Autobiography, published by Oxford University Press in 1966 under MacNeice's pseudonym, Louis Malone. His Collected Poems was published the following year.
Coulton, Barbara, Louis MacNeice in the BBC, London; Boston: Faber and Faber, 1980.
Stallworthy, Jon, Louis MacNeice, New York: W.W. Norton, 1995. □