Letters of Louis MacNeice by Jonathan Allison - review by Derek Mahon

Derek Mahon

Caging The Minute

Letters of Louis MacNeice


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MacNeice was as prolific in correspondence as in verse, critical prose and radio work. He was one of those people who write all the time and at length – a dying breed in the email era. He preceded the email era of course. The first letters here, to his fathers and sister, are dated 1914, when he was seven; the last, to his daughter the artist Corinna and to Charles Monteith of Faber, 20 and 26 August 1963. He died on 3 September. 

Before returning to Britain in November 1940, during the Battle of the Atlantic, he had written from New York to his old friend and executor E R Dodds in Oxford that, in the event of his death, ‘[i]n case any mug wants to publish any of my letters’, he didn’t want those to his father or stepmother included as ‘they nearly always contain some falsity. I also regret most of my undergraduate letters (esp. to Anthony Blunt) which are nearly always v. affected & forced but I suppose they might be amusing to social historians … (How mortuary-egotistical all this sounds).’ He survived the voyage, failed the RN selection board (recent peritonitis) and famously joined the BBC (Features Department), to which he remained under contract for twenty years. Some letters to his father are here, however, as are those to Blunt, John Hilton and other old school chums.

This ‘annotated selection’ from nearly fifty years, still only a fraction, includes many to his two wives, Mary and Hedli; to Dodds and Mrs Dodds, to the young American author Eleanor Clark, his Faber editors T S Eliot and Monteith, Laurence Gilliam and W R Rodgers of the BBC, and magazine editors Geoffrey Grigson and John Lehmann. Notable absentees include Auden, who didn’t keep letters, and radio cronies like Jack Dillon and R D Smith, whom he saw almost daily. There are also, increasingly, letters to Dan, his son by his first marriage, and to Corinna, who was a student at the Slade when he died. There is naturally much business correspondence of an editorial kind, but Allison rightly speaks of great ‘sequences’ – to Dodds, to Clark and to Hedli among others. 

The Clark sequence starts on 21 April 1939, aboard the Queen Mary, as he returns from his first American lecture tour, having met and fallen ‘in love with her almost immediately’ at a New York party. Reprinted here in its entirety (eleven pages), this is ‘the longest letter of his career’ and was quickly followed by a dozen more in the same vein: ‘[w]e were probably quite right not to sleep together just now because that makes it (a) much more delicate but (b) much fuller of possibilities … All the same I feel very Western Wind about it.’ He was in America again a year later, still madly in love despite several involvements in the interim; but now a mutually critical note intrudes.

Clark was an interesting figure in her own right. A Vassar graduate, a contributor to The New Yorker and a glamorous Trotskyite in the fashion of the time, she had been briefly married to one of Trotsky’s secretaries in Mexico. She reproves MacNeice for snobbery and self-absorption; he defends himself at length: ‘I thought you might accuse me of “inhumanity” (which I shall explain about in a moment) but what in hell do you mean by telling me that I have “an awful lack of curiosity about the world?” I was curious about the world & suffering from my curiosity about it before you were born.’ The old story. He (and she too, it seems) are great analysts of the emotions, MacNeice a skilled rhetorician; but behind the vociferous give-and-take a fairly straightforward explanation suggests itself. They weren’t really compatible for anything more than a sort of cocktail romance; the physical dimension is absent. MacNeice was infatuated, but it was all in the head really; and Clark, wary of him as far as one can tell, seems to have had the measure of the situation. When he returns to wartime London the romance begins to fade, and then he tells her he has married the singer Hedli Anderson. 

His hopes of getting to America again to make some BBC wartime programmes there were dashed in any case by a spat with the Admiralty. Aboard the destroyer Chelsea on assignment, he and Jack Dillon got themselves into hot water by overdoing it a bit in the wardroom one fine night. The captain took a dim view and complained to the Beeb, obliging MacNeice to defend their behaviour like a bad boy: 

After the singing had stopped, it is still possible that now – owing to the small size and acoustic qualities of the ward-room – the conversation and laughter between Dillon, myself and some of the officers may have been more penetrating than we realised … The picture of us asleep at 7.15 am with half-empty glasses still in our hands strikes me as highly coloured.

The Hedli sequence starts on 10 August 1947, when he writes to her from Delhi, where he had been sent, with the redoubtable Dillon and a BBC van, to cover the independence celebrations – and, as it turned out, the ‘communal’ trouble attending Partition. Of nineteen Hedli letters, ten are reproduced here. The India trip took them to most of the larger cities, to Kashmir and as far south as Cape Comorin. ‘Darling,’ he writes, ‘Would you mind keeping these letters all together somewhere as they will remind me of things & so far I haven’t had time to keep a diary etc.’ The letters are his Indian Diary, and tremendously vivid they are too, the functioning chaos of the subcontinent chiming with his own aesthetic of exuberant dazzle and variety. Striking figures pop up amid the elephants and monkeys, like the head of the Cow Protection campaign. A religious or an economic campaign? ‘My dear young man, you cannot separate things like that. Everything is one. Religious … economic … they are the same thing.’ Here too is the popular lady poet and nationalist Sarojini Naidu, she who is credited with the remark that it cost the nation a fortune to keep Gandhi in poverty.

The letters don’t go in much for critical commentary, of others’ work or his own (all that is available elsewhere), but they are recognisably from the hand that wrote Autumn Journal and Autumn Sequel, and in the same voice, with its distinctive ‘acoustic qualities’ – gossipy, brisk, attentive to curious detail, alive to the passing moment. A valuable supplement to the poetry, and to his autobiography The Strings Are False, the letters help recreate an era: Oxford in the 1920s (familiar ground of course), London and New York in the 1930s, neutral Ireland, the Blitz, Gilliam’s legendary Features Department. What with the recent, comprehensive Collected Poems (edited by Peter McDonald), prose and drama selections, and the reissue of Strings, we now seem to have as much of MacNeice as we are likely to get. It’s a great life’s work, and it was a great life, graphically illustrated here. The apparatus is generally sound, and even the Gaelic names are right, which is truly exceptional.

After the 1960 break-up with Hedli things start to fall apart. ‘Highly coloured’ occasions increased in frequency and lowered his resistance to the pneumonia that carried him off at the age of fifty-five, still thinking up projects. A great sports fan, he approached various editors about covering, for example, the 1961 Ireland–England rugby international at Lansdowne Road. The same year, he replied to a woman in Yorkshire who had found his early poem ‘Snow’ puzzling: 

What excited me was the sudden awareness that all these things were going on at the same time in their own right … There was no question of the roses and the snow ever merging. Each was to retain its identity for ever and in my mood at the time I was glad about this.

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