Frederick Louis MacNeice CBE (12 September 1907 – 3 September 1963) was an Irish poet and playwright. He was part of the generation of “thirties poets” that included W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender and Cecil Day-Lewis, nicknamed “MacSpaunday” as a group — a name invented by Roy Campbell, in his Talking Bronco (1946). His body of work was widely appreciated by the public during his lifetime, due in part to his relaxed, but socially and emotionally aware style. Never as overtly (or simplistically) political as some of his contemporaries, his work shows a humane opposition to totalitarianism as well as an acute awareness of his Irish root.
Frederick Louis MacNeice CBE (12 September 1907 – 3 September 1963) was an Irish poet and playwright. He was part of the generation of “thirties poets” that included W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender and Cecil Day-Lewis, nicknamed “MacSpaunday” as a group — a name invented by Roy Campbell, in his Talking Bronco (1946). His body of work was widely appreciated by the public during his lifetime, due in part to his relaxed, but socially and emotionally aware style. Never as overtly (or simplistically) political as some of his contemporaries, his work shows a humane opposition to totalitarianism as well as an acute awareness of his Irish roots Plaque at MacNeice’s childhood home in Carrickfergus
MacNeice was generally happy at Sherborne, which gave an education concentrating on the classics (Greek and Latin) and literature (including the memorising of poetry). He was an enthusiastic sportsman, something which continued when he moved to Marlborough College in 1921, having won a classical scholarship. Marlborough was a less happy place, with a hierarchical and sometimes cruel social structure, but MacNeice’s interest in ancient literature and civilisation deepened and expanded to include Egyptian and Norse mythology. In 1922 he was invited to join Marlborough’s secret ‘Society of Amici’ where he was a contemporary of John Betjeman and Anthony Blunt, forming a lifelong friendship with the latter. He also wrote poetry and essays for the school magazines. By the end of his time at the school, MacNeice was sharing a study with Blunt and also sharing his aesthetic tastes, though not his sexual ones: Blunt said MacNeice was “totally, irredeemably heterosexual”. In November 1925, MacNeice was awarded a “Postmastership” scholarship to Merton College, Oxford, and he left Marlborough in the summer of the following year. He left behind his birth name of Frederick, his accent and his father’s faith, although he never lost a sense of his Irishness.
It was during his first year as a student at Oxford that MacNeice first met W. H. Auden, who had gained a reputation as the university’s foremost poet during the preceding year. Stephen Spender and Cecil Day-Lewis were already part of Auden’s circle, but MacNeice’s closest Oxford friends were John Hilton, Christopher Holme and Graham Shepard, who had been with him at Marlborough. MacNeice threw himself into the aesthetic culture, publishing poetry in literary magazines The Cherwell and Sir Galahad, organising candle-lit readings of Shelley and Marlowe, and visiting Paris with Hilton. Auden would become a lifelong friend who inspired MacNeice to take up poetry seriously. In 1928 he was introduced to the classics don John Beazley and his stepdaughter Mary Ezra. A year later he thought to soften the news that he had been arrested for drunkenness by telegraphing his father to say he was engaged to be married. John MacNeice (by now Archdeacon of Connor, and a Bishop a few years later) was horrified to discover his son was engaged to a Jew, while Ezra’s family demanded assurances that Louis’s brother William’s Down’s syndrome was not hereditary. Amidst this turmoil MacNeice published four poems to Oxford Poetry, 1929 and his first undergraduate collection Blind Fireworks (1929). Published by Gollancz, the volume was dedicated to “Giovanna” (Mary’s full name was Giovanna Marie Thérèse Babette). In 1930 the couple were married at Oxford Register Office, neither set of parents attending the ceremony. He was awarded a first-class degree in literae humaniores, and had already gained an appointment as Assistant Lecturer in Classics at the University of Birmingham.
Birmingham 1930 – 1936
The newlyweds were found lodgings in Birmingham by E. R. Dodds and his wife – Dodds was Professor of Greek (and later to be MacNeice’s literary executor), and his wife Bet was a lecturer in the Department of English. The MacNeices lived in a former coachman’s cottage in the grounds of a house in Selly Park belonging to another professor, Philip Sargant Florence. Birmingham was a very different university (and city) from Oxford, MacNeice was not a natural lecturer, and he found it difficult to write poetry. He turned instead to a semi-autobiographical novel, Roundabout Way, which was published in 1932 under the name of Louis Malone as he feared a novel by an academic would not be favourably reviewed. He felt that married life was not helping his poetry: “To write poems expressing doubt or melancholy, an anarchist conception of freedom or nostalgia for the open spaces (and these were the things that I wanted to express), seemed disloyal to Mariette. Instead, I was disloyal to myself, wrote a novel which purported to be an idyll of domestic felicity. As we predicted, the novel was not well received.”The local Classical Association included George Augustus Auden, Professor of Public Health and father of W. H. Auden, and by 1932 MacNeice and Auden’s Oxford acquaintance had turned into a close friendship. Auden knew many Marxists, and Blunt had also become a communist by this time, but MacNeice, although sympathetic to the left, was always sceptical of easy answers and “the armchair reformist”. The Strings are False (written at the time of the Nazi-Soviet Pact) describes his wish for a change in society and even revolution, but also his intellectual opposition to Marxism and especially the communism embraced by many of his friends.
MacNeice started to write poetry again, and in January 1933 he and Auden led the first edition of Geoffrey Grigson’s magazine New Verse. MacNeice also started sending poems toT. S. Eliot at around this time, and although Eliot did not feel that they merited Faber and Faber publishing a volume of poems, several were published in Eliot’s journal The Criterion. On 15 May 1934, Louis and Mary’s son Daniel John MacNeice was born. In September of that year, MacNeice travelled to Dublin with Dodds, who had republican sympathies, and met William Butler Yeats. Unsuccessful attempts at playwriting and another novel were followed in September 1935 by Poems, the first of his collections for Faber and Faber, who would remain his publishers. This helped establish MacNeice as one of the new poets of the 1930s.
In November, Mary left MacNeice and their infant son for a Russian-American graduate student called Charles Katzmann who had been staying with the family.MacNeice engaged a nurse to look after Dan, and his sister and stepmother also helped on occasion. In early 1936, Blunt and MacNeice visited Spain, shortly after the election of the Popular Front government. Auden and MacNeice travelled to Iceland in the summer of that year, which resulted in Letters from Iceland, a collection of poems, letters (some in verse) and essays. In October, MacNeice left Birmingham for a lecturing post in the Department of Greek at Bedford College for Women, part of the University of London.
MacNeice was featured in two high profile collections of modernist poetry of 1936. The Faber Book of Modern Verse, edited by young writer and critic Michael Roberts, collected work published after 1910, printing McNeice’s ‘”An Eclogue for Christmas”, “Sunday Morning”, “Perseus”, “The Creditor” and “Snow” towards the end of the roughly chronological book. In the book, McNeice is set in amongst others of the new Auden Group, presenting a version of modernism in which Eliot is the star. MacNeice and his group were also featured in Oxford Book of Modern Verse 1892–1935, edited by Yeats. This collection generally excluded American poets and was less well received critically, but instantaneously became a best-seller.
MacNeice moved into Geoffrey Grigson’s former flat in Hampstead with Daniel and his nurse. His translation of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon was published in late 1936, and produced by the Group Theatre (London).Shortly afterwards his divorce from Mary was finalised. They continued to write frequent affectionate letters to one another, although Mary married Katzmann shortly after the divorce, and MacNeice started an affair with Nancy Coldstream. Nancy was, like her husband Bill, a painter and a friend of Auden who had introduced the couple to MacNeice while they were in Birmingham. MacNeice and Nancy visited the Hebrides in 1937, which resulted in a book of prose and verse written by MacNeice with illustrations by Nancy, I Crossed the Minch.
August 1937 saw the appearance of Letters from Iceland (which had been finished by the two authors in MacNeice’s London home the previous year), and towards the end of the year a play called Out of the Picture was published and produced by the Group Theatre. Music was written for the production by Benjamin Britten, as he had done previously forAgamemnon. In 1938, Faber and Faber published a second collection of poems, The Earth Compels, the Oxford University Press published Modern Poetry, and Nancy once again contributed illustrations to a book about London Zoo, called simply Zoo. As the year – and his relationship with Nancy – drew to a close, he started work on Autumn Journal. By Christmas, Nancy was in love with Stephen Spender’s brother Michael, whom she was later to marry, and at the end of the year MacNeice visited Barcelona shortly before the city fell to Franco. The poem was finished by February 1939, and published in May. It is widely viewed as MacNeice’s masterpiece, recording his feelings as the Spanish civil war raged and the United Kingdom headed towards war with Germany, as well as his personal concerns and reflections over the past decade.
During the Easter holiday that year, MacNeice made a brief lecture tour of various American universities, also meeting Mary and Charles Katzmann and giving a reading with Auden and Christopher Isherwood in New York attended by John Berryman, and at which Auden met Chester Kallman for the first time. MacNeice also met the writer Eleanor Clark in New York, and arranged to spend the next academic year on sabbatical so that he could be with her. A lectureship at Cornell University was organised, and in December 1939 MacNeice sailed for America, leaving his son in Ireland. Cornell proved a success but the relationship with Eleanor did not, and MacNeice was back in London by the end of 1940. Faber and Faber published Selected Poems in March 1940, which contained 20 poems drawn from Poems 1935, The Earth Compels and Autumn Journal. It went through six impressions by 1945. MacNeice worked as a freelance journalist (he had resigned from his lecturing position at Bedford College while in America) and was awaiting the publication of Plant and Phantom, which was dedicated to Clark (the previous year, the Cuala Press had published The Last Ditch, a limited edition containing some poems that would appear in the new volume). In early 1941, MacNeice was employed by the BBC.