Collected Poems: Louis MacNeice, ed Peter McDonald

Without his romantic failures, a minor drinking problem, and rejection by T S Eliot, Louis MacNeice might never have become the fine poet that he was. Stephen Knight applauds a new collection of his work
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How much of a poet's work is enough to be going on with? Two-and-a-half inches thick, Christopher Ricks's monumental edition of Tennyson might be a masterpiece of scholarship but it does not tempt the general reader. And who knows the 1848 lines of Wordsworth's "Ecclesiastical Sonnets''? Published to mark Louis MacNeice's centenary, this new Collected Poems is a substantial book, though far from complete; just as well because, as good as some of the poetry is, it is not of the same order as Wordsworth's or Tennyson's.

MacNeice tinkered with his poetry throughout his life and, preparing a first Collected Poems in the 1940s, he grouped poems other than chronologically. Does an editor opt for a historical record or follow the poet's wishes? Peter McDonald, an academic and a poet himself, makes a persuasive case for the former while also respecting MacNeice's revisions; in doing so, he balances scholarly precision with reader-friendliness. It is a fine job. Individual collections are restored, beginning with MacNeice's first mature volume, Poems (1935). His debut, Blind Fireworks (1929), and uncollected poems, are located in appendices. For many poets, slim volumes are merely instalments of the terminal book, but it is illuminating to encounter poems in their first context.

MacNeice is known as a writer of the historical moment. He is - along with Auden, Spender and Day Lewis - still considered a poet of the 1930s, that "dishonest decade'' when war was just over the horizon. Despite this, he never quite belonged. The son of an Irish clergyman, MacNeice was always a little to one side, poetically and socially. Jon Stallworthy's 1995 biography depicts a distant parent and husband who formed romantic attachments with alarming ease; a man haunted by the death of his mother.

MacNeice liked his drink, but never took things as far as his friend, Dylan Thomas. If he had, he might not have been so prolific. "I am writing a new kind of poem,'' he says in a letter of 1939; "there are going to be 50 of them.'' The previous year, he had published four books and, even in 1963, the year of his death, he completed his last three works. He wrote in every genre, producing radio scripts during his time at the BBC. "My trouble all my life,'' he told his second wife, "has been over-production.''At his busiest, MacNeice published a new volume of poems every year or two.

In 1934, having twice had the manuscript of his second book rejected by T S Eliot, the poetry editor at Faber, MacNeice obliged the older poet by producing what was required: the longish poems which begin the book. The first, "An Eclogue for Christmas'', came complete with a strenuous modernity and a whiff of The Waste Land; "I who was Harlequin in the childhood of the century.'' Other lines in Poems smack of Auden, whose poetry had been taken on by the same firm five years earlier: "Thousands of posters asserting a monopoly of the good, the beautiful, the true". But there are also poems in which MacNeice is unmistakably his own man: the mysterious, painterly "Snow" and the suburban snapshot of "Sunday Morning":

Down the road someone is practising scales,

The notes like little fishes vanish with a wink of tails.

Man's heart expands to tinker with his car

For this is Sunday morning, Fate's great bazaar''

Thereafter, MacNeice managed with missionary zeal to incorporate into his writing the textures of the workday world. (Had anyone before him managed to use the word "pelmet'' in a poem?) Those pelmets appear on the first page of Autumn Journal (1939), MacNeice's finest long poem. It is a detailed account of the latter half of 1938; episodes in London, Barcelona, and at the Oxford by-election powerfully capturing the atmosphere of looming war. But it also locked MacNeice into the period, and the label of "Thirties poet" has stuck, unfairly, ever since.

Two years on, Plant and Phantom shows early signs of staleness. Good poems are still in evidence, "Meeting Point'' being the best known, but elsewhere the writing is on automatic pilot or MacNeice is casting around for material; "Death of an Actress'', for example, begins "I see from the paper that Florrie Forde is dead'' and closes "she stood/ For an older England, for children toddling/Hand in hand while the day was bright.'' Shockingly, given how superannuated this voice sounds, MacNeice was only 33 when the book appeared.

Auden (in the selection he made of MacNeice's verse soon after his death), Peter McDonald, and even the blurb for this Collected Poems acknowledge the dip in quality. Auden chose nothing either from the unpromisingly named Ten Burnt Offerings (1952) or Autumn Sequel (1954). His introduction is quietly damning: "I would not call the poems from this period bad - like everything he wrote, they are beautifully carpentered.'' The poetry is lifeless, and the pathos of a writer blatantly revisiting an earlier success is uncomfortable.

How aware was MacNeice of his creative decline? Keenly, it seems. Poems such as "Elegy for Minor Poets'' ruefully acknowledge literary reputation, while the face in a train's darkened window seems "So lonely in the moving night". In later books, he drops metaphor to confront the situation head on - "Do I prefer to forget it? This middle stretch/Of life is bad for poets" - though, embarrassingly, he is as likely to blame bad notices on the fact that his friends no longer write reviews "which have consequently fallen into the hands of younger and as yet less successful writers (who also, I think, tend to be jealous of me...)".

Without those years of literary disappointments, of domestic difficulties, of office life at the BBC, MacNeice might never have become the fine poet he was in his final years. Each of the three volumes published in his last seven years was better than the previous one. He did not seem to be trying so hard, as if recognising that his strengths as a writer were not best expressed in the long poem but that he was, after all, a lyric poet; a sprinter not a marathon runner. "I have become progressively more humble in the face of my material,'' he wrote in an introduction to Solstices (1961), "and therefore less ready to slap poster paint all over it''. Once again, MacNeice's ability to turn the quotidian into verse pays dividends, so a subject as unpromising as windscreen wipers yields an unnerving night-time journey towards death. By the end of "The Wiper'', the speaker is contemplating his hands, a gesture repeated at the end of the superb "Soap Suds'', in which a man experiences a Proustian surge of memory on smelling a bar of soap. "Soap suds" is the opening poem of his last volume, The Burning Perch. It was published 10 days after his death, the day after he would have turned 56. The sentimental claim that a writer's best work was still ahead of him was, in MacNeice's case, quite possibly true. The witty, grave poems of that final book - "Round the Corner'', "The Suicide'', "The Taxis'', "After the Crash'', "Charon'' and "Star-gazer'' - are worth a bet for posterity.

Louis MacNeice's reputation has risen steadily in recent years. Poignantly, MacNeice's grave in Carrowdore churchyard was, in the decade of his death, a gathering place for three young poets, Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley and Derek Mahon. W H Auden might be the greater poet, but MacNeice seems to inspire the greater affection. Is that in spite of his flaws, or because of them?