Faber & Faber, £35, 768pp. £31.50 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Letters of Louis MacNeice, Edited by Jonathan Allison

It appeared that nobody who mattered was capable of being explained," Elizabeth Bowen wrote in an essay in 1946. "Thus was inculcated a feeling for the dark horse." Stress has often been laid on the "dark horse" aspect of Louis MacNeice - backed up, no doubt, by his equine handsomeness. Critical evaluation since his death in 1963 has tended to detach MacNeice from the 1930s pantomime-horse "MacSpaunday" group (with Auden, Spender and Day-Lewis) - a horse of a different colour - and restore his integrity as a poet.

"Elusive" is another of the terms employed to denote the impossibility of "explaining" someone who appears at once aloof and sociable, aesthetic and pragmatic, romantic and ironic. MacNeice can't be pinned down, then, though the facts of his life are in the public domain, and an immense amount of material exists to throw light on his work, ideas, attitudes, relationships. What's made of the basic material is, of course, up to the commentator. "Interpret it your own way", as MacNeice himself said, in a different context.

Perhaps a certain ambiguity of orientation was built into his life from the start: "Torn before birth from where my fathers dwelt,/ Schooled from the age of ten to a foreign voice". And interposed between the West of Ireland and Southern England is inflexible Ulster: the rectory at Carrickfergus, his father glooming about the place ("I always remained terrified of my father"), the terrible home-help Miss McCready with her hell-fire instincts, "the voodoo of the Orange bands". This background gave him something to react against.

However, as he wrote to his great friend Anthony Blunt in 1935, "You are English. Not so me, thank God." And again, to the American writer Eleanor Clark, with whom he had an affair in 1939-42, "England is not my country".

England is a place of refuge, though. In 1917 MacNeice was sent to prep school at Sherborne in Dorset; and from here, immersed in school life, he writes assured and cheerful letters to his stepmother in Carrickfergus: "I got my first try in big game"; "We had a celebration in the Tower since it was a hundred years since the death of Keats." From Marlborough, after 1921, the tone changes to accommodate a certain flamboyance, leaning towards topical affectation. In the letters to Blunt in particular, you find a sparkling schoolboy (and Oxford undergraduate) revelling in his own erudition. It is very engaging.

Blunt is an important correspondent until the mid-1930s, when the letters stop. MacNeice's first marriage has intervened, and thereafter his various entanglements with women endorse Blunt's view of him as "irredeemably heterosexual". Blunt's place is filled to an extent by MacNeice's fellow-Ulsterman, the classicist ER Dodds, who became his literary executor in 1940.

MacNeice's copious correspondence - of which these 700-odd pages, the editor tells us, represent "only a fraction" - covers academia, America, the War, the BBC years, two marriages and lots of affairs, business letters to TS Eliot at Faber, travel abroad, and more, and more. One remarkable six-page letter dashed off to Eleanor Clark in May 1940 has the poet, unusually, in hectic mode. Her comment concerning his supposed "lack of curiosity about the world" has stung him into an angry and impassioned response (and indeed it seems an odd charge to level against the author of the intensely vigilant and magnificently sure-footed Autumn Journal). "If you think the only way the world impinges on me is through my nerves, you are - I am sorry to say, darling - a fool." His throwaway reference, in another letter, to his subsequent marriage to Hedli Anderson (two years later) suggests that Clark was never entirely forgiven.

These letters, meticulously edited and annotated by Jonathan Allison, add up to an invaluable resource for MacNeice scholars and an engrossing, if intermittent, personal and political commentary. MacNeice, from his earliest years, was exceptionally alert to all the dazzle and darkness of contemporary life, the world around him; and his correspondence goes a considerable way towards illuminating what he calls (sardonically), "My various and conflicting/Selves."

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