The first biography of '30s poet Louis MacNeice reveals his family sadness, confused Irishness and chaotic search for love
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IN NOVEMBER 1940, faced with a journey across the Atlantic and the chance that his ship would be torpedoed, the 33-year-old Louis MacNeice wrote to his friend E R Dodds: "In case any super-mug wants to do a life of me I would warn him against acce pting,without careful scrutiny, any alleged information from my family..." It sounds like the prelude to a complaint about biography in general - how partial it is, how invasive. In fact, MacNeice goes on to offer Dodds a list of "the best authorities" on his life, and manages to be serious about their responsibilities while mocking himself for doing so: "How mortuary-egotistical all this sounds."

Jon Stallworthy quotes this letter on the second page of his biography, and it's easy to see why. In the 55 years since MacNeice wrote it, we've got used to hearing writers sneer at their prospective biographers (Jake Balokowsky) - and also to seeing certain critics (Janet Malcolm) grimly joining in the abuse. Apparently, Stall-worthy feels that by referring to this letter he can avoid being one of those guilty life-burglars that readers love to condemn (and to buy). He tells us that he wrote his book feeling "chastened" by MacNeice's advice, and that he'd rather be called "a mug than a murderer".

Quite so - but it's hard not to feel that an opportunity has been missed here: an opportunity to outline critical positions and cultural contexts, and to tell us why we need to care about MacNeice. The silence we get instead of these things indicates that Stallworthy feels a purely narrative account of his subject will hit him off very nicely thank you.

Yet from the evidence of this same letter, it's clear that MacNeice himself feels the facts of a life are not all we know and all we need to know. His remarks to Dodds are more than just helpful: they give an insight into the character of his work - intothe way it foregrounds personal events, into its use of "private" sources, and into the connections it makes between these things and the historical process. Of course Mac-Neice's poems contain magical fusions. But a vital part of their character depends on the eagerness with which texts and contexts want to get on terms with each other. "Look!" the letter exclaims. "I'm not just a wonderful subject - I'm a wonderfully suggestive subject!"

So he proves - even though Stallworthy's narrative contains some significant smoothings and softenings. The initial silence about contexts anticipates a later reticence about MacNeice as a '30s poet, a tendency to concentrate on the apparatus of poems totheir exclusion of their attitudes, and also a reluctance to look beyond their polarities of fixity and flux - polarities which have become a cliche of MacNeice criticism, and which leave many of his other devices undervalued. There are times, too, whenwe miss a sense of the subject's felt reality - of the messy, boozy, accidental existence which made him what he was.

But there are substantial compensations for these things. Stallworthy is good at suggesting MacNeice's charm even (especially) when showing how difficult he could be; he is candid, funny and touching about the complicated love life; he is clear-minded about particular sources for the poems, and also shrewd about the ways in which they were fed and fostered by his childhood - by his parents, in particular.

And as things turn out, we can even feel there's an advantage in playing down MacNeice's '30s connections - with Auden, Spender and Day Lewis, in particular. It means our attention is free to fix on another and older set of loyalties: the loyalties to Ireland. Stallworthy picks up the argument put forward by several Irish writers (Edna Longley, Tom Paulin, Peter MacDonald) and develops it as a tale of complicated involvements and sour exclusions. MacNeice's father's family, we gather, were "outcast" from the island of Omey off the Galway coast during an outbreak of religious violence in the late 19th century. When MacNeice's mother, Lily, left the west coast of Ireland for marriage and Belfast in 1901, she also felt banished "from the Garden", and while her husband's work as a priest (Protestant) bound him into the community, she struggled to keep her distance.

Their three children made things more difficult. William, the second, was born with Downs Syndrome. The other two (the eldest a girl, Elizabeth, and the youngest Freddie, born in 1907, who would later start using his second name, Louis) became part of a city life their mother found threatening and developed the accent she scorned. Her life clouded with dread and resentment while her vehement and high-minded husband rattled in and out of the house, or boomed at his family and flock from the pulpit. "My mother was comfort and my father some- what alarm," MacNeice would say later.

Describing these things, Stallworthy often glances ahead to show how dramatically the figures of MacNeice's parents appear in his mature poems, and how strikingly the poet inherited a version of their dislocation. Intermittent gleams of cheerfulness wereblacked out by Miss MacCready, the fierce mother's help. Eventually, the whole precarious edifice of contentment gave way when Lily MacNeice's health collapsed and she was taken away to spend her last few years in a nursing home. Louis was only six whenshe left, and felt not just grief but guilt. "It seemed," Stallworthy tells us, "that she believed, despite medical evidence to the contrary, that Louis's difficult birth had caused [a] uterine fibroid; a belief transmitted to her son, who grew up convinced at some psychological level that he was responsible for his mother's illness and [eventual] death."

In the dismal lull which followed Lily's departure, the children were caught in anguished isolation. MacNeice's experience was not exactly in the Bronte class, but it sounds daunting all the same. He and Elizabeth devised a private world called "The Cultof the Old", they fell in love with nursery rhymes, and he produced his earliest poems - the first beginning "O parrot thou hast grey feathers/Which thou peckest in all weathers./And thy curled beak/ Could make me squeak."

By the time he was nine, and was sent away to Sherborne prep school in England, his imagination was already printed with many of the images which dominated his later life (marble, cliffs, towers, sunlight, gardens). Language was already a refuge as well as a resource. He had heard the pell-mell rhythms which he would never cease using. And he had become obsessed with the effort to make time stop while understanding that in fact it was careering towards the wrong kind of stillness - towards death, ratherthan the gratified stasis of poems like "Meeting Point":

Time was away and she was here And life no longer what it was, The bell was silent in the air And all the room one glow because Time was away and she was here.

At Sherborne, and then at Marlborough, MacNeice found that however assiduously he stiffened his upper lip, however ingeniously he "played the fool" in order to win friends and influence people, he couldn't avoid seeming like a divided personality. At onepoignant moment - "showing off" - he agreed with his headmaster that Twelfth of July celebrations were "mumbo jumbo", then had to confront an outraged Irish teacher who felt "betrayed" by this. "Oh this division of allegiance", the older poet exclaimed on behalf of his younger self.

It's clear from other stories we hear about MacNeice at school that he protected himself by making light of the things he took seriously. And while Marlborough friends like Graham Shepherd realised he was special (a "stray from some other place or era, asurprising blend of precocious worldlywiseness and faunal innocence") they endorsed the process, stripping things of their politics and aestheticising them. The result was not just a suppression in MacNeice of the Belfast accent his mother had tried to deny, but the adoption of classic '30s camp.

Another close Marlborough friend, Anthony Blunt, was crucial here. He helped to organise the school magazine in which MacNeice's poems were first published, and authenticated his new voice. He turned Freddie into Louis, and dramatised the change by cultivating a complimentary character for himself: immaculate and homosexual, while MacNeice was extravagant and "irredeemably heterosexual".

Theirs was a brave show of sophistication, but when the bright sparks blew off to university - Blunt to Cambridge, MacNeice to Merton College, Oxford, to read Greats in 1926 - the naivity which underlay their brilliance soon showed itself. Blunt we know about. MacNeice, who happily began publishing alongside Auden, Betjeman and Spender in undergraduate magazines, also tended to let his clever head follow wherever his inexperienced heart led him. Instead of Marxism, MacNeice turned to love - specificallyto Mary Beazley, the daughter of the distinguished classicist J D Beazley and his snappily-dressed wife. Before long he announced that he was engaged to her, whereupon his father (now an Archdeacon, and shortly to become Bishop of Belfast) fired off letters complaining that "The thought of an engagement to a jewess is dreadful", while her mother insisted that the illness which afflicted Louis' brother William was hereditary.

From this distance, it all sounds blackly comic. For the couple themselves it was evidently a bruising courtship - no wonder that when they struggled out of Oxford to Birmingham, where MacNeice got a job teaching Classics at the university under Dodds, they set about playing house with an intensity which suggests a second childhood. No wonder, either, that it couldn't last. Within five years Mary had run off with an American football player, leaving her husband and their young son to re-invent a life which MacNeice felt had already tried and failed to stabilise itself This time, though, MacNeice had better chance of success. Birmingham in general and Dodds in particular had given him the sort of social education he lacked. He had grown more accustomed to his own dividedness. He knew his talent depended on it, and seemed increasingly used to the idea that it was bound to entail domestic confusion. As a result, MacNeice was able to switch his attention more confidently between the condition of the worldaround him and the state of his personal feelings (which had absorbed virtually all his interest in his first book of poems, Blind Fireworks, published while he was at Oxford). Stallworthy calls his first chapter on Birmingham "Hazy City" (MacNeice's own phrase), but really it was the place where his haze lifted, where he learned to allegorise his childhood and to link the private with the political.

MacNeice left Birmingham for the Depart-ment of Greek at Bedford College in London in 1936. The move marks a decisive turning point in his life. It also means that things change for his biographer. From now on, MacNeice is a more or less celebrated man, and Stallworthy has more hard evidence to quote, but at the same time a greater self-awareness in his subject. In most cases (Tennyson, Auden, Larkin), increased self-awareness means greater reticence - a more elaborate defence of the innocence on which the imagination depends. With MacNeice, though, there is remarkably little concealment: for him, maturity meant involvement, fame meant public self-analysis, expanding horizons meant widening subjects, the busy-ness and jangle of the world meant more confident and memorable poetic rhythms.

Once in London, MacNeice parked his child with a nanny and picked up the narrative of his life with extraordinary gusto. He visits Iceland with Auden, he crosses the Minch with his girlfriend Nancy Coldstream, he publishes a study of modern poetry and a book on zoos, as well as plays and translations, he travels to Spain and America, he writes about Yeats, he goes back to New York. And of course he produces poems, in a phenomenal burst of creativity. By the end of the decade he had written many of his best lyrics ("Carrickfergus", "The Brandy Glass", "The Sunlight on the Garden", "Trilogy for X", "Bagpipe Music"), as well as his great long poem "Autumn Journal". Like the shorter pieces, this depends for its effects and success on his quick-fire, quick-change existence. Its rhythms race and tumble, and its clauses spawn wildly inside bulging sentences as MacNeice looks across wide tracts of experience from the vantage of a few passionately lived obsessions:

It is this we learn after so many failures, The building of castles in sand, of queens in snow, That we cannot make any corner in life or in life's beauty, That no river is a river which does not flow.

In their different ways, all these poems justify MacNeice's plea in Modern Poetry for "impure poetry, that is, the poetry conditioned by the poet's life and the world around him" - and even when the outbreak of war in 1939 slowed down the race of his existence, he continued to write at an exceptional rate. This was largely due to the BBC, by whom he was approached to write "scripts that would contribute to national morale", and for whom he was soon writing plays and features as a full-time employee. Thanks to Barbara Coulton's book Louis MacNeice in the BBC (1980) we know a good deal about this part of his life, but Stallworthy tactfully winds several strands of personal mat-erial around the professional details.

We hear about his friendships with Dylan Thomas, Bertie Rogers and Reggie Smith; about his second marriage, to the singer Hedli Anderson; about the death of Graham Shep-herd on active service. The effect is finally to extinguish the well-worn idea that the BBC was simply "bad for" MacNeice. It goaded him into writing one dramatic masterpiece (The Dark Tower) and several very good ones (Christopher Columbus, Persons from Porlock); it also gave structure to his life at a time when he was growing increasingly restless and self-destructive. On the other hand, the temperature of his poems did drop pretty spectacularly during the '40s and '50s, and we can't help wondering: was the Beeb to blame? Stallworthy, again, is tactful. He puts both sides of the argument, leaving us to suppose that the death of friends, the fresh sense of his own mortality, and (perhaps) something disappointing in his marriage also played their part in creating his doldrums:

Do I prefer to forget it? This middle stretch Of life is bad for poets; a sombre view Where neither works nor days look innocent And both seem now too many, now too few.

On the face of it, the drama of MacNeice's life after the war has to do with his travels for the BBC (to India, Greece, Egypt, South Africa), and with his turbulent love life (his marriage to Hedli Anderson disintegrated, and he lurched good-naturedly from bed to bed before coming to rest at last with the actress Mary Wimbush). In fact it centres on his poems. In the late 1950s, when most reviewers had begun to write him off, and when his readers were drifting towards a younger generation of poets, MacN eice started to work part-time for the BBC and almost immediately re-discovered his image-hoard, raiding it for poems which are as powerful as any he ever wrote.

When Edward Thomas turned from writing prose to poems, one of his friends said that he was not a different man, but the same man in a different key. The same is true of MacNeice in these last poems. He gives us his familiar world of marble, caves, water and gardens, and the same blend of religion and romance, but contains these things in severe narratives or dark fables which make everything familiar seem strange again. "Soap Suds", "Deja Vu", "After the Crash", "Round the Corner", "The Tax is": in poemafter poem he finds a new resonance in the loyalties which had dogged him all his life. They are works whose Heraclitan helter-skelter parabolises distinct memories of England and Ireland, mother and father, childhood and maturity, and wraps them round issues of politics and aesthetics, of classical form and Romantic freedom, of love and independence. The poems excitedly relish life, while at the same time registering a weariness of it.

A deep weariness. In August 1963, shortly before his last book was published, MacNeice caught cold making a recording underground for his radio play Persons from Porlock. He was dead within a month. His doctors complained that his system had been undermined by drink and cigarettes; most of his friends felt that he hadn't shown much sign of wishing things were otherwise. And since then? Since then 32 years have passed, his personality has been simplified (Englished), and his work has been under- valued or actually neglected. Would things have been different if a biography had been published sooner? Probably. Now we have this one, though, we can start making up the lost time. Stallworthy's book is very elegant and enjoyable, and it does MacNeice the complicated justice of showing that he lived a life which was unified in its devotions, yet at the same time full of "the drunkenness of things being various".

`Louis MacNeice: A Biography' by Jon Stallworthy is published this week (Faber £25)