Frederick Louis MacNeice was born on September 12, 1907 to John MacNeice, the Rector of Holy Trinity Church on Belfast’s Clifton Street and his wife Elizabeth Margaret. He was the youngest of the family’s three children.
For the first few years of his life the family lived in the city’s Brookhill Avenue until, in 1909, John MacNeice was nominated rector of Carrickfergus. Louis would spend these intensely formative childhood years in Carrickfergus and much of his most famous poetry draws quite explicitly on childhood memories and experiences.
Although Carrickfergus was a pleasant and idyllic childhood setting it was also the scene of an early trauma that would colour the poet’s entire life. In 1910 his mother became ill. The illness and the depression it triggered were so debilitating that eventually John MacNeice had no option but to send his wife into care in a nursing home. Louis would never see his mother again and she died of tuberculosis in 1914.
Shortly after his mother’s death MacNeice was sent to England to begin his formal education, first at Sherborne preparatory school and later to Marlborough Public School where he was a friend of Anthony Blunt. In 1926 he arrived at Merton College, Oxford. Here he would meet the poets Stephen Spender and WH Auden, with whom he formed some of the most important and long-lasting friendships of his life.
Unlike many of his Oxbridge contemporaries, including Spender and Cecil Day Lewis, MacNeice although at times sympathetic to their cause was never a member of the Communist Party. Instead he believed that poetry could succeed where political parties with their rhetoric, sloganeering and defunct ideas had failed. Writing in the preface of Modern Poetry:
‘The writer today should be not so much the mouthpiece of a community (for then he will only tell it what it knows already) but as its conscience, its critical faculty, its generous instinct.’
, his first collection of poems, was published in 1929 and shortly after MacNeice was to take up his first academic post as assistant lecturer in Classics at Birmingham University. In 1930, MacNeice married Mary Beazley with whom he had a son Dan. However, as was perhaps indicative of much of his personal life and of his romantic attachments in particular, theirs was to be a tempestuous relationship and one that would not last.
In 1936 MacNeice secured a lectureship in Greek at the University of London. He was at last where he wanted to be, in the city he considered to be at the centre of things and the place he felt writers should be.
Later as a place to live in and love in
I jockeyed her fogs and quoted Johnson:
To be tired of this is to tire of life.
Nevertheless let the petals fall
Fast from the flower of cities all.
‘Goodbye to London’
London was to be an energising and inspiring place for the young MacNeice and shortly after arriving there he was to become involved with the experimental Group Theatre, for whom he wrote a number of plays.
In 1938, he was to complete two of his most important works. Modern Poetry, a book of criticism, is invaluable in outlining the poet’s own taste and attitudes to poetry, whilst the part-lyric, part-didactic 'Autumn Journal' is considered one of the finest poems of the decade.
In 'Autumn Journal' the personal narrative is conjoined with the story of the historic public events that were taking place, thus recording MacNeice’s response to the rise of Hitler, Munich and the defeat of the Czechs and the Spanish civil war.
In 1940 and following a sojourn to America, MacNeice approached the BBC offering his services in writing plays and verse that might be broadcast as propaganda. The BBC would recruit many other writers, including George Orwell and William Empson, at this time for the very same purpose. Indeed many were enrolled on a crash-course designed to teach them how to become propagandists.
However, it seems unlikely that MacNeice himself ever attended the ‘liars school’, as the pupils sneeringly referred to it. Nevertheless MacNeice quickly distinguished himself at the corporation and it was not long before he was offered a staff position in the Features Department. It was also at this time that he would meet singer Hedli Anderson, whom he would marry after a brief courtship.
The relationship with the BBC was one of the most enduring and productive that MacNeice would enjoy, although some would suggest that the demands the corporation placed on him stifled his poetic talent. His abilities were utilised in a variety of endeavours, as he worked on scripts, plays, travelogues and features.
Perhaps the most acclaimed of all the work that MacNeice would produce for the BBC was the ‘parable play’ The Dark Tower. With Cyril Cusack cast as Roland, the play’s protagonist, and a score by Benjamin Britten, The Dark Tower was both melodrama and a powerful allegory for the end of the second world war.
In 1950, MacNeice was granted one and a half years’ leave from the BBC to become Director of the British Institute in Athens. His influence on the institute was invigorating as he quickly established a diverse range of cultural events.
Frenetic socialising also marked his time in Greece and he was a regular attendee at institute parties. When his stay at the British Institute ended MacNeice returned to London and the BBC for whom he would devote his energies to writing travel features.
In 1960, his second marriage would fall apart and early that same year MacNeice began a relationship with the actress Mary Wimbush. Wimbush (who had acted in a 1949 production of The Dark Tower and a number of MacNeice’s subsequent programmes) would remain with the poet for the rest of his life.
These final years saw little let-up in productivity with MacNeice continuing to write plays and poetry. His final collection of poetry The Burning Perch (1963) highlights his fecundity and ingenuity and is considered by many to equal if not surpass the work contained in previous collections.
In 1963, MacNeice was working on the production of features concerned with rural matters when he contracted viral pneumonia and was hospitalised. On the evening of September 2 the BBC broadcast his last play Persons from Porlock
. Early the following morning, on St MacNissi’s Day, the poet passed away.
He is buried in Carrowdore, County Down beside his mother and grandfather. Derek Mahon poignantly acknowledges the debt owed to MacNeice by a generation of Northern poets in his elegy ‘In Carrowdore Churchyard’:
This, you implied is how we ought to live –
The ironical, loving crush of roses against snow,
Each fragile, solving ambiguity. So
From the pneumonia of the ditch, from the ague
Of the blind poet and the bombed-out town you bring
The all-clear to the empty holes of spring;
Rinsing the choked mud, keeping the colours new.
Louis MacNeice (1995) by Jon Stallworthy; Louis MacNeice in the BBC (1980) by Barbara Coulton; Louis MacNeice: Poems selected by Michael Longley (2001).