Anne Margaret Daniel

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Louis MacNeice, T.S. Eliot, High and low Modernism, and a long friendship

"The Ladies Would Say he Looked Like a Poet": T.S. Eliot and the Selling of Louis MacNeice

MacNeice, Ted Hughes, Eliot, W.H. Auden and Stephen Spender at Faber & Faber, June 1963

“The ladies would say that he looked like a poet:” Tom and the selling of Louis
Anne Margaret Daniel

On 2 March 1939, T.S. Eliot wrote a quick letter to his old friend Willard Thorp in the English department at Princeton University from his offices at Faber and Faber. Eliot and Thorp, an American literature scholar and leading authority on Herman Melville, knew each other through two women: Margaret Thorp, Willard’s wife, was the oldest friend of Eliot’s dear friend – and perhaps more – Emily Hale. This friendship between Margaret and Emily is why twelve large brown cardboard boxes of more than a thousand letters from Eliot to Hale ended up under seal in the Princeton University library, ribbed in iron bands and not to be opened until 1 January 2020. What these letters reveal remains a mystery for another decade, but Eliot’s letter to Thorp is crystal-clear in its purpose and meaning. In it, Eliot complains that he must write “in haste to catch the Queen Mary” before it sails, and the letter is accordingly succinct: he wants Louis MacNeice to be invited to come to Princeton for a reading. As poetry editor for Faber, Eliot had finally – after MacNeice had been sending him poems since 1932 – deemed MacNeice worth publishing by the firm, and he was now happy to promote MacNeice in America, even as a world was going to war once more.

Introducing him to Thorp, Eliot left the “a” out of Mac, but got it right that MacNeice taught Greek at Bedford College. Eliot had already set up the trip to America for MacNeice – “I have got him engagements at Harvard and Wellesley – I don’t seem to know anybody at Yale” – but wanted a few more readings to help MacNeice pay his travel expenses. Of course Thorp was welcome to say no; Eliot reminded him a bit too politely that he was welcome not to “BOTHER to do anything at all.” But Thorp couldn’t possibly have turned down the request, and indeed he didn’t, when Eliot concluded his introduction of MacNeice with “He has a good deal of charm, and the ladies would say that he looked like a poet.”

Princeton’s library, like many excellent research libraries, has a wealth of manuscript material, scattered among many collections. It’s not always easy to trace what is to, from, and about Louis MacNeice, but in T.S. Eliot’s unpublished correspondence to Thorp and Allen Tate, among others, there are some fascinating moments in the behind-the-scenes building-up of a poet. And in MacNeice’s own correspondence with some of the contacts he made through Eliot, and their own still-unpublished memories of him, we can also see the professional, and personal, friendships Eliot fostered for MacNeice. Eliot is not always a help, though. Note that in the letter to Thorp, it is the ladies who say he looks like a poet, and not his editor who says he is a poet. The correspondence is rich and full of small surprises about both Eliot and MacNeice, and adds immensely to our knowledge of both poets and their sometimes complementary with an e, sometimes complimentary with an i, and sometimes competitive, relationship.

Eliot discovered MacNeice when MacNeice set out to be noticed by him, and contacted him accordingly, in January of 1932. When did MacNeice discover Eliot? From his earliest youthful recordings, as compiled by Jon Stallworthy in his excellent biography of the poet, we know that MacNeice had a crush on America – a crush that would turn into a lifelong relationship.

And his first surviving poem sounds rather to me like it could start a volume called Old Possum’s Book of Practical Birds: MacNeice recalled his youthful rules for poetry thus: “use thou instead of you and make the ends of the lines rhyme with each other, no specific emotion or ‘poetic’ content required. Here is a poem about a live parrot I had seen in a neighbour’s house:
O parrot, thou hast grey feathers
Which thou peckest in all weathers.
And thy curled beak
Could make me squeak;
Thy tail I admire
As red as fire
And as red as a carrot,
Thy tail I admire,
Thou cross old parrot.

America, rhyme, high diction, and no specific emotion: the little dark-haired boy is already primed for the Eliotic. Being sent away to school created another, and an unlikely, connection, when MacNeice arrived in a place just up the road from the Eliots’ ancestral village. He was pixilated by Sherborne, and the surrounding landscape – overwhelmed by the nature he saw and found both in the fields and hedgerows, and buried in the earth. This part of Somerset is a gorgeous golden place still; Thomas Wyatt still lies buried in Sherborne Abbey, boys still find fossils in the riverbanks, and along a heartstoppingly lovely drive south by southeast is the idyllic, almost theme-park beautiful village of East Coker, where the sheep all stand out as if freshly washed against the improbable green of the hills, the Helyar Arms is one of the best pubs in all England, and T.S. Eliot’s grave is in the church.

MacNeice’s first memorization for school was of course something English, and not contemporary – it was “The Burial of Sir John Moore,” so gorgeously parodied by Nigel Molesworth as a twentieth-century English-schoolboy staple. Then he learned Gray’s “Ode on the Death of a Favorite Cat” and Browning’s “Home Thoughts from Abroad.” MacNeice liked heroic poems, and also, as he recalled, Herrick’s “Julia,” though most of the 17th and 18th century left him cold.

Like Eliot, he had a fine and early sense of the theatrical. Recall Eliot’s youthful interest in dramatics, and his participations at Harvard. Recall, too, his playing the role of St. Sebastian – also a favorite of MacNeice’s – and wearing green makeup at London parties to manifest the misery of his marriage to Vivienne. MacNeice also shared Eliot’s love of musical theater and the music hall – that Shakespeherian rag side of Eliot, the side of Eliot that danced the Grizzly Bear with Virginia Woolf (a video we can only be glad, or immensely sad, will never appear on YouTube). One of MacNeice’s happiest school memories was the moment after games and a run, with quintessentially English music as a soundtrack: “when you got back into the communal bathroom even lukewarm water would bite you until gradually getting reacclimatized you sunk into your tub, wonderfully relaxed in an underworld of steam and dim pink bodies humming Gilbert and Sullivan.”

MacNeice was smitten with Malory, Keats, and Yeats before Eliot got to him: at Marlborough, Louis’s early poems for the school paper sound for all the world like outtakes from “The Wanderings of Oisin” and other Yeats works of the late 1880s, particularly “The Stolen Child.” An example:
Death comes for the prominent businessman:
Come you away to the black peat bog,
The driving sleet and the drifting rain,
Where the wee folk weave from the pith of the reed
And the world is rid of financial greed
And the gentry dance in a chain.

Were there any doubt the young man was a poet, that “gentry dance in a chain” dispels it. And, more humorously, the fact that in his next published poem Louis rhymes unwashed lad and Trinidad.
Finally, at Marlborough, the young rhymer encountered the word of Eliot. He tells how he and Anthony Blunt “went in for eclectic reading; it was either stark and realistic or precious and remote and two-dimensional. We read Tolstoy and Dostoevski and Beckford’s Vathek, Thomas Hardy and Crebillon fils, Blake and Lucretius, lives of Cezanne and Van Gogh, the three Sitwells, Lord Dunsany’s fairy stories, Edward Lear and T.S. Eliot and Aldous Huxley.” Huxley, accompanying Eliot and Lear, two masters of the manner in which rhyme and nonsense could carve out a way to make sense in a shattered, illogical, nonsensical brave new world: their Modernist lessons MacNeice learned well.

His friend John Hilton saw the impact Eliot had straightaway on MacNeice, when MacNeice recommended some poems “’by a new poet,’ T.S. Eliot, to a reading organized by the [Marlborough] Literary Society.” Though impressed by Eliot, MacNeice was not an Eliot fan at first, insisting to Hilton that Eliot’s “’subject-matter was very ugly, I did not like his form, and I found him very obscure.’” Soon, though, MacNeice had studied “Eliot’s principles, [and] he warmed to his technique – ‘the blend of conversation and incantation, the deliberate flatnesses, the quick cutting, the so-called free association.’”

MacNeice arrived in 1926 at an Oxford that was, in his memorable words, “just at the end of its period of postwar deliberate decadence – the careful matching of would-be putrescent colours.” Oxford was quite over-the-top, or perhaps under-the-bottom, in those days, a riotous and languid Brideshead-Revisited place where life and literature, fact and fictions, re-created each other, and recreated with each other. “We used to organize readings of plays such as the Jew of Malta or The White Devil in a room lit by candles stuck in beer-bottles and a skull on the table with radishes in its eye-sockets. We brought strange fruits such as persimmons and passion-fruit, and I got myself an ashplant in order to be like Stephen Dedalus[.]” If this isn’t, Stephen Dedalus perhaps excepted, an Eliotic world then what is? One can’t read a line of MacNeice’s Oxford recollections without recalling Evelyn Waugh’s Anthony Blanche, reciting “The Waste Land” from his balcony at the returning rowers; or Auden’s crystalline description to Lord Byron of what happened to him, Spender, MacNeice, and their circle of young Oxford poets at that time and place:
A raw provincial, my good taste was tardy
And Edward Thomas I as yet preferred;
I was still listening to Thomas Hardy
Putting divinity about a bird
But Eliot spoke the still unspoken word;
For gasworks and dried tubers I forsook
The clock at Grantchester, the English rook.

In the wake of Great Tom, what in the world could a young poet do? Auden suggested weeping, drinking oneself unconscious, taking to one’s bed behind a locked door, swinging from chandeliers, and/​or being sick in a corner; “the sobering few /​ Are trying hard to think of something new.” That’s the lyrical view of the overwhelming weight of Eliot – and do remember that, in 1926, Eliot is only 38, with miles to go before he sleeps. A sharper observation came years later, in prose, from MacNeice: “However sheltered our young lives, however rural our normal surroundings, however pre-Industrial Revolution our education, we knew in our bones … that this which Eliot expressed so succinctly and vividly, this was what we were up against.”

Gollancz published MacNeice’s first book of poems, Blind Fireworks, in 1929. The collection is full of reminiscences of infancy and schoolboy days not so long past, of human voices and seafilled endings, of clocks and stopping time, and particularly musings on modern modes of transportation: trams, and trains, and taxis throbbing waiting. Of course, Eliot didn’t have the franchise on all these things and themes, but I think they most certainly were, here, inspired by him.

With this published book under his belt, a novel in progress, and a job in Birmingham, MacNeice in January 1932 sent his poems to Eliot. No reply. Giving Eliot the benefit of the doubt in April, MacNeice wrote an apologetic, but insistent, letter as a follow-up: “I think that only a few of them stand on their own merits, but that as a collection and arranged in a certain order they would supplement each other and make an aggregate of some value. Whereas if I chose a dozen individuals, they would remain, perhaps, merely individuals. It seems to me (as far as I can see myself) that I am not sufficiently in a school for my poems to be readily significant; therefore they have to build up their own explanation. This is my apology for what may seem a haphazard mass of indifferent or casual verses.” That qualifying, self-defending use of seem and seems is worth noting. Along with if and as if, and many thousand woulds, coulds, and shoulds, “seems” is the one of the commonest words in Modernist writing. Hamlet knew it for a non-verb that fails to commit – “Seems, madam? Nay, it is; I know not ‘seems’” – but that is exactly why Modern writers so love it. Woolf’s writing is rife with the qualifying, the conditional, as is Faulkner’s and – most particularly – Eliot’s. Eliot refused these seeming-haphazard poems for Faber, but called them interesting, and put a couple, “The Creditor” and “Trapeze,” in The Criterion. He also invited MacNeice to review books for his journal.

Eliot turned down MacNeice’s revised poems once more in 1933, terming them “not quite ripe for publication,” but suggesting yet more work. “I think that my feeling is largely a practical and tactical one. I think that a first volume ought, if possible, to be able to start off with one or two longish poems which will arrest the attention of the reader at once[.]”

What Eliot asks for are longer poems – like his own – and in a style very suited to MacNeice too. Passing over the fact that this would not be a “first book” of poems, MacNeice had already started writing his Eclogues, and kept them up after Eliot’s advice came. In August 1934 he sent a mix of new and revised poems back to Eliot, and finally, made it. Eliot liked them at last. “It seems to me that the new poems are quite the best that you have done, and if you go on in this way, you may have a few more to add to or to substitute for a few of the earlier poems before the book goes to press. In any case I congratulate you on this collection.” Again, that qualifying, excusing “seems.” MacNeice has already become a prince of the present-day trend to avoid linguistic commitment and qualify with the conditional, but in any Eliot poem, or prose piece, or letter, we can see who’s the king. Faber finally published Poems in 1935.

Eliot liked MacNeice’s next solo offering (following his collaboration with Auden, Letters From Iceland), “The Earth Compels,” saying “I am very much pleased with it” – but not so much pleased that he didn’t insist on a few changes. He also wanted particular changes to “Autumn Journal.” Eliot thought “Autumn Journal” “very good indeed. At times I was much moved, and what is still more unusual in the case of a single long poem, I found that I read it through without my interest flagging at any point. That is due partly to the dexterity with which you vary the versification, and, I think, to the fact that the imagery is all imagery of things lived through, and not merely chosen for poetic suggestiveness.” Eliot liked its verisimilitude, perhaps, but not its politics. He didn’t particularly want to think about the Spanish Civil War, and while Eliot got the point that bringing in the Oxford by-election “has a definite symbolic value,” he was sorry to see MacNeice “simplify the issue so much” without realizing MacNeice’s irony.

However, MacNeice’s confidence had grown – in the wake of at least critically successful plays and of his Modern Poetry – and he didn’t give in to Eliot’s grousing about politics and change the poem. After all, MacNeice did care about politics: “Bagpipe Music” would have been a very different poem if he hadn’t, and, as he remembered from his college days, “I was hurt when [Anthony] Blunt denounced politics as beneath the attention of a civilized person. Most politics, yes, but not Irish politics. If I had one foot poised over untrodden asphodel, the other was still clamped to the ankle in the bogs.”

In mid-October 1938 MacNeice asked Eliot if he could help to get a few invitations to some American universities during the Easter vacation. Eliot did indeed fire off some letters – including the one to Thorp that he didn’t send until March – and helped MacNeice set up a lecture tour that started in New York. One of Auden’s friends remembered MacNeice lecturing on Modern trends in English poetry and prose: “Calm and handsome in a Donegal tweed suit and suede shoes, he read without the slightest change of emphasis poems that were either playfully light and intricate or casually grim and touched with the forebodings of Neville Chamberlain’s England.” Auden read too, that night. And after the reading a young blond man in the audience came up to find him and speak to him for the first time: his name was Chester Kallman.

Willard Thorp had thoughtfully paved the way for MacNeice’s Princeton lecture with a few of his own. Having gotten Eliot’s letter, and agreed to help out, Thorp first contacted MacNeice and invited him. MacNeice’s grateful replies survive in Thorp’s correspondence files: on 25 March 1939, he wrote from New York to “Dear Mr Sharp” (MacNeice being no better here with names than his editor) that he wanted to come to Princeton on 14 or 15 April, proposing to “give a talk on English poetry since the (Great) War.”

In the interim, Thorp presented what the campus paper, The Daily Princetonian (the Prince) called a “Popular-demand series on American and English poets” to include “Eliot, Crane, and Auden.” Why the need for these four extracurricular lectures? Because, as the Prince put it in a banner headline, “University courses ignore subject of modern verse.” “Not since 1936,” when Thorp and another English professor collaborated on “a series on modern literature, [had] Princeton undergrads been offered a related set of talks on contemporary verse. None of the University’s current courses cover the topic.” Thorp’s first lecture, on 20 March, was entitled “Imagism and the War Over Free Verse”; in it, while talking of T.E. Hulme, HD, Richard Aldington, and Ezra Pound, Thorp said succinctly that “the real contribution of imagism to literature is the exploration of a special technique used to achieve certain ends, but which cannot be expected to bear the weight of profound thought.”

The next lecture, much anticipated, was on Eliot. Thorp let Eliot rather speak for himself at first, reading aloud “The Game of Chess” and “Burial of the Dead” from “The Waste Land.” He then described Eliot “as a sensitive artist using Restoration wit at unexpected moments to produce desired effects and eventually finding a path out of the despair-filled ‘wasteland’ of the postwar years.” In his last lecture, Thorp spoke on Auden, Spender, Day Lewis and MacNeice, saving, in his opinion, the best for last. He “noted that ‘not all the poets of the new generation have taken the road to Moscow – and the best of them is Louis MacNeice.’” Thorp cited ‘To a Communist’ as an example of MacNeice’s poetry.
“Poetry Since the War” was MacNeice’s topic, on the following evening – Friday, 14 April – and he delivered it not on campus but in town, at the Nassau Tavern. The Prince gave him a fine advance notice:
"Although not yet 35, MacNeice is considered one of the 20th-century’s leading poets. Along with a number of left-wing writers, he has recently been attempting a renaissance in English poetry. The influence of MacNeice’s group has made itself felt as far afield as this country…. MacNeice’s contributions to poetry two years ago were collected under the title Poems. Besides this work he was closely connected with W.H. Auden in the publication of the satirical Letters From Iceland. Modern Poetry, a volume in a difficult field, was also recently published. In his work MacNeice has played a significant part in the field of literature creating a fresh and muscular idiom for present-day Anglo-American poetry. Realizing the importance of its guest, the [Poetry] Club is deviating from its usual procedure and opening the meeting to all undergraduates and members of the faculty. The entrance fee for non-members is 50 cents."

MacNeice spoke to a full house that night, and the evening went late and long. Leaning on Walter Pater and select contemporaries, MacNeice also, evidently, bit the hand that fed him – or at least administered to Eliot a swift nip. “Pointing out that a poet’s function should be to resolve this complicated age into something simple and clear cut,” MacNeice read from Wilfred Owen, Auden, and Spender as examples. “In the discussion of the works of T.S. Eliot the young poet questioned the policy of writing obscure and subtle poetry because of our complicated age.” MacNeice also “stated that poets should not write propaganda but should write art for art’s sake alone. Furthermore, he must write what he feels. When questioned as to whether art could be propaganda at the same time, he replied that it could, but that it must be the poet’s sincere feeling.” MacNeice concluded his formal talk with a reading of his own work, the unpublished “Autumn Journal.” “Following the talk there was considerable discussion of modern poetry, its message, and its significance.” The Prince doesn’t say how late the “considerable discussion” went, but the Nassau Inn was likely livelier that night than was its already wee-hours wont.

On 9 May 1939 Eliot wrote to thank Thorp “for taking on Mcneice; I expect to see him soon and hear about it. I gather that he enjoyed his visit thoroughly.” Indeed he must have, and this evidently got Eliot thinking about possibilities not for MacNeice, but for himself: at the letter’s close Eliot mentions that a lectureship at Princeton, possibly in conjunction with getting Family Reunion ready for Broadway, “would suit me almost better than anywhere” depending, he qualifies, on how things in the world are by autumn 1940. The world turned, and he didn’t come to Princeton until 1948, when, as a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study, Eliot received the news of his Nobel Prize.

The American contacts that Eliot arranged for MacNeice on this tour and soon thereafter might have been with laconic introduction and touched by Eliot’s self-interest to a degree, but Eliot cannot be faulted, as they resulted in lifelong friendships for MacNeice. Another letter of Eliot’s went to Allen Tate, in 1940 while MacNeice was at Cornell, and Tate and MacNeice became good friends quickly. Tate had gotten to know Eliot after Eliot rejected his poems in 1927, as follows: “I like this stuff very much in some respects but it seems to me, if I may say so, that you are a little tied up in your own tail at present, but I am sure that it will get straightened out in time. Do continue to let me see things from time to time.” Tate did continue, and he and Eliot were soon close, their letters full of an Americanness, and particularly a Southernness, that Eliot clearly reveled in, from colloquial dialect riffs about the Civil War to praise of bourbon, and of course much discussion of poetry and poets. A happy example is this Joycean note Eliot wrote Tate from Harvard in 1933: “if theres talk of juleps before breakfast I says there wheres theres juleps befire Breakfast theres my squurrettual home in a manner of speaking…you will always find, hopin you the best, yrs respectfully TSEliot.”

In October 1952, when MacNeice and his wife Hedli came to America on what MacNeice called their “lecture-cum-singing-cum reading tour” being coordinated by John Malcolm Brinnin at the Poetry Center in New York, he wrote to Tate, “If you feel like inviting us to Minneapolis – and can pay for us! – would you please contact Brinnin about it? … In any case, even if you can’t afford us, I hope we shall meet somewhere in America while we are over.” Tate came through. Caroline Gordon Tate wrote approvingly to Margaret Thorp, from Minneapolis, “Louis read some of his poems the other night. Allen says that he is even more impressed by them now that he’s heard him read than he was before.”
On 2 August 1963, from his new country home in Aldbury, MacNeice wrote happily to Tate and his new wife Isabella: “please let us know when you hit this little old vice-ridden capital. Have a new book of poems in proof to show you – said he egocentrically – all thumbnail nightmares. Apart from that, all is fine. You must come & see our new residence – too Olde Rose Cottage to be true.” The “thumbnail nightmares” were the posthumously published poems of The Burning Perch. On the margin of the letter, in Tate’s hand: “My last letter from Louis.”

Upon MacNeice’s unexpected and premature death at 55, a month after he wrote this note to Tate, Eliot was too stunned – and too beset with similar health problems of his own – to say more than the few words he provided to the Times. MacNeice died of a sudden lung infection that became pneumonia. Since early 1963, Eliot, a longtime smoker and sufferer from lung troubles, had been in very poor health; only his good friends really knew this. He worked out a cunning plan to stop smoking, as he explained to Tate in 1956: “The first thing is to have a very thorough fright. The second is to be put into bed for several weeks on top of the fright. People vary in this respect, but I never feel any desire to smoke in bed. My third tip is to take up cigar smoking.” By the year MacNeice died, Eliot was quite ill with both lung and heart trouble. Valerie Eliot had written to Tate on 2 February 1963 about Eliot’s health:

"Tom came home about a fortnight ago after five weeks under continuous oxygen in Brompton Hospital. As you may know, he has suffered from emphysema for years and the struggle to breathe has thrown a tremendous strain on his heart. When the four-day smog – easily the worst I’ve ever experienced – appeared early in December he collapsed….Happily he is making a good recovery, although his heart is not yet stable… He is very serene and helps himself in every way, including the obedient swallowing of 26 tablets a day. Visitors are forbidden."

Eliot, though, elegized MacNeice graciously and movingly in the Times (in a clipping that Tate preserved). Said Eliot, MacNeice “had the Irishman’s unfailing ear for the music of verse, and he never published a line that is not good reading.” He felt there was “little that I can add to the encomiums of Louis MacNeice which have already appeared in the press, except the expression of my own grief and shock. The grief one must feel at the death of a poet of genius, younger than oneself, and the shock of his unexpected death just as my firm had ready for publication a new volume of his verse.” Eliot’s use of the third person here is exactly like Woolf’s, shifting from the personal “I” to the distancing, less painfully proximate “one” and “oneself.” Eliot emphasizes, too, a combined, and inseparable, sense of his own genuine upset, and the loss to Faber – the company had become his alter ego, in some deep-running way, by then. The loss to him is compelled, and severe.

Allen Tate remembered his friend for the BBC, and saved, in his last file of correspondence with MacNeice, the transcript of his radio broadcast recorded in London on 6 December 1963. In it, Tate conjures a figure of a man whose poetry and personality are, in the end, touched by Eliotic stereotype but firmly individual:

"Some friends described him as ‘distant,’ hard to get at; I never found him so. He was not reticent; he had something that looked superficially like it but was actually quite different: he was restrained. He never talked about himself – it was always about something over there. This detachment was never cold, and it was not objective; it simply acknowledged the immense reality swirling about us, and about which we can do little but attend to it. And that made him a good listener."

This fellow poet, whose connection to MacNeice began and thrived through Eliot as everyone’s mutual friend, understood the most fundamental difference between Eliot and MacNeice, what set MacNeice most apart from his longtime editor, publisher, mentor, and model. Tate, a Modernist himself, needed to gentle his opinion with a well-placed seems, but it does not weaken the point he makes about MacNeice’s poetic soul: ”He seemed to have been born without illusions; so he could not be disillusioned.”

Anne Margaret Daniel
Copyright AMDaniel and Queens University Belfast 2010