Born in Belfast Frederick Louis MacNeice was an outsider almost from the beginning. His family moved to Carrickfergus, County Antrim, soon after his birth. His father, John Frederick MacNeice, although a minister and eventually a bishop of the Anglo-Irish Church of Ireland, favored Home Rule, believed in ecumenical cooperation, and spoke out against the Protestant bigotry and violence in Northern Ireland. When MacNeice was six, his mother, Elizabeth Margaret MacNeice, who was suffering from severe depression, entered a nursing home in Dublin; he did not see her again, and she died in December 1914 of tuberculosis. His father remarried when young MacNeice was ten, and thereafter MacNeice was educated at English schools. At Sherborne Preparatory School in Dorset and later at Marlborough College, he found the promise of a wider and more colorful world than the puritan rectory of his father and stepmother. He lost his Irish accent and abandoned his baptismal first name of Frederick and his father’s faith. He could never again feel entirely at home in his father’s house or in Ireland, but he never lost a sense of himself as an Irishman in England, and his imagination returned again and again to childhood fears and memories.
MacNeice was raised among books and began writing poetry at the age of seven. By the time he went up to Merton College at Oxford in 1926, his reading included such modern poets as and . Troubled by his “lack of belief or system, ” he studied metaphysics without advancing much beyond the “vague epicureanism” with which he had begun. It is mainly as a young aesthete that he appears in the four poems he contributed to Oxford Poetry, 1929 and his undergraduate collection, Blind Fireworks (1929). His foreword to Blind Fireworks compares its poems to Chinese fireworks, “artificial and yet random; because they go quickly through their antics against an important background, and fall and go out quickly.” The poems invite us to admire the poet’s versatility in versification and cleverness in imagery. Except in some poems reflecting childhood and family experiences, the sharp observations of the everyday world which is one of MacNeice’s later strengths is not much in evidence, despite the contemporary flavor of the diction. The underlying melancholy which characterizes much of his work is already in evidence, but it sometimes seems melodramatically heightened. More than most young poets, MacNeice had assimilated his influences so that his poetry does not seem derivative in manner, but one is left with a bright young man who can speak in his own voice but has not yet settled what he is to speak about.
MacNeice was certainly bright enough to master his studies, though he affected to be bored by them. He took a first in Honors Mods. in 1928. His further studies took second place to his courtship of the stepdaughter of an Oxford scholar Giovanna Marie Therese Babette Ezra, to whom he dedicated Blind Fireworks. At one point he was forced to wire his teetotaling rector father “that I had been put in gaol for drunkenness and was engaged to marry a Jewess, ” but the authorities allowed him to remain at Oxford, his parents were reconciled to his prospective bride, and MacNeice took another first in Greats. In 1930, he married his Mary and took a position as an assistant lecturer in classics at Birmingham University.
MacNeice was less pleased with teaching than he had anticipated; the students of Birmingham were not the students of Oxford, and he found more congenial the workingmen he drank with in pubs. He admired his colleague E. R. Dodds, but felt no inclination to become a scholar. His time as a classicist and his friendship with Dodds did, however, bear fruit later in MacNeice’s translation of The Agamemnon of Aeschylus (1936), produced by the experimental Group Theatre in 1937 with music by Benjamin Britten. This translation remains one of the best modern poetic translations of any Greek drama; as such, it is probably more widely read currently than MacNeice’s original work.
MacNeice’s early married life was idyllic—too much so, by his own account, for the poet in him: “To write poems expressing doubt or melancholy, an anarchist conception of freedom or nostalgia for the open spaces (and these were the things that I wanted to express), seemed disloyal to Mariette. Instead I was disloyal to myself, wrote a novel which purported to be an idyll of domestic felicity.” This novel, Roundabout Way (1932), was a failure. He may have written another novel in the 1930s; if so, it was never published. Casting about for writing outlets, he also wrote Station Bell (unpublished), a surreal farce about Irish politics produced by the Birmingham University Dramatic Society in 1937.
Whatever uncertainties may have afflicted MacNeice as a poet in the early 1930s, Poems (1935) shows a real advance in his work. In Birmingham, the urban imagery which he had learned to admire in Eliot became part of his own felt experience. In poems such as “Belfast, ” “Birmingham, ” “Sunday Morning, ” and “An Eclogue for Christmas, ” the poet speaks as a city dweller in an unforced way, observing the scene with detached but sympathetic irony. This characteristic detachment also marks his political stance. MacNeice’s personal sympathies were with the Left, but “To a Communist” responds to one whose “thoughts make shape like snow” with reminders of the intractable particularity and variety of the earth and its weather. “An Eclogue for Christmas” offers some images of violent revolution—”sniggering machine guns in the hands of the young men”—but MacNeice’s love is for “ephemeral things” rather than “pitiless abstractions.” He seems identified with the voice of “The Individualist Speaks, ” who hopes to “escape, with my dog, on the far side of the Fair.”
Poems (1935) helped establish MacNeice as one of the bright new poets of the 1930s. accepted the volume for Faber & Faber, who were to remain MacNeice’s English publishers for his poetry. In “Postscript 1936, ” written for a new edition of his A Hope for Poetry (1934), C. Day Lewis described MacNeice’s book as “in some ways the most interesting of the poetical work produced in the last two years, ” a comparison which took into account important works by Eliot, Auden, Spender, Empson, and Day Lewis himself.
But 1935 was also the year in which MacNeice’s personal world fell apart. His wife suddenly left him and their year-old son, running away with a young American graduate student who had been staying with them in Birmingham. The MacNeices were formally divorced in 1936. MacNeice eventually wrote more and better poetry about the loss of his wife than he had ever written about their marital bliss, but it took him some time to recover from the blow. He plunged himself into his work and sought other distractions, vacationing in Spain with his friend Anthony Blunt and in Iceland with Auden. With his friend Dodds leaving for Oxford, MacNeice felt isolated in Birmingham and accepted a lectureship in Greek at Bedford College of the University of London.
MacNeice continued to try his hand at drama. At least one play from this time (“Blacklegs”) remains unstaged and unpublished, but the Group Theatre, which had staged his Agamemnon translation, accepted another play, this time written with them in mind, Out of the Picture (produced and published in 1937). In this play, MacNeice’s own interest may have been in the central character, a failed (or failing) artist, but whatever possibilities the story may have had are swallowed up in surrealistic farcical tragedy, political caricatures, and theatrical tricks. It belongs to roughly the same genre as Auden and Christopher Isherwood’s The Dog Beneath the Skin (1935), but it was less successful than its model or MacNeice’s Agamemnon.
MacNeice’s most interesting work in the years dominated by the loss of his wife was his collaboration with Auden on Letters from Iceland (1937). One of the most entertaining travel books of this century, it is also one of the oddest. In the poem which closes the book, MacNeice cites Auden as saying that “the North begins inside, ” and the book as a whole has more to say about the interior life of its authors and about the world they left behind them than it does about Iceland. There are, it is true, two prose chapters recounting their trip to Iceland and giving specific advice to would-be travelers there, but poetry bulks larger than prose in the volume, and its tone is set by five chapters devoted to a long “letter” in terza rima from Auden to Lord Byron. Besides the W. H. Auden MacNeice contributed a “letter” in heroic couplets (to his friends Graham and Anna Shepard) and an “Eclogue from Iceland, ” while collaborating with Auden on a “Last Will and Testament.” The only one of these to rise above amusing occasional verse is the “Eclogue from Iceland, ” in which the main speakers are Craven (Auden), Ryan (MacNeice), and the ghost of a saga hero, with interruptions from a self-pitying Voice of Europe. The ghost advises the touring poets to go back to their native lands to fight the good fight, pat advice that seems especially ironic in light of Auden’s later immigration to America and MacNeice’s continued rejection of Ireland. The book attracted considerable critical attention and helped MacNeice’s career, though it is Auden’s “Letter to Byron” which has given it such durability as it possesses.
Offers from publishers led to two MacNeice books published in 1938, I Crossed the Minch and Zoo. In his autobiography MacNeice describes these as “prose books for which I had no vocation but which, I thought to myself, I could do as well as the next man. It flattered me that publishers should ask me to do something unsuitable.” I Crossed the Minch, a journal of a trip to the Hebrides, is perhaps better than these remarks suggest. Lacking any knowledge of Gaelic and finding the islands distressingly modern, MacNeice contributes no new insights about the Hebrides, but his digressions in poetry and prose are often amusing. Zoo offers impressions of the London zoo with side trips to the Paris zoo and the city of Belfast; MacNeice shows no special sympathy with his subjects.
A more important prose work from 1938 is Modern Poetry. Several “case-book” chapters record MacNeice’s own development as a poet. The book as a whole offers a defense of modern poetry, in particular the poetry of Auden, Spender, Day Lewis, and MacNeice himself. MacNeice wants to reduce the romantic distinction between the poet and the ordinary man. His poet is concerned with communication, though he is no propagandist but “a blend of the entertainer and the critic or informer.” The poet looks, in fact, rather like MacNeice himself: “I would have a poet able-bodied, fond of talking, a reader of the newspapers, capable of pity and laughter, informed in economics, appreciative of women, involved in personal relationships, actively interested in politics, susceptible to physical impressions.” Although taken by some at the time as a manifesto for the Auden group’s poetry of social commitment, Modern Poetry treats political beliefs as just one sort of belief which may animate a poet, and it insists that all such beliefs must be disciplined by personal observation.