To combine political nuance with personal reflection is a trick many poets have tried: nearly all have failed. That Louis MacNeice pulled it off it time and again might seem a testament to his age, I suppose, but really should be put down to an energetic, exacting, chameleonic mind with an extraordinary breadth of reference, sympathy, and vocabulary. It must also I think reveal a talent for succinct storytelling, the results of which can be seen in this `unfinished autobiography', reissued two years ago on the anniversary of the poet's birth.
This coruscating book is indispensable reading for anyone interested in the England of the inter-war years, in Northern Ireland, the Spanish Civil War, Anglo-American relations, or in the falling of impressions on the mind of a poet whose gifts translate beautifully into prose. MacNeice visits Jack Yeats, brother of the poet and Ireland's most important painter, and describes him 'slashing the paint on thick but with subtle precision, building up obscure phantasmagorias, combining an impressionist technique with a melodramatic fancy'. Apart from missing MacNeice's acute political sensibility and knack for synthesis this describes his own prose quite well, though the results are not much like Jack Yeats's paintings: the dreams which are woven through the text, and MacNeice's penetrating exaggerations about nations and people and politics are somehow as true to life as any more sober reflection.
The book begins in America in 1940, but dives back to take in MacNeice's upbringing in cold, stony, Carrickfergus under the eye of his Protestant rector father. Still, the atmosphere of sun and fields in this early recollection might be put down to the presence of his mother, who seems to have brought life and love to the household before becoming suddenly depressed and ill, and finally leaving for a nursing home when the poet was only five and a half. A year later she died of tuberculosis (as we are informed by a note by Louis's sister), and Louis was left with little but biting memories of his few minor sulks and indiscretions towards the end and a picture of her `walking up and down the bottom path of the garden, the path under the hedge that was always in shadow, talking to my sister and weeping'. The family is taken on by a flinty nanny and the memoir becomes fittingly granity: 'showing off', as Louis learns, is now considered a sin.
Fortunately it is a lesson MacNeice never fully learnt. At school in England he adopts the character of an outsider, playing on his Irishness to form a make-believe persona, and clinging to what Louis reports as his father's nationalism. At Marlborough and Oxford MacNeice's self-possession is disturbed but we see his poetic sensibilities develop, especially in a gift for friendship. His marriage and domestic life in Birmingham are intimately described, although a real sense of MacNeice's feelings is obscured: as in his poetry, he acts chiefly as an acute observer. It is in this role he travels to Iceland and to revolutionary Spain, and his scepticism about abstract political idealism is cemented. His political engagement however is not diminished.
The memoir circles back to where we began, and we now understand what takes MacNeice to America is a private rendezvous, about which he is reticent, not simply the public concerns we have assumed. His privacy in a memoir is surprising, but he takes a classical view of the public demands of the writer: and as a Tiresias figure we realize his insight and his wanderings are not over. The autobiography itself closes with a memoir from a longtime friend opening up new avenues into his personality. The text is collated by MacNeice's old friend the classicist E.P.Dodds and sparingly annotated. But as a insight into its times as much as its author it has few equals.
Louis MacNeice, The Strings Are False: An Unfinished Autobiography. London: Faber & Faber, 1965, 2007. 288pp. £9.99.