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Journal of Modern Literature 28.3 (2005) 109-129

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Neutrality and Commitment:

MacNeice, Yeats, Ireland and the Second World War1

The Open University

In the penultimate paragraph of The Poetry of W. B. Yeats (1941), Louis MacNeice suggested:

The spiritual lesson that my generation (a generation with a vastly different outlook) can learn from Yeats is to write according to our lights. His lights are not ours. Go thou and do otherwise.

This approach—a form of generational criticism which locates the older man as a powerful but potentially dangerous figure—is anticipated by The Oxford Book of Modern Verse (1936), where Yeats reads MacNeice generationally: "Ten years after the war certain poets combined the modern vocabulary, the accurate record of the relevant facts learned from Eliot, with the sense of suffering of the war poets. [. . .] Day Lewis, Madge, MacNeice, are modern through the character of their intellectual passion." Despite his suspicion of most forms of "intellectual passion," Yeats reacted relatively favorably to MacNeice, praising him as an apocalyptic "anti-communist," and including a more generous selection of his work than he did of either Auden or Spender, whom Yeats significantly (and unusually) excludes from his generational summary (The Oxford Book xxxv–xxxviii). A sense of being part of competing, antithetical literary generations was common to both poets.

Ireland and Irishness underpin these transactions. In recent years, MacNeice's national affiliations have been re-evaluated by critics reacting against the complementary over-simplifications that either he was not sufficiently Irish (because of his English education and residence) or that, in Samuel Hynes's formulation, he was a "professional lacrymose Irishman" (332). MacNeice's response to Yeats has figured prominently in revisionist accounts. Edna [End Page 109] Longley argues that despite their differences of background and allegiance, "MacNeice is the major Irish poet after Yeats who follows him in broad cultural orientation" (Louis MacNeice: A Critical Study 28).2 The differences between Yeats and MacNeice—the ascendancy nationalist as against the Ulster-born son of southern Protestants—are, in this reckoning, ultimately subsumed by similarities of "cultural orientation." With a slightly different emphasis, Peter McDonald suggests that MacNeice operates almost as an inverse of Yeats: as "Yeats used Ireland to construct a dominant myth of the self, MacNeice undermined the self to complicate and qualify the myth of 'Ireland.'" In this reading, MacNeice exactly follows his own prescriptions in The Poetry of W. B. Yeats: he uses "Yeatsian procedure[s] [. . .] to produce results that are almost as distant as possible from Yeats's own ideas" (Louis MacNeice: the Poet in his Contexts 227–28, 224).3 On the other hand, Robert Welch takes it for granted that both Yeats and MacNeice were "utterly obsessed with Ireland and her history" but suggests that their "relations with Ireland" are becoming of less pressing critical interest (3). Although I share some of Welch's impulses, the precise ways in which MacNeice reacted to Yeats are still not fully understood and tell us much about his development as a poet after the 1930s.

Both Longley and McDonald tend to privilege MacNeice over Auden and Spender: Longley has written wittily of her dream that there should be books called The MacNeice Generation and MacNeice and After ("MacNeice and After" 6); McDonald problematizes the conventional hierarchy which defines Auden as "major" and MacNeice as "minor" (Louis MacNeice: the Poet in his Contexts 2–4). Yet MacNeice's conclusion indicates that his sense of belonging to a generation was more than just a rhetorical convenience, or inconvenience. He identifies himself squarely with his contemporaries: the first person plural—"according to our lights"—implies that this generation remains a viable concept (emphasis mine). As in Modern Poetry (1938), MacNeice's generation meant chiefly Auden and Spender, who are referred to throughout The Poetry of W. B. Yeats.4 "His lights are not ours" suggests both an ongoing generational friction and MacNeice's primary allegiance to values and preoccupations that he shared with his English contemporaries...


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