It has become something of a critical truism that it took fifty years after his untimely death to secure Louis MacNeice’s reputation as a major mid-twentieth-century poet. Although he has always been a “poet’s poet”—Anthony Thwaite, Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, and Derek Mahon among other poets have written admiringly of him—his critical reception has remained muted, apart from the efforts of such capable and influential advocates as Edna Longley, Terence Brown, Peter McDonald, and Jon Stallworthy. Since the centenary of MacNeice’s birth in 2007, however, a reappraisal of his life and work has elevated his position in the canons of British and Irish poetry.
This revival of MacNeice’s poetic fortunes has also revived old debates about where to place MacNeice in literary history, however; is he an Irish poet, an English poet, a “Thirties” poet, or a something-else-entirely? Most MacNeice scholars recognize that he is, to some extent, all of these things, though many recent critics have focused on his engagement with specific cultural or national tradition. Richard Danson Brown’s 2009 study, Louis MacNeice and the Poetry of the 1930s, examines MacNeice’s work primarily in relation to his British [End Page 153] contemporaries; Ashok Bery, meanwhile, explores MacNeice’s interest in and connections to India. Tom Walker’s new volume also places MacNeice within a particular cultural context—this time an Irish one—while successfully questioning the rather simplistic idea that MacNeice looked at the country of his birth primarily through the eyes of a “tourist.” Rather, Walker demonstrates that MacNeice was deeply engaged not only with the work that his contemporaries in Ireland were doing, but with a variety of older Irish texts and traditions.
The major Irish precursor poet Walker deals with here is, unsurprisingly, Yeats. Walker’s reading of MacNeice’s complex relationship with Yeats is more than a one-way tale of a younger poet falling under the spell of, then fighting off, an influential elder. Rather, Walker reminds us that MacNeice was a late contemporary of Yeats, and that Yeats read and admired MacNeice, though he regarded the younger poet as an “extreme radical.” MacNeice did report meeting Yeats, the “smeller of spirits,” in his posthumously published unfinished autobiography The Strings are False (1965), but he did so in a way that made the older man look a bit silly; MacNeice behaved a bit flippantly at his funeral. Walker shows that Yeats’s influence on MacNeice is neither superficial nor purely a matter of reaction. Rather, MacNeice’s verse structures and poetic concerns are more indebted to the example of Yeats than is often realized, and not just in his youth. The final chapter traces the influence of Yeats’s rebirth as “the wild old wicked man” on MacNeice’s own late poetic flowering, particularly in MacNeice’s use of refrain and musical structures in poems like “The Taxis.”
The majority of the book is concerned with MacNeice’s exact contemporaries in Ireland, poets like F. R. Higgins, Austin Clarke, Patrick Kavanagh, and W. R. Rodgers. MacNeice’s working relationship with Rodgers is well documented: they were BBC colleagues as well as collaborators on a failed book project, to be called “The Character of Ireland,” as is MacNeice’s BBC debate with Higgins over whether or not poetry required any kind of “national” character, which MacNeice, arguing for the cosmopolitan side, is widely regarded as having won. Indeed, many studies of MacNeice’s work and of mid-twentieth century Irish cultural history quote a passage from his The Strings Are False (1965) in which Mac-Neice complains that, as England declared war on Germany, the only thing his poetic friends in Ireland cared to discuss was the correct version of Dublin street songs. This particular passage (along with quotations from the 1944 poem “Neutrality”) has often been employed to suggest that MacNeice should be viewed as isolationist and backwards—but Walker shows MacNeice was to be much more engaged with Irish life and with Irish writing...