The sphinx correspondence

LETTERS: DENNIS O'DRISCOLL reviews Letters of Louis MacNeice , Edited by Jonathan Allison, Faber, 768pp, £35

LETTERS: DENNIS O'DRISCOLLreviews Letters of Louis MacNeice, Edited by Jonathan Allison, Faber, 768pp, £35

LOUIS MACNEICE is the sphinx in the corner of a London pub. Standing in the "buttoned plush" of the George, he is, by some accounts, at least, so remote and elusive that he might be conjured out of beer froth and cigarette smoke. He has slipped out from the BBC office where he writes scripts and produces radio features for the Third Programme. "Shy andstandoffish" is how Mercy MacCann, a close friend, remembered him. To the film maker Dallas Bower he "appeared to be not particularly interested in you, whereas he was taking you in – in no uncertain terms". " Withbut not strictly ofthe company" was the bar-room testimony of his BBC colleague Bob Pocock. "Morose" was how he struck Benedict Kiely, although talkative when drunk.

MacNeice is certainly a talkative correspondent; this voluminous publication represents “only a fraction” of his letters. But readers in search of verbal intoxication, or some sense of “the drunkenness of things being various”, would do better to forage among his poems. He cannot be considered an epistolary master of the order of, say, Emily Dickinson, Philip Larkin, Elizabeth Bishop or William Cowper: poets whose letters are compelling in themselves and not merely for the light they cast on their authors’ writings.

One might have expected the MacNeice who published vivid wartime reportage in a series of "London Letters", and who co-authored Letters from Icelandwith WH Auden (of Night Mail, New Year Letterand Letter to Lord Byronfame), to have packed more oomph into his correspondence. But he reserved his best energies for poems, plays and essays, and many of his routine letters amount to little more than perfunctory bulletins. Moreover, he usually binned any letters he received (Auden's included). It is surprising, therefore, to learn that he took care to issue instructions regarding posthumous publication of his letters (in case "any mug" wished to edit them); these were contained in a memo to his loyal friend, confidant and literary executor, ER Dodds. And, their longueurs notwithstanding, the letters merit publication. This selection (skilfully compiled and scrupulously edited by Jonathan Allison) is an indispensable guide to the preoccupations and passions, travels and tribulations of a greatly gifted writer, a man of wide and lively interests who listed Tintoretto, tennis, large dogs, rugby and Constantinople among his "likes".

The first 100 pages consist mainly of schoolboy letters to his stepmother, Georgina Beatrice (“My dear Madre”). He dutifully wrote from Sherborne Preparatory School, where a letter home each Sunday was mandatory, and from Marlborough College, to which the precociously clever boy won a classical scholarship. Negotiating the duller expanses of these letters (“I wish there was something to write”) can feel like school confinement, unless you must know absolutely everything about the wunderkind – including what he ate for breakfast (“Shredded wheat and eggs for breakfast this morning. Shredded wheat is the thing that looks like a roll of dead twigs”).

His early reading, whether teacher-assigned or self-prescribed, is impressive, and many harbingers point to a virtuosic poet in the making: “In school we are doing Tacitus, Statius and Euripides (Electra) . . . We have just done a delightful mock poem by Statius on a parrot. It would go splendidly into Heroic Couplets. I must try that some day.”

Anthony Blunt, a clergyman’s son like MacNeice (whose remarkable Connemara-born father would become bishop of Down, Connor and Dromore), was a close friend and ally at Marlborough. Whether he snitched on his schoolpals, or played I Spy games, is not recorded, but the future art historian and Russian mole undoubtedly helped MacNeice to develop a discriminating eye for visual art. They went their separate university ways (MacNeice to Oxford, Blunt to Cambridge) and maintained a self-consciously showy correspondence that fizzled out in the mid 1930s.

The longest letter in this book – the original runs to 24 pages – is a besotted rhapsody in blue ink, a New World symphony of sentiment and seduction, addressed to the 25-year-old American writer Eleanor Clark (who had been briefly married to Trotsky's Czech secretary). In April 1939, shortly before his magisterial masterpiece, Autumn Journal– a breaking-news, brink-of-war tour de force – surged into print, he met Clark in New York at a Partisan Reviewparty.

Returning by Queen Maryfrom an American lecture trip, he had ample time to enumerate his emotions on an epic scale. Love had not quite conquered all, however, in his amatory "new found land". More politically savvy and sceptical than most writers of the 1930s (including the threesome – WH Auden, Cecil Day Lewis and Stephen Spender – with which he is still grouped), he could not resist challenging the radical left-wing views on politics and the impending war held by Clark.

Fanning the flame of love with letters is a hazardous business, especially if a cooling ocean separates the sweethearts, and it was snuffed out abruptly in 1942 when MacNeice starkly informed Clark (to whom his winsome Cradle Songand two of his books were dedicated), "Darling, This is to tell you that I have got married – but not to anyone I had mentioned to you before. This makes sense to me. I hope you understand?" The unnamed bride was the cabaret artist Hedli Anderson, with whom he would live until the marriage broke up, in 1960, 17 years after the birth of their daughter, Corinna.

Shyness and standoffishness proved no impediment to MacNeice’s relationships with women. Before Anderson and Clark there was Mary Ezra, the young Jewish woman he married in 1930, just as he was about to leave Oxford. Fortified with a double first, he initially taught classics at Birmingham University, where ER Dodds (a fellow Ulsterman) was professor of Greek: “Life was comfortable, life was fine / With two in a bed and patchwork cushions / And checks and tassels on the washing-line, / A gramophone, a cat, and the smell of jasmine.”

MacNeice was left holding the baby, Daniel (the “strapping” son to whom Mary gave birth in 1934), when his wife flew the coop in 1935 and settled down to farm poultry near Egg Harbor – where else? – in New Jersey, with her burly Russian-American lover. Nonetheless, he sent her letters of unexpected warmth and civility (“Not only did you make me extremely happy . . . but you stopped me being a sap that is no small service!”) and even visited the lovebirds among their clucking Leghorns and Rhode Island Reds.

The final love of MacNeice's relatively short but prodigiously productive life was another Mary, the actress Mary Wimbush, who was at his bedside in 1963 when (aged 56) he died of viral pneumonia: the result of a drenching received on the Yorkshire moors, where he was recording sound effects in a cave for his radio play Persons from Porlock;the play took its name from the caller blamed by Coleridge for interrupting the composition of Kubla Khan. Stevie Smith regarded this visitor as the grim reaper ("I long for the Person from Porlock / To bring my thoughts to an end, / I am becoming impatient to see him / I think of him as a friend"), a conceit echoed from his "cave of making" by MacNeice himself when he wrote to Corinna: "The final person from Porlock is death (in a cave) . . ." The sphinx had spoken.

Dennis O'Driscoll is a poet and critic. His latest publication, Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney(Faber), received the Argosy Irish Non-Fiction Book of the Year Award