To read the poetry of Louis MacNeice is an endlessly rewarding activity. It can be intricately beautiful and philosophically insightful, but politically and culturally astute at the same time. Every time I come to write about MacNeice (which I have done often over the previous eight years), I am surprised again at the deft placement of a word, the freshness of an image, or his mastery over poetic form. (I make no apologies for being traditional in my poetic taste! I am yet to be entirely persuaded that free verse is a good idea!)
Born in Belfast in 1907, educated at Oxford, and later employed by the BBC, MacNeice has often been dismissed as one of the lesser poets of the nineteen thirties. W.H. Auden and T.S. Eliot always seemed to stand in his way. In the nineteen seventies (Northern) Irish poets and literary critics began to salvage his reputation, drawn by MacNeice’s conflicted attitude towards his own Protestant Irish/English-educated identity. Since then, MacNeice’s fame has increased, so that Jonathan Allison can justly write that he is ‘increasingly recognised as one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century’.
In the autumn of last year, I mentioned MacNeice in Nico and my Literary History of Chocolate. I wrote about the poet’s dislike for the industrialisation of chocolate production – factory produced chocolate becoming a symbol for the reduction of the variety of human existence to a series of identical experiences. In ‘Ode’ MacNeice preferred the continual movement and unpredictability of the open sea to the neat rows of factory chimneys. The most famous poem in MacNeice’s oeuvre is a celebration of the exact opposite: in ‘Snow’ he writes that the world is ‘crazier and more of it than we think, / Incorrigibly plural’. The speaker delights in the surprising, energising richness of the sign of oranges and roses juxtaposed against a snowy day.
This complementary clash of opposites got me thinking about how variousness of experience – culinary and otherwise – is found most clearly in MacNeice’s travel writing. As many people have pointed out, MacNeice struggled to stay at home. Paris, Iceland, England, the USA, Scotland, Spain, Ireland north and south… In the late nineteen thirties MacNeice was one of the many left-wing Brits who travelled to Spain to fight, report on, or write about the Spanish Civil War. It was certainly the fashionable thing to do: as historian Paul Laity comments, left-wing books and ideas then had a ‘radical chic’. Socialist fever gripped many in the UK, who were terrified of the rising strength of Fascist powers in Spain, Japan, and Germany.
In the midst of all this, MacNeice famously remained rather politically uncommitted. He was vaguely ‘of the left’, but travelled to Spain to observe rather than actively help in the fight against Franco (as did Orwell and many others).
All this seems to be getting rather far from the general theme of this blog. I promise I am coming to the point, albeit by a circuitous route! MacNeice recorded his experiences in Spain in his masterpiece – a long journalistic poem entitled Autumn Journal – and in his unfinished autobiography – The Strings are False. In the former, MacNeice indulges in many lists of compatible, contrasting, startling, heterogeneous things. At times it seems as if listing is the only way to capture the endless variety and surprise of life in words. One of these lists comes at the beginning of section VI of the poem and describes the food MacNeice ate in Spain on the eve of the civil war. There are plentiful supplies of coffee, sherry, shellfish, and omelette. However, this list contrasts starkly with the lack of food during the war itself.
I find MacNeice’s descriptions of the conditions in which civilians found themselves more emotive than the propaganda images and texts of the time. This is partly because MacNeice was not writing to persuade others to weigh in to help; he was writing an honest, perceptive, and personal record. So if you choose to make the recipe for Spanish omelette below, remember the other side of the story that MacNeice tells too.
|A handful of parsley|
|Salt and pepper|
|1. Peel the potatoes and slice thinly. Dice the onion.|
|2. Fry the potatoes and onion for about 10 minutes, or until soft.|
|3. Beat the eggs in a bowl and season with salt, pepper and parsley.|
|4. Add to the pan and cook over a medium heat until the top of the omelette is no longer really runny.|
|5. If you are brave, flip the omelette. Or, you could prepare another frying pan and turn the omelette over into it. Cook for a few minutes. Personally, I take the easy route and grill it for a few minutes until golden brown.|
Jonathan Allison, abstract for The Letters of Louis MacNeice, http://www.academia.edu/232531/Letters_of_Louis_MacNeice
Paul Laity, ‘Introduction’, in Left Book Club Anthology, ed. by Paul Laity (London: Gollancz, 2001) pp. ix-xxxi, (p. ix).