The Irish poet Louis MacNeice (1907-1963) is now somewhat undervalued I suspect. He was part of that generation that included Auden and Spender and a load of heroic literary alcoholics. Unlike many of his contemporaries he never fell for Communism, though he did for drink. By the end of his life he was ‘living on alcohol’ and regularly drinking himself to oblivion with Dominic Behan (brother of Brendan, the hellraiser’s hellraiser of a playwright who famously described himself as “a drinker with a writing problem”).
MacNeice’s death was mildly tragicomic – having gone caving in Yorkshire to gather sound effects for his radio play Persons from Porlock he was caught in a storm and did not change out of his wet clothes until he was home in Hertfordshire, as a consequence of which he contracted bronchitis and then, fatally, pneumonia.
Many of his poems have a strong emotional force, very Irish, and ‘in-the-moment’, of a style popular amongst bad amateurs. But MacNeice does it well. The nostalgic (Proustian, you might say if you were that way inclined) Soap Suds is a good example. Most poems are about this, aren’t they?
This brand of soap has the same smell as once in the big
House he visited when he was eight: the walls of the bathroom open
To reveal a lawn where a great yellow ball rolls back through a hoop
To rest at the head of a mallet held in the hands of a child.
And these were the joys of that house: a tower with a telescope;
Two great faded globes, one of the earth, one of the stars;
A stuffed black dog in the hall; a walled garden with bees;
A rabbit warren; a rockery; a vine under glass; the sea.
To which he has now returned. The day of course is fine
And a grown-up voice cries Play! The mallet slowly swings,
Then crack, a great gong booms from the dog-dark hall and the ball
Skims forward through the hoop and then through the next and then
Through hoops where no hoops were and each dissolves in turn
And the grass has grown head-high and an angry voice cries Play!
But the ball is lost and the mallet slipped long since from the hands
Under the running tap that are not the hands of a child.