(Frederick) Louis MacNeice by Howard Coster, 1942.
National Portrait Gallery. Licenced under CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0

Louis MacNeice


Louis MacNeice (1907–63), brought up in Carrickfergus, was educated at Marlborough School and Oxford University. In the 1930s he taught Classics at Birmingham University and Bedford College, London; and for twenty years from 1940 he worked for the BBC as writer and producer of radio features and plays. Publications include Autumn Journal (1939), Solstices (1961), The Burning Perch (1963); and – with Auden – Letters from Iceland (1937).

TSE wrote in The Times, 5 Sept. 1963:

There is little that I can add to the encomiums of Louis MacNeice which have already appeared in the press, except the expression of my own grief and shock. The grief one must feel at the death of a poet of genius, younger than oneself, and the shock of his unexpected death just as my firm had ready for publication a new volume of his verse [The Burning Perch].

MacNeice was one of several brilliant poets who were up at Oxford at the same time, and whose names were at first always associated, but the difference between whose gifts shows more and more clearly with the lapse of time. MacNeice in particular stands apart. If the term “poet’s poet” means a poet whose virtuosity can be fully appreciated only by other poets, it may be applied to MacNeice. But if it were taken to imply that his work cannot be enjoyed by the larger public of poetry readers, the term would be misleading. He had the Irishman’s unfailing ear for the music of verse, and he never published a line that is not good reading. I am very proud of having published the first volume he had to offer after coming down from the university. [Blind Fireworks (1929), his first book, was published by Victor Gollancz while MacNeice was still an undergraduate.]

As for the radio plays, no other poet, with the exception of the author of Under Milk Wood, has written works as haunting as MacNeice.