"Your Thoughts Make Shape like Snow": Louis MacNeice on Stephen Spender

Article excerpt

The notion that the left-wing writers of the 1930s formed a homogenous clique of interchangeable, mutually aggrandizing talents has become one of the cliches of twentieth-century literary history. Roy Campbell's satirical figure "MacSpaunday" typifies such accounts (Alexander 199). Campbell's amalgamation of MacNeice, Spender, Auden, and Day-Lewis into a single careerist, cowardly poetaster has often been recycled as a convenient shorthand for "the Auden group." Yet as influential studies of the period and the writers have shown, such accounts misrepresent the complex affiliations that existed between men like Louis MacNeice and Stephen Spender. (1) This essay focuses on MacNeice and Spender during the early 1930s to explore two related issues: first, how MacNeice's reading of Spender's Poems (1933) shaped his own breakthrough volume, Poems (1935); and second, how the observation of this relationship can help to refine understanding of MacNeice's poetics at this pivotal stage in his career.

MacNeice and Spender were never altogether at ease with one another. Contemporaries at Oxford, fellow aspiring poets who jointly edited the 1929 Oxford Poetry, their accounts of each other are indicative of a rivalry sporadically tempered by mutual affection. According to Spender, MacNeice was ironic and supercilious, always ready to put the innocent Spender down with a wry witticism (Journals 263-64); according to MacNeice, Spender was an archetype of the romantic poet, always self-consciously advertising his poethood to an indifferent world (Strings 113). Such rivalry is hardly surprising: MacNeice was two years older than Spender, yet Spender achieved literary celebrity ahead of MacNeice. Though MacNeice's Blind Fireworks was published in 1929 while he was still an undergraduate, the volume was not a significant success. In contrast, Spender had seven poems in Michael Roberts's influential New Signatures anthology of 1932, while his Poems (1933) received wildly enthusiastic notices. (2) During the early 1930s, he was lionized by literary London while MacNeice worked in relative obscurity as a lecturer in classics at the University of Birmingham. (3)

The main evidence of tetchy collegiality is MacNeice's portrait of Spender in The Strings Are False, and Spender's response after its posthumous publication in 1965. MacNeice applauds Spender's integrity to his artistic vision in his account of the furor that surrounded the performance of Spender's play Trial of a Judge by the Group Theatre in 1938--which communist spectators felt endorsed the moral qualms of its liberal protagonist--but also enjoys himself at Spender's expense in the clash between interior decor and political commitment:

Stephen Spender... was now living in a chic apartment with a colour scheme out of Vogue, a huge vulcanite writing-desk and over the fireplace an abstract picture by Wyndham Lewis. Very comfortable and elegant but not quite big enough for Stephen; his enormous craggy apostolic flaring face seemed liable to burst the walls... [in Forward from Liberalism] S. argued (accepting the dialectic) liberalism had played its part; once the vanguard, was now reaction; the man of good will today must acknowledge the Third International. His book, however, offended many in all parties. The Right did not like it, the Liberals did not like it, and the Comrades ... could not help noticing that S., who wanted to be at home with Stalin, was much more at ease with J. S. Mill. (Strings 166-67).

Though broadly sympathetic to Spender's dilemma, MacNeice's account retains a critical detachment, a sense that Stephen really should have known better. This is highlighted in the image of Spender as being too big for his designer flat: just as Spender's face threatens "to burst the walls" of his physical milieu, he threatens to break the constraints of his ideological milieu, though crucially without being fully conscious of his position. …