"Your Thoughts Make Shape like Snow": Louis MacNeice on Stephen Spender
Brown, Richard Danson, Twentieth Century Literature
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. The irony of this portrait is in the implied gap between Spender's commitment and his self-awareness. As MacNeice comments with an apparently effortless detachment, Spender "had not been born for dogma" (Strings 168), though again it takes Spender much longer to realize this than it takes MacNeice. Spender's Journals from November 1965 make clear that it was MacNeice's "almost cold-blooded air of supercilious disdain" that he found most irritating in The Strings Are False:
To judge from his recollections he always seems to have been fully conscious at the time of any one relationship he had of his own attitude towards it, e.g., in the account of his first marriage, it seems that he had from the moment of falling in love with Mary Beasley (4) the same detached awareness of her character. He certainly did seem to "cast a cold eye" on the world around him. One thought of him leaning back, regarding one with amused detachment through half-closed eyes. In fact his memoir shows that he did regard me in this way But I can't believe--from remembering them together at Oxford--that he judged Mary quite as objectively, at the time of their engagement even, as here appears. (Journals 263-64)
Yet the MacNeice-Spender relationship is more important for its implications about their poetry than for its intimations of gossipy indiscretion. My interest is in how MacNeice uses Spender's Poems in the articulation of his poetic in the essay "Poetry To-day" and in the development of his own work in Poems. In this context, Spender's response to MacNeice's memoirs has a critical as well as a biographical relevance: MacNeice's later recapitulations of the past tend to suggest a lucidity and poise in his observation both of events and himself as an observer. Even a poem as devastating as "Autobiography" casts the past coolly; (5) it articulates not so much the trauma of an unhappy childhood as the self-cauterized and ultimately illusory objectivity of its subject. The poem keeps the processes of repression more vivid than what is being repressed; even the pain in "When my silent terror cried / Nobody, nobody replied" is felt as something "silent" and unobserved by the adult world. (6) Similarly, the final couplet, "I got up; the chilly sun / Saw me walk away alone" expresses less the pain of emotional isolation than the absence of such pain (Collected Poems 183-84). The haunting refrain "Come hack early or never come" depends for its effect on the strategic repression of the expected internal rhyme "home": we half anticipate "Come back early or never come home," but the text shrewdly denies such an emphatic sentimental ge sture. The poem's popularity is unsurprising: through its focus on repression, MacNeice's poetic "Autobiography" can easily be generalized.
On the other hand, though MacNeice was to present himself as an ironic observer of the literary and political zeitgeist in texts like Autumn Journal and The Strings Are False, Poems displays a young poet struggling between conflicting priorities and potential voices. The volume represents MacNeice's not always successful attempts to clarify his poetic and his poetry. Such self-conscious endeavor is also evident in "Poetry Today' which cites Spender as an influence while remaining cautious about the more intimidating precedents set by Yeats, Eliot, and Auden. Studying MacNeice's critical assessment and poetic reaction to Spender's work in the mid-i 930s thus illuminates the processes through which MacNeice came to his habitual self-presentation as a detached observer.
Differences of political emphasis seem to have been at the root of MacNeice's suspicion of Spender. His review of The Destructive Element: A Study of Modern Writers and Beliefs (May 1935) is simultaneously sympathetic to Spender's theory--that James, Yeats, Eliot, and Lawrence "are all concerned with the same 'political subject"'--and skeptical of Marxist theories of literature and Spender's acceptance of these:
At the moment, even the most intelligent communist tends to relapse into crude generalizations. Thus Mr. Spender quotes, apparently with approval, Lenin's statement "Art belongs to the people."... Lenin is here repeating the fallacies of Tolstoy. (Criticism 5, 7)
Though MacNeice was intrigued by the intellectual possibilities of communism, he remained dubious about the translation of such theories into practice. Accordingly, Lenin's socialist puritanism is connected with Tolstoy's Christian puritanism. In each case, ideological systems inappropriately constrict creativity. Because Spender identifies himself with the Communist Party and the Soviet experience, (7) for MacNeice his work has a bogus flavor--note the condescension implicit in what is essentially a positive review: "having read this book with a moderately open mind, I do not find that the thread or plot of it is arbitrary" (my emphasis, Criticism 5). (8)
This impression that MacNeice's resisted communist doctrine is supported by his earlier reply to the questionnaire inquiry carried out by Geoffrey Grigson for the October 1934 edition of New Verse. Responding to the question "Do you take your stand with any political or politico-economic party or creed?," MacNeice answered, "No. In weaker moments I wish I could" (Criticism 4). Literary historians have taken this as a general statement of MacNeice's attitude towards political commitment. (9) It is worth observing that MacNeice's ideological detachment has worn rather better than his contemporaries' conviction. His resistance to communism is unusual because it neither resolves into a right- wing critique of socialism (in the manner of Wyndham Lewis) nor a reassertion of liberalism (in the manner of Day-Lewis). As late as 1942, MacNeice would write that he "distrust[s] all parties but consider[s] capitalism must go" (Prose 72). MacNeice's politics were characteristically independent; as Margot Heinemann observes , "He was never a Communist .. . but he did come, however unwillingly, to a strongly felt antifascist and socialist commitment which--unlike Auden and Spender--he never seems to have felt much need to modify," (345). Moreover, the wit of his reply to the New Verse questionnaire can distract attention from the fact that he was troubled by the same concerns as those writers who were Communist Party members. In this sense, Spender and MacNeice's Poems explore analogous problems: the tensions between individualism and commitment alongside pervasive feelings of cultural and emotional estrangement.
As an illustration of this, consider two texts that in MacNeice's Poems that are printed on adjacent pages, "Turf-stacks" and "The Individualist Speaks" (30-31). (10) A critical consensus has emerged about these poems: they embody MacNeice's suspicion of communism and his desire to deflate the controlling patterns set up by such theories. (11) In this view, "Turf-stacks" juxtaposes a positive pastoral landscape with a negative image of an industrial city. Yet when it was first published in New Verse, it had the unadorned title "Poem?,, (12) By renaming it for volume publication, MacNeice implies that it is a pastoral. The earlier title, how- ever, betokens a deeper uncertainty about the poem's orientation …
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Publication information: Article title: "Your Thoughts Make Shape like Snow": Louis MacNeice on Stephen Spender. Contributors: Brown, Richard Danson - Author. Journal title: Twentieth Century Literature. Volume: 48. Issue: 3 Publication date: Fall 2002. Page number: 292+. © 1999 Hofstra University. COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group.
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