Some writers we embrace with an enthusiastic, unself-conscious bear hug. We like the first thing of theirs we read and keep reading everything by them we can get our hands on. Momentum carries us into criticism of their work, biography and work by their friends, followers and precursors. That describes the process, long-deferred, by which I came to Louis MacNeice. For years I pigeonholed him as another small talent (like Stephen Spender and Cecil Day Lewis) eclipsed by Auden. He grabbed me only about fifteen years ago, and one of the catalysts for that unexpected rediscovery was a 1967 essay, “The Black Clock: The Poetic Achievement of Louis MacNeice,” by the American poet William Jay Smith. The tribute is the first piece in Smith’s The Streaks of the Tulip: Selected Criticism (Delacorte Press, 1972).
The title of that collection may sound familiar. Smith takes it from a well-known passage in Dr. Johnson’s Rasselas (1759): “`The business of a poet,’ said Imlac, `is to examine, not the individual, but the species; to remark general properties and appearances: he does not number the streaks of the tulip, or describe the different shades in the verdure of the forest.’” Smith uses the excerpt as one of his epigraphs. The other is from MacNeice’s posthumously published The Strings Are False: An Unfinished Autobiography (1965): “Dr. Johnson has said that the poet is not concerned with the minute particulars, with `the streaks of the tulip.’ This, I thought, was just where he was wrong.” Smith respects Johnson but approves of MacNeice’s disagreement. In his essay he writes:
“MacNeice was interested in the concrete, as true lyric poets always are; he wanted to get things straight. (He believed that a critic should not speak of poetry in the abstract, but should point out specific qualities, merits in individual poems.) Dr. Johnson was wrong, he remarks at one point, when he said that the poet is not concerned with minute particulars, with `the streaks of the tulip.’ MacNeice was passionate about particulars.”
Johnson often shared that passion, in some of his poems but most of all in his prose and conversation. His aesthetic, which, with qualifications, we might call neo-classical and pre-Romantic, was less concerned with detail. He wished to formulate general conclusions about the world, especially human behavior. MacNeice never wrote at length about Johnson but at least once he hinted at his approval. To illustrate his observation that MacNeice was “passionate about particulars,” Smith quotes Canto VI from Autumn Sequel: A Rhetorical Poem (1954):
“Everydayness is good; particular-dayness
Is better, a holiday thrives on single days.
Thus Wales with her moodiness, madness, shrewdness,
Daily demands a different color of praise.”
Some years before reading Smith’s essay I had read MacNeice’s Autumn Journal (1940) and a smattering of other poems, especially the early work, but little seems to have stuck. Smith’s essay helped correct my indifference. He says of MacNeice, “Absorbed in the dailiness of life, he could not tolerate lofty rhetoric, the grand gesture: he was not taken in.” High praise for any writer or human being. Smith died this week at age ninety-seven. I found him by way of The Golden Journey: Poems for Young People (1965), an anthology he edited with Louise Bogan. I came to her by way of Theodore Roethke. That’s how literature works.