Louis MacNeice (1908 – 1963) was an Irish poet who had been at Marlborough School, sharing a study with Anthony Blunt, later one of the Cambridge spies. Louis became a friend of Stephen Spender and W H Auden at Oxford and Auden encouraged his ambitions to be a poet. He published Modern Poetry: A personal essay which was a plea for a poetry expressive of the poet’s immediate interest and his sense of the natural and the social world and although he was involved with a group of politically committed poets, left wing politics did not appeal to him. He mistrusted political programmes as well as philosophical systems and was quite candid about the ambiguities of his political attitudes. My sympathies are Left, but not in my heart or my guts.
Perhaps because his best friend at school was Graham Shephard, son of long time St Johns Wood resident E H Shephard (famous for his Winnie the Pooh illustrations) MacNeice spent many years in various flats and houses in St Johns Wood and was a frequent visitor at Stephen Spender’s house in Loudon Road.
I studied with care the astonishing white bas relief on the corner of the Lord’s wall – a mixed bag of athletes all with noble expressions, wearing plus fours, cricket pads or bathing dresses and carrying golf clubs, tennis rackets and footballs.
He wrote of:A smell of French bread in Charlotte Street, a rustle
Of leaves in Regent’s Park
And suddenly from the Zoo I hear a sea-lion
And so to my flat with the trees outside the window And the dahlia shapes of the lights on Primrose Hill .
His first wife ,Mary Ezra, abandoned him and their child in 1936 and MacNeice was initially devastated and wrote The Sunlight on the Garden as a love song for her.
The sunlight on the garden
Hardens and grows cold,
We cannot cage the minute
Within its nets of gold,
When all is told
We cannot beg for pardon.
Our freedom as free lances
Advances towards its end;
The earth compels, upon it
Sonnets and birds descend;
And soon, my friend,
We shall have no time for dances.
The sky was good for flying
Defying the church bells
And every evil iron
Siren and what it tells:
The earth compels,
We are dying, Egypt, dying
And not expecting pardon,
Hardened in heart anew,
But glad to have sat under
Thunder and rain with you,
And grateful too
For sunlight on the garden
In 1938 he described the felling of trees in Primrose Hill by the Territorial Army in order to make room for anti- aircraft guns:
Hitler yells on the wireless,
The night is damp and still
And I hear dull blows on wood outside my window;
They are cutting down the trees on Primrose Hill.
The wood is white like the roast flesh of chicken,
Each tree falling like a closing fan;
No more looking at the view from seats beneath the branches,
Everything is going to plan.
They want the crest of this hill for anti-aircraft,
The guns will take the view
And searchlights probe the heavens for bacilli
With narrow wands of blue.
In the 1940s Louis MacNeice lived at 10 Wellington Place, where in an amazing co-incidence, at one point his next door neighbour was Guy Burgess, another of the Cambridge Spies, and from 1941 until his death, he worked at the BBC, and remained a scriptwriter and producer with the Features Department until 1961, working then with the department on a contract basis until his death. Muriel Spark wrote about him in A footnote to a Poet’s House, describing how she alighted from a taxi at a house in St John’s Wood and noticed the steel Morrison shelter in one room. He was often to be found at the famous Saturday night parties at the Anglo French Art Centre in Elm Tree Road between 1945 and 1950. He gradually succumbed to alcohol and then in August of 1963, MacNeice, on location with a BBC team, insisted on going down into a mine shaft to check on sound effects. He caught a chill that was not diagnosed as pneumonia until he was fatally ill. He died on September 3, 1963, just before the publication of his last book of poems, The Burning Perch.