Louis MacNeice’s poems get some fresh air

This week in Little Star Weekly we feature “The Revenant,” a twenty-one-part song cycle that Louis MacNeice composed as a wedding gift to his bride, Hedli Anderson, as they honeymooned in Ireland during the ominous year 1942. Hedli reports that hearing and not liking Schönberg’s Pierrot Lunaire had prompted MacNeice to try a song cycle of his own; but a stronger impetus can be heard, reading these haunting poems, in the shadow that war and its millions of separations cast over love in those years. “The Revenant” comes to light as Peter McDonald’s capaciously re-edited Collected Poems of MacNeice arrives on these shores, thanks to the invaluable work of Wake Forest University Press, which has been bringing Irish poetry to America for nearly forty years. (They are also to be thanked for the Carson recastings of Rimbaud’s Illuminations we published in Little Star Weekly two weeks ago.)

macneice-tmb-207x300Generally at Little Star we favor conservative posthumous collecting that is attentive to the author’s decision-making—a non-negligible part, we think of her or his literary legacy, but McDonald’s judicious introduction illuminates how vexed even simple editorial principles can be. (See also James Fenton’s excellent consideration the nuances of posthumous editing in a review of the new Larkin in this summer’s Threepenny Review.) MacNeice collected himself early in his writing life, leaving much thinking to be done about the work to come, and also posing the question of whether such a youthful assessment represents an appropriate last word. He also tried out some orderings that were in the air at the time (isolating, like Auden, his longer poems, for example), that create awkward imbalances when imported into the bigger picture. MacNeice’s friend and literary executor, the classicist E. R. Dodds (author of The Greeks and the Irrational, a book much around in our college years), preserved this early collection and tacked MacNeice’s subsequent books onto it. This is the MacNeice we have had until now. McDonald persuasively argues for his judicious remix, and among the many recovered items comes ”The Revenant,” written apparently for private consumption—and yet his wife labored to have the cycle published and set to music for more than a decade after MacNeice’s death in 1963.  The cycle alternates songs in variable rhymed stanzas with unrhymed “interludes,” whose spaced-spliced caesuras recall Anglo Saxon alliterative verse, with its ancient echoes of war and sacrifice. Have a look and see what you think.

Some songs from “The Revenant” in Little Star Weekly #21

Order Collected Poems: Louis MacNeice








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