A bevy of literati joined a lively audience at the Guardian Newsroom last week to celebrate the centenary of the births of W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice.
Chaired by John Walsh (assistant editor of The Independent, brimming with his usual infectious brio), the panel assembled to debate: was Auden truly “the benevolent dictator of what poetry should be”, to quote Walsh, while MacNeice lingered as “an outsider of this court”?
For Peter MacDonald (Oxford tutor and editor of MacNeice’s Collected Poems), Auden and MacNeice were equal geniuses in their own right but, he argued, “no poetic geniuses are alike at deep levels.” Indeed, as the panel discussed, there are some stark polarities. For one, Auden’s childhood, bereft of any noteworthy drama or disaster, conflicts with MacNeice’s melancholic, depressive youth, which was profoundly affected by his mother’s death.
Even in his early work, Auden, who reaches the astonishing moment of discovering his gifts and sexuality coming together, begins to shine. MacNeice, meanwhile, remains uncertain and, MacDonald lamented, works such as Blind Fireworks make “hugely ambitious, hugely uncontrolled reading.”
It was not until 1939 that MacNeice rose to fame with his masterpiece, Autumn Journal. And in his later years – casting aside Autumn Sequel which is compared unfavourably by most critics – the tables appear to turn as Auden’s more “opaque” work is met with MacNeice’s “wonderful last lyrical burst,” according to Alan Jenkins (poet and deputy editor of the Times Literary Supplement).
Where the two poets seem to connect, the panel agreed, was within their shared obsession with time. This was illustrated in Auden’s Stop All the Clocks and MacNeice’s Meeting Point, which Jenkins read aloud, including the memorable verse: “Time was away and she was here/ And life no longer what it was,/ The bell was silent in the air/ And all the room one glow because/ Time was away and she was here.”
While Auden took fame in his stride and, as Jenkins put it, “enjoyed being a great poet,” MacNeice appeared to be underestimated and neglected. The handsome socialite, who made a habit of saturating himself in Soho life – and no doubt the whisky – was sneered at for his lifestyle, as MacDonald explained: “There was no love for [MacNeice] in Northern Ireland as he was not attracted to the political orthodoxies that held sway there.”
The poet Alan Brownjohn agreed it had been an uphill struggle to establish his “solid and splendid reputation,” adding: “He hasn’t been given an opportunity to shine as Auden has, but this centenary now gives us that opportunity.”
Indeed, earlier this month, MacDonald joined more than 500 people in Belfast to celebrate MacNeice and “acknowledge one of the most significant people to come out of the twentieth century.” He concluded: “It is very evident in Ireland that MacNeice is a hugely, utterly necessary poet. He belongs now.”
Following the event, the Bordeaux continued to flow as English Pen members, guests and poets alike mingled and thoroughly enjoyed the wine, supplied very kindly by Waitrose.
Report by Alexandra Masters
Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/events/reportsonrecentevents/stopalltheclocks/