Louis MacNeice, Nicolaus Pevsner, and the Best of Brit Lit
A look at great reads from the editor of the TLS. This week: the letters of British poet Louis MacNeice, a reconsideration of Elizabeth Barrett Browning as victim and symbol, and the Berkshire volume in the famous Pevsner series.
Louis MacNeice and His Friends
"MacSpaunday" was the dismissive nickname once given to the seemingly interchangeable poets of the 1930s: Louis MacNeice, Stephen Spender, W.H. Auden, and Cecil Day-Lewis. This oft-repeated jibe becomes more misleading than ever after the publication of the letters of Louis MacNeice. "So much for MacSpaunday,” writes David Wheatley in the TLS this week, noting that there are no letters in the 768-page collection to Spender or Day-Lewis and only one from Auden.
Are we to be pleased by this? Even to those who have long rejected the idea of conglomerate British left-wing poetry, so complete an absence of key correspondents gives that section of the book “a breathless, jittery feel,” Wheatley concludes. An unusual amount of the new book is devoted to MacNeice’s schooldays, during which he shared a room with the future art critic and Soviet agent Anthony Blunt while joining in debates on whether Keats deserved to be called a poet. Later subjects included rugby, alcohol, and the emotional and political backdrops to his own poetry. In his later years, “the pace of both MacNeice’s drinking and romantic entanglements picked up considerably,” enlivening the narrative without hugely enhancing our appreciation of the poet's achievements.
A Subversive Poet
The one romantic entanglement of Elizabeth Barrett Browning strongly influenced the reputation of her poetry—and did so much for the worse. Joseph Phelan in the TLS this week contrasts the 19th-century obsession with her martyrdom and victimhood with “the first modern scholarly edition” of her poetry that emphasizes her role as an edgy, subversive visionary.
This clash of sensibilities, between readers who were keen to see in Elizabeth’s poetry stereotypically feminine qualities of sentiment and pathos and modern critics determined to construct an “iconoclastic” and radical poet, is played out repeatedly. She is, on the one hand, the poet of the politically explosive “Curse for a Nation,” rushing “into drawing rooms and the like” with an unsettling message of social and sexual inequality. She is also the poet of “painfulness and martyrdom,” a pious, ascetic, and often rather unattractively dogmatic writer, who found a grim satisfaction in abasing herself before a succession of real and imaginary father figures. Phelan notes a powerful fragment on the rights of women, influenced by Mary Wollstonecraft and written when she was only 16. But no modernity of approach can save her from the occasional line such as “I aspire while I expire.”
Pevsner’s The Buildings of England is a classic in the process of a complete modernization. The highlight of the new edition of the volume of that is devoted to Berkshire is a “brilliant and intricate account of Windsor Castle, the greatest inhabited castle in England or anywhere for all I know,” writes Ferdinand Mount. Berkshire is a small county with “no ancient cathedral and few great houses.” But it includes miles of Thameside made famous by the animal homes of The Wind in the Willows and a 110-foot Gothic tower, built by the composer Lord Berners at Faringdon in the “high camp” spirit of his better known pink-and-blue-painted pigeons. This latter is “perhaps the last great folly built in England,” a wonder of a sort even if it must now share the county with the post-war suburban sprawl of Reading and Bracknell.
Peter Stothard's latest book is On the Spartacus Road: A Spectacular Journey Through Ancient Italy. He is also the author of Thirty Days, a Downing Street diary of his time with British Prime Minister Tony Blair during the Iraq war.