This poem, one of its author's finest, is notably generous, tender and reconciliatory. It was written, for the poet's erstwhile wife, in late 1936 -some weeks after their Decree Absolute came through. They'd married, to the consternation of both families, six years earlier. Mary MacNeice (nee Ezra, 1908-1991) was the daughter -from her first marriage- of the formidable and eccentric society hostess Marie Beazley. MacNeice describes Mary (in his posthumously published autobiography The Strings Are False) as being 'like a little volcano that is never off the boil'. In this same work (in which she is called 'Mariette') her conversation is characterized as 'like a barber's scissors when he is giving his last touches to the back of your head, clicking away very fast, very deftly, but apparently not making contact'. She had, however, been 'the best dancer in Oxford'.
Obviously, any marriage is a story with (at least) two narrators. By October 1935 the couple were renting 'Highfield' Cottage, previously a coachman's quarters, in Selly Park, South Birmingham. MacNeice was working at that time as Assistant Lecturer in Classics at the local university. Staying with them was their mutual friend the former American Football star Charles Katzman ('Tsalic' in The Strings Are False) who, it was said, looked a bit like Clark Gable. Louis and Katzman (his passenger) were involved in a car accident on the 11th which left the latter unconscious and in hospital. The next month (subsequent to their American friend's recovery after convalescing at 'Highfield') was a shattering one for MacNeice. He was prosecuted for dangerous driving by the police, received a compensation demand from the driver of the vehicle with which he'd collided -and then (on the 18th November) a spark from the sitting room fire set their cottage's floor alight. The poet borrowed an axe and smashed the cement hearth while his wife threw bucket after bucket of water onto the burning beams below. The following day she left him, their eighteen month old son, Daniel, and their massive borzoi dog, 'Betsy', to be with Katzman in London.
'The Sunlight in the Garden' was written almost exactly a year after the events described above. By this time MacNeice had re-established himself as a lecturer in Latin at London University's Bedford College for Women and was living in an 'attractive garden flat' in Keats Grove, Hampstead (fifty yards from John Keats' old residence, Wentworth Place), sublet from an old Oxfordian contemporary, the editor and critic Geoffrey Grigson. Whereas 'Highfield' Cottage had not had its own garden, this flat boasted a lawn with two large sycamores and rose bushes. It may well have reminded its tenant of an earlier, prelapsarian garden -that of his father's Carrickfergus Rectory, which had looked out over Belfast Lough.
The poem utilizes an idiosyncratic variant of an envelope rhyme scheme (abcbba) and was originally entitled 'Song'. Its first appearance was in The Listener (January, 1937) before it was collected in The Earth Compels (1938). 'We are dying, Egypt, dying' is a Shakespearean quotation: the mortally wounded Mark Anthony to his lover, Cleopatra. The phrase 'sonnets and birds descend' sounds rather Audenesque. Wystan Auden (with whom MacNeice had recently toured Iceland) was at this time gradually replacing Anthony Blunt (1907-1983, aesthete, closet communist and spy/'traitor' -known to MacNeice since his Marlborough public schooldays) as the poet's most influential 'sounding board'.
The immediate aftermath of his marriage breakup was, for MacNeice, a 'year of intrigue, spiritual squalor and anxiety'. He'd swiftly instituted divorce proceedings and been granted custody of Daniel but found, to his chagrin, that his capricious mother-in-law had hired a private detective to 'shadow' him (presumably in the hope of unearthing an 'indiscretion'). Of these there were to be a number -the next eighteen months seeing the 'irredeemably heterosexual' writer (Blunt's description) embroiled in affaires d'armour with two very different women, Leonora Corbett and Nancy Coldstream. On 30th November, 1936, Mary married Charles Katzman. She'd become pregnant very early in their relationship but had had an abortion -which she would later come to regret. Louis, who'd offered to take her back, wrote congratulating her on the marriage 'I do with all my heart wish you both everything you want and send you all my love as ever'. She, in turn, wrote 'that the only person who has ever shown me what I feel is real love, in an all round sense -i.e. husband, mother, father, everything is YOU'. She'd left him because she felt 'lonely in her mind'. What Louis' own father, by now an Anglican bishop, thought about it all has not been fully recorded. MacNeice would later visit the Katzmans in the United States but (in 1953) would do everything in his power to prevent Daniel from emigrating in order to be with his natural mother (who'd parted from Katzman three years earlier). The poet would himself later remarry but -prone by now both to a 'roving eye' and to alcoholic excess- this, his second marriage, would also fail.
MacNeice would die, aged fifty-five, of pneumonia contracted after a day spent recording sound effects in the Settle Caves for his BBC employers. He'd been caught by a heavy storm on the Yorkshire moors and had failed to change his heavily-soaked clothing. Anthony Blunt would be publicly unmasked as a Soviet spy in 1979. It is an interesting conjecture whether the atheistic, left-leaning poet ever 'saw through' his friend's suave, pro-establishment facade (they'd visited Spain together just before its civil war in March/April. 1936). Then again, this was the nineteen thirties and infidelity -of one kind or another- was somehow always in the air.
Allison, J. (2010) Selected Letters of Louis MacNeice, Faber and Faber;
MacNeice, L. (1965) (Ed. Dodds, E.) The Strings Are False: An Unfinished Autobiography, Faber and Faber;
MacNeice, L. (2007) Collected Poems, Faber and Faber;
Stallworthy, J. (1995) Louis MacNeice, Faber and Faber.
Kevin Saving © 2017